Kohei’s Cup of Coffee

A look at Kohei Arihara's arrival in MLB

In Japanese, the word “coffee” is said, Ko-hee, and you usually order it hotto if you’re like me and need some Starbucks to keep you going. The thing about coffee in Japan is that it’s a sit-down kind of beverage, much more in the European mold of coffee than the constant get-it-and-go style of America. Thus the “cup of coffee” reference in the USA referring to the brief visit of a player to the MLB — they stayed just long enough to grab a cup of coffee and then head out. If you’re in a Starbucks in Japan though, you’re probably grabbing some cake or a sandwich and enjoying it with your coffee. Thus, we’ve got a first look at Kohei Arihara’s cup of coffee in the Major Leagues: he’s been here only a bit, but he’s planning to stay for quite some time. So sit down, grab some java or tea (I’m drinking green tea right now — how Japanese!), and let’s look at Kohei Arihara’s arrival in MLB.


In the NPB Shadows


Kohei Arihara came from Hiroshima to Waseda University, one of the main universities in Tokyo, where he pitched 62 games and racked up 271 innings. With a cumulative 210 strikeouts (good for a 6.9 K/9) and a 2.72 ERA, he was drafted by the Nippon Ham Fighters, who play on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. While in Japan, Arihara was a teammate of Shohei Ohtani, and Arihara spent much of his career in the shadow of the rising star in Ohtani. Ohtani had long discussed going to the United States to play baseball, but there was a small trap in the posting system that acted as a gatekeeper between the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and Major League Baseball (MLB) that kept Ohtani in Japan. Under the posting system at that time, any Japanese player who went straight into MLB without first spending time in the NPB would relinquish their ability to play in the NPB for several years upon return. This trap was most significant to the career of Junichi Tazawa, who bypassed the NPB draft to sign with the Boston Red Sox. Although Tazawa’s professional career began in 2009 and continues to this day, he never played in the NPB because of this clause that served as a de facto non-compete clause. Thus, Ohtani opted to remain in Japan for the first part of his career, relegating his future into the hands of the Nippon Ham Fighters management, who would control his ability to enter the posting system portal. In 2018, Ohtani became the first Japanese player to enter MLB through a reworked posting system agreement, and in December 2020, his former teammate Kohei Arihara came through the posting system to the Texas Rangers.

Contractual Considerations


Kohei Arihara’s repertoire doesn’t meet the prototypical MLB pitcher mold: in about 840 career innings in NPB, he had a 6.7 K/9, and a 1.20 WHIP. On a year-by-year basis, Arihara was actually below NPB average in terms of strikeouts, but he was a better-than-average WHIP option due not to his ability to avoid contact, but due to his remarkably low 2.1 BB/9 rate. In other words, Arihara was a master of control who let his defense take care of the outs, which allowed him to rack up innings at a rate that met or exceeded league average year after year.

And when Arihara was granted permission to seek a contract in MLB, somebody in the Texas Rangers front office said, “that looks interesting.” This is somewhat surprising given that Arihara had a long history of adequacy — or even inadequacy — in the NPB. In fact, Arihara led the NPB in home runs allowed in 2017, and his K/9 in recent years was anything but thrilling. But if he could transfer his NPB skills to MLB, he could do some useful things, such as keeping runners off base and eating innings. Looking through some statistical comparisons between Arihara’s skill set and MLB players, I see two players that are very close: J.A. Happ and Miles Mikolas. J.A. Happ has a higher K% over his career, alongside nearly double the innings. Miles Mikolas matches Arihara’s K-BB% rate very closely, with Mikolas actually having the superior walk rate, although he has less than half the IP of Arihara.

So when we look at the contracts of Happ and Mikolas compared to Arihara, we can see why the Rangers were interested in the unassuming Japanese pitcher. Mikolas, who is just a bit older than Arihara, signed a 4-year, $68 million dollar contract with the Cardinals in 2019, and he makes about $16 million dollars every year. J.A. Happ is at the end of his career and still making $8 million per year, but was making $12 million per year in 2016-2018. So, how about Arihara? He is an affordable $2.6-$3.6 million over the next two years. In fact, Arihara is actually making less than the average major leaguer, who makes about $4.8 million per year.

We can then reframe how to approach Arihara: if he continues his NPB stats, then the Rangers acquired a pitcher similar to J.A. Happ or Miles Mikolas for half to one-third the price. If Arihara doesn’t pitch well in MLB and needs to be cut, he’s still cheaper than taking an average MLB pitcher and placing them on the mound.

Win/Win for the Rangers, it seems.

Kohei’s Cup of Coffee


So far in 2021, Kohei Arihara has been less than thrilling, posting a cumulative 4.3 K/9 and a 3.07 ERA over 14.2 innings in three starts. But it’s April, and he’s in a new league, and he’s never been the kind of pitcher to dominate batters. In his third start against the Tampa Bay Rays in 2021, he threw 5.2 innings of no-run ball with 5 strikeouts and no walks. He’s given up 1 home run over his first three starts for a sterling 0.61 HR/9 rate. But with a 14.6% barrel rate and a 43.8% hard-hit rate, fans could see some regression to his numbers sooner than later. Unless Arihara raises his CSW% from its current 23.4% to somewhere around 27%, Arihara might be looking more the middle reliever than the #2 starter on the Texas Rangers. Either way, he’s signed to an affordable — if not below market — contract that will keep him in MLB for the next two years.


Image adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG).

Blair Williams

Blair holds a PhD in Japanese history and is the author of "Making Japan's National Game: A Cultural History of Baseball." He's a fan of sci-fi, prog metal, and sipping rums.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login