With May being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and baseball beginning again in Korea (KBO) and Taiwan (CPBL), I wanted to do a little look into the Asian players and players of Asian-heritage who donned the Blue and White in Kansas City. I also find this topic particularly interesting as a Filipino-American, for I have always had an interest in Asian and Asian-American players in Major League Baseball, who are far less represented than other cultural groups. This lack of representation is also interesting because baseball is an especially robust spectator sport in Asia, especially in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
However, Kansas City is intriguing when it comes to the club’s history with Asian and Asian Pacific-heritage players. After all, Kansas City does not have a large Asian community, especially in comparison to cities on the West Coast, where I grew up (I grew up in Northern California, but also lived in Washington). I already talked about how there isn’t a sizable Hispanic/Latino population in KC in a previous post, but even that demographic dwarfs the Asian and Pacific Islander population in KC, which is around 3 percent (in comparison, Hispanic/Latino is over 9 percent, and may be in the 10-plus range by the next census report). Thus, it should not be a surprise that the Royals may not have as robust a history with Asian and Asian Pacific Heritage players in comparison to other MLB clubs like the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, and New York Yankees, just to name a few.
So in this post, I am going to take a look at all the players I could find who had Asian or Asian Pacific-heritage roots, and how they contributed to the Royals in their time in Kansas City. I will admit, finding players with Asian Pacific-heritage roots was difficult, and if I am missing one or two, feel free to let me know in the comments. I basically split the players into four categories:
- The Originals – the first Royals players to hail from Asian countries.
- The Heritage Guys – guys who may not have been from Asian countries, but had Asian or Pacific heritage.
- The Second Wave – Asian players who came during the Royals’ wave of competitiveness from 2013-2017
- The Prospects – Asian players who are currently prospects in the Royals’ farm system.
Below is a Spreadsheet which gives a brief overview of those players, their time with the Royals, and their impact on the Royals on a WAR basis.
So let’s break it up and take a look at the players from each category and what their overall impact was during their time as Royals players:
- Mac Suzuki, Pitcher, Japan; Played with the Royals from 1999-2001 and posted a 2.5 WAR overall in KC.
- Hideo Nomo, Pitcher, Japan; Played with the Royals in 2008 and posted a -0.3 WAR overall in KC.
- Yasuhiko Yabuta, Pitcher, Japan; Played with the Royals in 2008 and 2009; Posted a -0.4 WAR overall in KC.
Suzuki was a pioneer of sorts, as he was the first Japanese player to play in the American League and third Japanese player to play in baseball overall (the others being pitchers Masanori Murakami for the Giants and Hideo Nomo for the Dodgers). Suzuki first pitched in the Mariners organization from 1996-1999, but he was traded in June to the New York Mets and then eventually to the Kansas City Royals, where he immediately contributed. After posting a 5.16 ERA in 22 appearances and 68 innings of work in his first season in Kansas City in 1999, Suzuki had a breakout season of sorts in 2000. Used primarily as a starter in 2000, Suzuki posted a 8-10 record with a 4.34 ERA in 29 starts and 188 innings of work. Unfortunately, Suzuki’s success as a Royal was short-lived, as he only pitched 56 innings and posted a 5.30 ERA before being traded to Colorado in 2001. Suzuki did have one last stint in 2002 in Kansas City, but he was released after posting a 9.00 ERA only seven outings and 21 innings of work.
Nomo is one of the most famous names of this group, mostly due to his Dodger days. However, Nomo’s tenure as a Royal was short-lived and uneventful, as he arrived in Kansas City in 2008 after making the club out of Spring Training. Nomo only made three appearances and posted a terrible 18.69 ERA in four innings of work. After being released by the Royals that April, he retired from baseball later that year.
Yabuta was one of the more high profile arms to sign for the Royals out of Japan, as he was known for being a key contributor to Japan’s World Baseball Classic championship team in 2006. However, Yabuta came to Kansas City as a 35-year-old without much elite stuff, and though he had success in Japan with the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, it did not translate to the American League. He ended up posting a career 7.14 ERA over 51.2 innings of work with the Royals. That being said, there is interesting tape of Yabuta on YouTube during his time in 2008, and his fastball-split combo could have been solid had he displayed better command in his lone Major League stint.
While Yabuta’s tenure in Kansas City wasn’t a success by any measure, it would have been intriguing to see how Yabuta would have fared against Major League hitters had he come to the states a few year earlier.
The Heritage Guys
- Kila Ka’aihue, 1B/DH, Hawaiian; Played with Royals from 2008-2011 and posted a -0.1 WAR.
- Jeremy Guthrie, Pitcher, Japanese-American; Played with Royals from 2012-2015 and posted a 3.6 WAR.
- Bruce Chen, Pitcher, Chinese-Panamanian; Played with Royals from 2009-2014.
While these three didn’t hail from Asian countries, they do possess Asian heritage. Ka’aihue came to Kansas City as promising power hitter from Hawaii. However, despite hitting 203 home runs in the Minors, Ka’aihue struck out way too much and didn’t get on base enough to justify regular playing time in KC. Furthermore, the emergence of Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer pretty much cut Ka’aihue’s time short with the Royals in 2011, as he was let go after that season after posting a .612 OPS in 96 appearances that year.
