Hideki Irabu, who passed away this week at age 42, was best known for his failures in the United States. He forced his way to the Yankees after the Padres originally purchased his rights, only to be dubbed a “fat toad” by George Steinbrenner after a series of disappointing performances.
Irabu, though, was hardly a horrible pitcher for the Yankees. His career got off to a disastrous start in 1997, as he amassed a 7.09 ERA in nine starts and four relief appearances, and his reputation never really recovered.
However, Irabu was a perfectly adequate starter in his two subsequent years in New York, going 24-16 with a 4.44 ERA. Now, a 4.44 ERA doesn’t sound like much right now, but back then, it was an above average mark. He had a 103 ERA+ between 1998-99. (For comparison’s sake, Michael Pineda, Edwin Jackson and Madison Bumgarner are all sporting ERA+s right around 103 this season).
Unfortunately, that was the end of Irabu’s U.S. contribution. After being traded to the Expos in Dec. 1999, he went 5-15 with a 6.31 ERA in 118 1/3 innings over three injury-plagued seasons, though he actually did manage to record 16 saves for the Rangers in 2002.
Irabu returned to Japan after that and had a nice 2003 campaign, going 13-8 with a 3.85 ERA before knee pain shut him down early in the 2004 season, causing him to retire. He attempted comebacks afterwards, and as a 40-year-old in 2009, he went 5-3 with a 3.58 ERA for Long Beach of the Golden Baseball League before again calling it a career.
Irabu ended up 72-69 with a 3.55 ERA in Japan. He led his league in wins in 1994, in ERA in 1995 and ’96 and in strikeouts in 1994 and ’95.
In MLB, he went 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA. His strong strikeout rate couldn’t overcome his penchant for giving up homers, as he surrendered 91 longballs in just 514 major league innings.
Irabu did collect two World Series rings with the Yankees. Still, one can’t help but wonder how much better things would have went for him if he OK’d pitching in San Diego. Pitching in the NL and Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium would helped him out a bunch, given his flyball tendencies, and Irabu never seemed equipped to deal with the pressures of New York. He probably wouldn’t have duplicated his Japan League success in San Diego, but he likely would have had some 15-win seasons before injuries struck.