There have been 18 position players in Major League Baseball history who were born in Japan, 14 of which have debuted since 2001 when Ichiro Suzuki broke in with the Seattle Mariners. Even given a limited number of players in a small period of time, Japanese-born position players have made some incredible contributions to the game.
Of the 18 players born in Japan, there are nine outfielders, five middle infielders, two corner infielders, and two catchers. Two have had over 100 career home runs, and two have collected over 1,000 career hits. Three played at least 10 seasons, and they have combined for 13 All-Star Game appearances. There has been one MVP, one Rookie of the Year, one World Series MVP, 10 Gold Glove awards, and numerous World Series champions. But this is a ranking of the greatest, so let us start chipping away toward Ichiro, starting with number 18.
18. Jim Bowie - First Baseman - Seattle Mariners (1994) - fWAR: -0.1, rWAR: -0.2, WARP: -0.2
What's notable about him: Bowie played in the fewest games (6) of any Japanese-born player.
17. Tsuyoshi Nishioka - Shortstop/Second Baseman - Minnesota Twins (2011-12) - fWAR: -2.0, rWAR -2.4, WARP: -1.2
What's notable about him: The sheer fact that he managed to stick around long enough to play 71 games kept him out of the last spot in the rankings. He has by far the lowest career WAR of any Japanese-born position player and it's not particularly close.
16. Norihiro Nakamura - Third Baseman - Los Angeles Dodgers (2005) - fWAR: -0.4, rWAR -0.8, WARP: -0.5
What's notable about him: He played in only 17 games but saw time at all four infield positions.
15. Kensuke Tanaka - Outfielder - San Francisco Giants (2013) - fWAR: 0.0, rWAR: 0.3, WARP: -0.1
What's notable about him: Had six hits in his first 17 PA, and two in his final 17. Tanaka managed to be on the Giants in an odd year, so no World Series for him.
What's notable about him: He was the first position player to be born in Japan and reach the major leagues. Mike Lum preceded Fenwick, but was born in Hawaii and was of Japanese-American descent and made his debut in 1967. Fenwick was born to a Japanese-American mother and an American father in Naha, Okinawa in 1946, and collected 10 MLB hits.
What's notable about him: He is a good defender and gives amazing post-game interviews.
12. So Taguchi - Outfielder - St. Louis Cardinals/Philadelphia Phillies/Chicago Cubs (2002-09) - fWAR: 3.0, rWAR: 2.3, WARP: 3.0
What's notable about him: Hit a home run leading off the ninth inning off Billy Wagner to break a 6-6 tie in game 2 of the 2006 NLCS. The Mets never really recovered. Even though it was Guillermo Mota who blew that game in the 7th inning when he gave up a 2-run triple to Scott Spiezio(!) and his dumb-looking red soul patch, of all people. Why did Willy Randolph leave Mota in after a 11-pitch at bat to Albert Pujols and a 4-pitch walk to Jim Edmonds? He had Roberto Hernandez ready to go and Mota was gassed after throwing the night before! But I'm totally over that series you guys, totally. Stupid Aaron Heilman. [Editor's Note: Joe does not appear to be over it.]
11. Tsuyoshi Shinjo - Outfielder - New York Mets/San Francisco Giants (2001-03) - fWAR: 2.8, rWAR: 3.9, WARP: 4.2
What's notable about him: Amazing bat flips, cannon arm, and he once was lowered into the stadium in Japan from the rafters. For the love of whatever God you worship, watch this video.
10. Keith McDonald - Catcher - St. Louis Cardinals (2000-01) - fWAR: 0.2, rWAR: 0.2, WARP: 0.3
What's notable about him: Keith McDonald is my new favorite baseball player of all-time. I really wanted to put him higher on this list, but I just couldn't justify it. He is a Matt Christopher novel come to life. Keith McDonald hit a home run in each of his first two career plate appearances, a pinch-hit homer off of Andy Larkin of the Reds in his debut, and one off Osvaldo Fernandez two days later. He had three hits in 11 career PAs over two seasons. All three hits are home runs. His third home run came in his fifth career game - a pinch-hit home run off of Jesus Pena.
9. Kazuo Matsui - Infielder - New York Mets/Colorado Rockies/Houston Astros (2004-10) - fWAR: 5.4, rWAR: 5.3, WARP: 5.9
What's notable about him: If it weren't for Jim Duquette trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano at the trade deadline, signing Kaz Matsui would've been his worst move. Or maybe that would've been letting Marco Scutaro leave on waivers to Oakland. Or signing Braden Looper. Or thinking a Karim Garcia/Shane Spencer right field platoon was a good idea. Or signing Scott Erickson. Or trading for Jose Bautista then five minutes later turning around and shipping him to Pittsburgh for Kris Benson. Or trading Dan Wheeler. Where was I? Oh right, Kaz Matsui hit a home run in his first at bat of the season in 2004, 2005, and 2006 and had a couple decent years in Houston later on so I guess there's that.
What's notable about him: Had a few productive years on the first good Rays teams, but tore his ACL after a takeout slide from Chris Coghlan in 2009 and never was the same.
7. Kenji Johjima - Catcher - Seattle Mariners (2006-09) - fWAR: 6.7, rWAR: 5.3, WARP: -0.5
What's notable about him: He continued the great Japanese catcher tradition of homering in his major league debut - a solo shot in his second at bat against Bartolo Colon. WARP hates him.
What's notable about him: This play.
5. Kosuke Fukudome - Outfielder - Chicago Cubs/Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox - fWAR: 4.5, rWAR: 4.3, WARP: 7.7
What's notable about him: He hit a 3-run, game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth off Eric Gagne in his major league debut. He played for both Chicago teams. WARP loves him.
What's notable about him: He's a steady high-end role player with some speed, some pop, and good on-base skills.
3. Dave Roberts - Outfielder - Cleveland Indians/Los Angeles Dodgers/Boston Red Sox/San Diego Padres/San Francisco Giants (1999-2008) - fWAR:10.3, rWAR: 9.0, WARP: 10.3
What's notable about him: Roberts, born in Naha, Okinawa, Japan, stole second base as a pinch runner off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Red Sox down 4-3 in the game and 3-0 in the series. Roberts came around to score the tying run, sparking the Red Sox's improbable comeback in the series and World Series sweep over St. Louis to break the 86-year curse of the Bambino. Yankees fans watch at your own peril. He is now in his first season as manager of the Dodgers.
What's notable about him: He was the first power-hitting Japanese player to come to the USA, unless you count Keith McDonald. Godzilla won the 2009 World Series MVP after hitting .615 with three home runs during the series. In 2006 he got hurt while trying to make a sliding catch and apologized to the team and to Yankee fans for getting hurt.
1. Ichiro - Outfielder - Seattle Mariners/New York Yankees/Miami Marlins (2001-Present) - fWAR: 56.7, rWAR: 58.4, WARP: 49.9
What's notable about him: What isn't notable about him would be a shorter list. Pick something - Single-season hits record (262) in 2004, over 4,000 hits between the U.S. and Japan, or hey, how about he was such a great player we are dedicating an entire day to him here at Beyond the Box Score? Go read some of what my far more esteemed colleagues have written about him today. He is a truly special player, and we are all very fortunate that we got to witness his career.
Joe Vasile is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Broadcasting and Media Relations assistant for the Salem Red Sox, the High-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Follow him on the Twitter: @JoeVasilePBP.