Guthrie and Chen had much more successful campaigns as Royals. Guthrie was a key starter for the Royals, especially in 2013 and 2014 where he pitched 200-plus innings, and posted ERAs of 4.04 and 4.13, respectively. In fact, Guthrie pitched Game 7 of the World Series against the Giants at the K. However, he struggled in the rotation in 2015, posting a 5.95 ERA in 24 starts, and was eventually demoted to a bullpen role. While he did win a World Series title with the Royals, he was not retained by the Royals after the season.
Chen was another success story who arguably had his best seasons in the Majors with the Royals. Chen was a classic “good one year, bad another” player, as he seemed to struggle to string back-to-back solid campaigns together in Kansas City. Chen’s best season came in 2013, as he went 9-4 with a 3.27 ERA in 121 innings of work. However, he struggled with a 7.45 ERA at the start of 2014, and was released from the club right before they got hot and made their AL Pennant run.
Chen, who is Panamanian, was known for speaking fluent Spanish and translating for Royals who didn’t speak English. His story is incredibly fascinating, as profiled in this video report below:
Despite his inconsistency as a Royals pitcher, Chen was a beloved player in Kansas City by Royals fans and it’s a shame that he was unable to enjoy the Royals’ World Series run of 2014
The Second Wave
- Nori Aoki, OF, Japan; Played for the Royals in 2014 and posted a 1.9 WAR.
- Chien Ming Wang, Pitcher, Taiwan; Played for the Royals in 2016 and posted a -0.1 WAR
Aoki was acquired by the Royals from the Brewers in a trade that shipped left-handed reliever Will Smith to Milwaukee. At the time, the Royals had let outfielder David Lough go, and the club hoped that Aoki could fill in or improve upon Lough’s production at the right field position to help the Royals end their 29-year playoff drought. Aoki did just that, in a solid, though unspectacular fashion. He posted a .710 OPS, stole 17 bases, and provided good defense in right during the Royals first playoff season since 1985. While he could have provided more power (only 1 home run), Aoki’s lone season in Kansas City was a good, if unmemorable campaign. After the season, he ended up signing with the San Francisco Giants that Winter, who beat the Royals in the World Series, and Alexis Rios took his place in right field.
Wang is an inspirational story who’s tenure in KC may have been uneventful, but was the culmination of a journey back from a fall in grace that gave Wang a fitting ending in professional baseball. Wang was a promising pitcher with the Yankees whom many felt would be the Yankees’ ace for a long time. But injuries and ineffectiveness caused his career to nosedive, and after being released by the Blue Jays in 2013, Wang did not pitch at the Major League level again until he debuted with the Royals in 2016. Wang’s story was profiled in the documentary film “Late Life” which should be mandatory viewing for any baseball fan:
Wang’s role as a Royal was a mop-up guy who came when the game was out-of-hand, and it’s not surprising the Royals let him go after 38 appearances. That being said, Wang at least finished his career on a respectable note, as he posted a 4.22 ERA in his final season in Major League Baseball. It’s awesome that he got to finish his last season in America with the Royals, and I’m lucky that I got see him play in person during his final season as well.
- Woo-Young Jin, Pitcher, South Korea; Played in the Arizona Rookie League last year and expected to repeat in 2020.
- Kaito Yuki, Pitcher, Japan; Signed as a 16-year-old, expected to play in Arizona Rookie League this season.
Jin is trying to to become the first player from South Korea to pitch for the Kansas City Royals, though his ETA, according to Fangraphs, is 2024, so it would not be for a while. Jack S. Johnson of Royals Review wrote up a great profile on Jin, so I am not going to say much here and just let you click on the link and read the extensive piece. But here’s a snippet of Royals Review said about Jin and his potential:
Kansas City assigned Jin to Rookie Ball as a pitcher for the Arizona League Royals in June. The 18-year-old appeared in 14 games and posted a 2.35 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 46 innings. Additionally, he collected two saves with a 1.00 WHIP and 30% K-rate, per Fangraphs. What stands out from Jin’s first year in Rookie Ball is his home run per nine stat. Despite inducing a fly ball 49.5% of the time, Jin allowed just three home runs in 46 innings (0.59 HR/9).“Better know a prospect: Woo-Young Jin” by Jack S. Johnson; Royals Review
Here is also a video of Jin pitching in the Rookie League in Arizona last year as well and the footage definitely should give Royals fans some hope about his potential at the Major League level:
Yuki has not pitched yet, but he is technically the youngest Japanese player to sign in Major League Baseball. Yuki was still in high school when he signed, but his frame and pitching ability has been compared to Yu Darvish, which would be a coup for the Royals if he lives up to that potential. Here is what Prospects 1500 said about Yuki, who was rated as the 47th best prospect in the Royals system:
As a 16-year-old, Yuki made a decision to sign with the Royals for $322.5K instead of going to high school. He’s believed to be the first Japanese high schooler to ever sign with an MLB team. Just 17, he’s very long and lanky at 6’2” 170. His fastball sat high 80s when he signed, and he apparently has a very good slider. He’s been compared to Yu Darvish by Japanese reporters, but I have to feel this has more to do with the fact that they’re from the same town than actual baseball abilities, but either way he’s an exciting prospect.“Kansas City Royals 2019 Midseason Top 50 Prospects” by Will Scharnagl; Prospects 1500
Both Jin and Yuki have a long ways to go in their development as teenage pitching prospects in the Royals system. But Jin has already performed well in his Major League Debut, and there are a lot of signs that Yuki could perform well too in the Rookie League if it happens this year. While it may be a while before we see these two in Kansas City, Royals fans should pay close attention to both of them and see how they develop here in the States.