NPB Update: Players We’re Watching in Japan (Vol. 1)

Shohei Otani, RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters (NPB): Photo by Jason Coskrey

Feature Photo:  Shohei Ohtani, RHP,
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (Photo by Jason Coskrey)

UnknownLadies and gentlemen, welcome to our inaugural Nippon Professional Baseball League newsletter! Every two weeks for the remainder of the season, the crew here at 2080 Baseball will be providing in-depth information on Japanese players who could be coming to the major leagues, and we’ll be writing about them before the rumors start flying in the U.S. about possible postings and signings coming out of Japan.

Every year, it seems that a new talent from Japan is either being posted or being signed as a free agent with generally little fanfare, only to end up having an immediate impact on their big league club. Kenta Maeda (RHP, Dodgers) has been the latest example, and 2080’s Dave DeFreitas has already written about the path he took to the major leagues. Maeda’s name was vastly overshadowed by other bigger-name free agent deals this past winter, but he has looked like the best big league investment of the offseason thus far in 2016. You probably already know the name Shohei Otani, who has also been profiled by DeFreitas, but you may not know some of the other NPB names lined up behind him who could also be coming to the major leagues.

DeFreitas, who spent nine years with the Indians and Yankees scouting the Japanese leagues, and new 2080 contributor Mike Shubin, who lives and works in Tokyo and enjoys watching MLB in the morning followed by NPB at night, will be keeping you informed by profiling some of the the top NPB performers, potential international free agents, possible posting targets, and the up-and-coming young players to be on the lookout for.

So, who will be next crop of NPB players poised to make an impact state side? We’ll be providing our insights to help answer that question for the rest of this season. Enjoy our first edition as Dave and Mike take it from here! – Mark Shreve, Editor

NPB Spotlights – Emerging MLB Candidates

Softbank HawksYuki Yanagita, CF, Saitama Softbank Hawks (Pacific League)
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/205         B/T: L/R         Age: 28

Yanagita was a first-round pick out of Hiroshima Keizai University by the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the 2010 NPB Amateur draft. In his four full seasons at the big league level in Japan he has established himself as one of the league’s top young players, as well as an ambassador for the Japanese game. As a five-tool player, he brings an above-average hit tool and plus defensive ability in center field, to go along with his plus raw power. Yuki is off to a bit of a slow start in 2016, slashing .237/.423/.398 in 26 games just a year after after winning the Pacific League MVP award in 2015 (.363/.469/.631).

It’s not all bad news for Yanagita, though. His team is still in first place, he sports an exceptional 29/19 BB/K ratio with nine of his 22 hits have going for extra bases (seven doubles and two home runs). It’s still early, and Yanagita’s track record the past few seasons suggests that it’s only a matter of time before the average and power numbers begin to climb. He plays with a lot of energy and has the tools to stick in center field going forward, however he does have three errors this season after making four in all of 2015. Personally, I think it’s far to early to for the Hawks to panic, as Yanagita is too talented of a player not to eventually find his rhythm. -Mike Shubin

SwallowsTetsuto Yamada, 2B, Tokyo Yakult Swallows (Central League)
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/160         B/T: R/R       Age: 23

Yamada may be the biggest surprise in Japan over the last two-plus seasons. Drafted out of high school in 2011, he had an almost immediate impact for Yakult’s big league club. Shades of Chase Utley (2B, Dodgers) in his prime and Mookie Betts (RF, Red Sox) come to mind when you see this kid play. Yamada is of smaller stature, but he has incredible fast-twitch and hand speed that allows him to generate tremendous carry. He wrapped up his MVP campaign in 2015 by cracking three home runs in game three of the Japan Series. He has the big Asian-style leg kick for timing, but his swing is relatively simple, and he does a tremendous job keeping the barrel in the zone.

He left the yard 29 and 38 times in 2014 and 2015, hit 39 doubles both years, and sported ridiculous .941 and 1.027 OPS marks. And all he’s done in 2016 is demolish NPB pitching to the tune of 11 doubles, 12 HRs and an OPS up over 1.000 through 43 games. When he doesn’t leave the park, he isn’t having any trouble making it to first base with a .450 OPB thanks to 32 walks and just 32 K’s. He’s also added 10 stolen bases and has yet to be caught. He swiped 34 bags last season and was only caught four times, so it’s easy to forecast that the running will continue.

While it’s easy to see this type of offensive output continuing the next few seasons in Japan, and were he to come over now, I think a Betts-type projection would not be a stretch. That said, I don’t expect him to show up on any MLB rosters any time soon; he still has another five full seasons before he reaches his free agent status (per NPB regulations). Posting, while an option, is likely a few years away as well–Yakult plays in the huge Tokyo market and competes directly with the two powerhouses of Japanese baseball, the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers. So their need to hang on to special players like Yamada is immense.

Of course anything can happen, but I would expect them to hang on to Yamada as long as possible, just like they did with Nori Aoki when they waited until 2011, the year before he would have been a free agent, to post him.– Dave DeFreitas

Yomiuri_giants_insigniaTetsuya Yamaguchi, LHP, Yomiuri Giants (Central League)
6’0”/190         B/T: L/L          AGE: 32

Yamaguchi began his professional career in 2002 as a skinny left-hander in the Pioneer League with the Arizona Diamondbacks rookie league affiliate. Yamaguchi went undrafted in the 2001 NPB draft and signed with the D-Backs shortly after graduating from high school. He was relatively unimpressive across three seasons in rookie ball, going 7-13 and giving up 205 hits over 170 innings. He did strikeout 152, but with each of them coming in rookie ball, it represents a bit of a dubious honor. He was released after the 2004 season, and wound up back in Japan, sitting out almost the entire 2005 season after being passed over in tryouts with both the YOKOHAMA DeNa Baystars and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. He ultimately signing a minor league deal with the Yomiuri Giants and spent 2006 in the Ni-gun (minor leagues) before being called up part way through the 2007 campaign.

When he showed up to Tokyo Yomiuri’s big club he showed up to the tune of a 2.16 ERA across 593 innings, allowing 486 hits and striking out 480 from 2007 through his first 16 appearances so far in 2016, pitching mostly in an eighth-inning role. He has been arguably the best set-up man in Japan over that span. He sits 89-to-92 mph with the fastball that gets some late sink to the arm side, and he has excellent feel with the variations on his slurve; his 3/4 arm angle and crossfire delivery add some deception, and he will dial up some late bite for a put-away pitch. While this profile is surely something big league clubs would be interested in (see Boone Logan (LHP, Rockies) and his three-year, $16.5 million deal in ’14; and Javier Lopez (LHP, Giants), three-year, $13 million deal in ’14), the chances of Yamaguchi leaving the Giants are a mystery.

The Giants are arguably the most popular team in Japan and have the finances to prove it; while he may not get the same average annual value from a major league club, he should get offered something close if his numbers stay on track. He wouldn’t be the first Giants player to leave via free agency (that would be Hideki Matsui, in 2003 to the Yankees), but the trend has been that Giants free agents stick around. He has struggled a bit early this year, surrendering 20 hits and two bombs in 14.1 IP, but he’s also K’d nine and only walked one so expect him to fall in line. -Dave DeFreitas

Nippon Professional Baseball League Players to Watch:

m_point_logoHideaki Waiku, RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines (Pacific League)
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/187         B/T: R/R        Age: 30

Your early Pacific League wins leader is Chiba Lotte’s veteran ace Hideaki Wakui (5-0). Wakui seems like he has been around forever since he broke into the league in 2005 as a 19 year old and took over the Ace slot after RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka signed with Boston in 2006. Wakui isn’t quite the same pitcher he was when he won the Sawamura Award in 2009 following a 16-6, 2.30, 199-strikeout season with the Seibu Lions, but he is excelling in his third season for the Marines and is still just 30 years old. Aside from a six-run outing on the road against the defending champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (a game the Marines won 17-8), Wakui has allowed two earned runs or less in all five of his outings going at least six innings in all of them. He is one of the main reasons Chiba Lotte is currently in second place in the Pacific League, trailing only SoftBank. -Mike Shubin

Seibu LionsErnesto Mejia, 1B, Saitama Seibu Lions (Pacific League)
Ht/Wt: 6’6”/260         B/T: R/R         Age: 30

A career minor leaguer in the Braves’ and Royals’ systems, Mejia is currently leading the NPB in both home runs (14) and RBI (36). Mejia made the move to Japan in 2014 and quickly established himself as an extreme power threat with 34 and 27 home runs in his first two years with the Lions. He has picked up right where he left off in 2015 with a 1.060 OPS and 14 jacks already in 2016, through just 35 games. Generally speaking, not many foreign hitters end up coming back to the big leagues and make an impact, however Mejia’s power display should have him on MLB scouts’ radars for the rest of the season.-Mike Shubin

oc3yy9lz6if0u34stdoyTakahiro Norimoto, RHP, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (Pacific League)
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/180       B/T: L/R         Age: 25

When Masahiro Tanaka (RHP, Yankees) left for the big leagues at the end of the Eagles’ 2013 championship season, it was Norimoto’s job to take over as the staff ace. He has done so in fine fashion, giving the Eagles 202.2 IP in 2014 and 194.2 IP last season. So far in 2016, he has posted seven straight quality starts to begin the season with his most recent start being a six inning, one run no-decision against the first-place SoftBank Hawks. Norimoto can be a bit wild at times – he recently walked four in six innings against the Seibu Lions – but he already has 58 Ks in 50 innings after two straight 200+ K seasons.

In what is generally a contact heavy league, 200+ K campaigns are a big deal. Some may balk at Norimoto’s stature, but his splitter and slider give him two plus secondary offerings to go with his mid-90‘s heater. Given his relatively young age, a future in MLB is certainly a possibility and this is a name you will want to follow. -Mike Shubin

Yomiuri_giants_insigniaHayato Sakamoto, SS, Yomiuri Giants (Central League)
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/183         B/T: R/R         Age: 27

Hayato Sakamoto made his NPB debut in 2007 at age 18 after being selected in the first round out of high school, and he has been a permanent fixture at shortstop for the Giants since 2008. After hitting 31 home runs in 2010, the power stroke has somewhat eluded Sakamoto in recent years with HR totals in the teens the past five seasons. However, he already has eight home runs in 2016; posted a .348/.420/.643 slash line through 35 games; and recently hitting home runs in consecutive games on May 6th and 7th. Oakland fans I’m sure remember Hiroki Nakajima and will likely cringe if Sakamoto’s name gets mentioned later this season; however Sakamoto actually profiles as an above-average defender at shortstop with the bat being secondary. That said, he does play for the Yomiuri Giants and walking away from a career as their captain could be a big ask. -Mike Shubin

And Now for Something Completely Different…

hokkaido_nippon-ham_fighters_000000_eda34cBrandon Laird, (3B, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters), formerly of the Yankees and Astros, will drink for free for the next 12 months after knocking a long home run off of the Kirin Beer billboard hanging on the back wall in the Tokyo Dome in deep left field. It has long been known that hitting this sign in a game will earn the hitter 1,000,000 yen (about $10,000 USD), and a year’s supply of Kirin beer. Not a bad deal, but also not an easy task as the sign sits about 450 feet from home plate. Laird hit 34 home runs and drove in 97 runs last season – his first in Japan. So far in 2016 he has 10 bombs in 140 at-bats.