NPB Update: Players We’re Following in Japan (Vol. 2)

nippon-professional-baseball-primary-logo-primaryWelcome to 2080’s second installment of our coverage of the 2016 Nippon Professional Baseball League season, and players who may be on the radar of clubs as future free agents to come the major leagues.  Contributors Dave DeFreitas and Mike Shubin pick it up from here…


Nippon Professional Baseball League Players to Watch


hokkaido_nippon-ham_fighters_000000_eda34cKohei Arihara, RHP, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (Pacific League)
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/220          B/T: R/R         Age: 23

After putting up somewhat pedestrian numbers in his 2015 rookie campaign, (8-6, 4.79 ERA, 81 Ks in 103.1 IP), Arihara is beginning to show why he was the Fighter’s 2014 first round draft pick out of Waseda University. (Waseda is a member of the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League, which has produced countless NPB stars, including current Seattle Mariner Norichika Aoki)

With a fastball that tops out at 96 mph and a wide array of secondary pitches, Arihara is learning how to keep hitters off balance and pitch deep into games. He has gone at least 7.1 IP in all seven of his starts in 2016, and he recently had a complete game win against the SoftBank Hawks in which he struck out four and gave up two runs on five hits and two walks. Arihara has the make-up and ability to become a true ace, and the strikeout numbers should rise as he refines his secondary offerings. He has only 30 Ks in 56 IP so far in 2016, but his league-leading 1.61 ERA is supported by a 0.95 WHIP, and he had yet to give up a home run this season until his most recent start, when he gave up two.

The Fighters are the same team that posted Yu Darvish (RHP, Rangers) after seven seasons, but Darvish was drafted out of high school and threw his first pitch for the Fighters at the age of 18. Arihara will turn 24 in August, but he is still only in his second year of pro baseball, which makes it extremely unlikely that he will be posted anytime soon*. However, Nippon-Ham does not have the same allure – or resources – that teams like the Yomouri Giants and Hanshin Tigers do, and there is already immense interest in Arihara’s teammate, Shohei Ohtani. Given the interest in Ohtani, Arihara is likely already on MLB teams’ radars even if his possible MLB career is still a few years away. -Mike Shubin


m_point_logoYuji Nishino, RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines (Pacific League)
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/180          B/T: R/R         Age: 25

Nishino was drafted out of high school in 2008 as an ikusei (training) player and he did not make his NPB debut until 2013. After being used as a starter in his first year for the Marines (9-6, 3.80 ERA, 106 K in 139.2 IP), Chiba Lotte decided to roll the dice and convert Nishino to a closer in 2014 despite the return of incumbent Naoya Masuda, who led the Pacific League in saves in 2013 with 33 (Masuda is now one of the team’s primary setup men). The experiment paid off for Chiba Lotte, as Nishino posted a 1.86 ERA in 58 IP (57 appearances) with 31 saves, nine holds, and 63 Ks in 2014. He followed that up in 2015 with an almost identical 1.83 ERA in 54 IP (54 appearances) with 34 saves, four holds, and 71 Ks.

Nishino uses a fastball/splitter combo that generates strikeouts and keeps the ball on the ground…and in the ballpark. After giving up only four HRs in 2014, he gave up only one in 2015, and he has yet to surrender a long ball in 22.2 IP so far in 2016 (2.28 ERA, 12 SV, 20 Ks). An appropriate MLB comparison would be his fellow countryman Koji Uehara (RHP, Red Sox). Like Uehara, Nishino generally sits 88-to-90 mph with his fastball, but he generates enough deception with his splitter, and the occasional breaking ball, to consistently keep hitters guessing.

MLB hitters have already seen Nishino first-hand as he served as the closer for the Japanese team that played in the 2014 MLB Japan All-Star Series. Given Uehara’s success in MLB and their similar style of pitching, Nishino, who is 16 years younger than Uehara, is likely generating interest from major league teams. However, although Nishino is already in his eighth season of professional baseball, he does not have enough service time to qualify for domestic or international free agency for at least few more years*. Therefore, a move to MLB will require Chiba Lotte to post Nishino, something they have only done once before, when they posted Tsuyoshi Nishioka (INF, Twins, 2011-12) after winning the Japan Series for the fourth time in franchise history, in 2010. – Mike Shubin


BaystarsYoshitomo Tustsugo, OF, YOKOHAMA DeNA Baystars (Central League)
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/213          B/T: R/L          Age: 24

The Baystars drafted Tsutsugo in the first round of the 2009 draft straight out of Yokohama High School, the same high school that was made famous by Daisuke Matsuzaka’s performances in the 1998 Koshien Tournament. Tsutsugo made his NPB debut in 2010 with a brief three-game appearance, played only 40 games in 2011 due to a wrist injury, and after playing in 108 games in 2012, an ankle injury suffered in the preseason limited him to only 23 games in the 2013 regular season.

Finally healthy in 2014, Tsutsugo posted a .300/.373/.529 slash line with 22 home runs in 114 games. 2015 brought more of the same production, with a .317/.400/.522 line with 24 home runs in 138 games. So far in 2016, although the slash line is similar to the past two years, Tsutsugo is posting an exceptional BB/K rate of 28/27 after rates of 47/100 and 68/98 in 2014 and 2015, respectively. He is also hitting for even more power, as he is already halfway to his 2015 home run total after just 41 games. Tsutsugo uses a more open stance from the left side of the plate, but his approach and path to the ball is very reminiscent of Anthony Rizzo (1B, Cubs).

Tsutsugo is in his seventh year as a pro, but the injuries that limited him in 2011 and 2013 mean that he is still a few years away from being eligible for free agency*. The Baystars have been one of the less competitive teams in the league in recent years, but they are currently tied for third place in the Central League, and they have a number of players poised to help them contend. Tsutsugo undoubtedly wants to continue to establish himself as one of the top players in Japan, so a move to MLB is unlikely in the near future. – Mike Shubin


Hanshin-TigersRandy Messenger, RHP, Hanshin Tigers (Central League)
Ht/Wt: 6’6”/250          B/T: R/R         Age: 34

Since taking up with the Hanshin Tigers in 2010, Messenger has not only made a successful transition from reliever to starter, but has established himself as the leader of the Hanshin staff and one of the better starting pitchers in the league. He features a power fastball (92-to-96 mph) with a cutter, and 12-to-6 shaped curveball, and a splitter – all of which are average to plus offerings.

He makes the most of his towering frame to get excellent angle, driving the ball on a downhill plane that plays up his already-power stuff, and helping compensate for his sometimes erratic command in the zone. Messenger has always thrown very hard, but has not always known where it was going. Upon arriving in Japan, he started attacking in the strike zone more (perhaps due in part to greater confidence of avoiding the HR ball vs. the small-ball oriented NPB lineups; (discussed in more detail here).

As a result, he has found the consistency that eluded him in the U.S., and he has racked up a 65-57 record through 1099.1 IP so far in Japan with a career K/9 of 8.2 and a career BB/9 of 2.9. He struck out a career high 226 in 2014 and followed that up with a 196 K’s last year, while managing to limit his walks-per-9 to 3.0 in 2014 and 2.8 in 2015 (career-best mark of 2.6 BB/9 in 2013).

While he is off his career pace so far in 2016 (3.3 BB/9 and 7.4 K/9), he threw eight innings of six hit, two run ball in a 2-1 loss to the rival Yomiuri Giants. What’s more notable, though, were the seven K’s, which now give him 1000 for his career in Japan making him only the fourth foreign pitcher in NPB history to do so. Messenger has already passed on a couple opportunities to return to the big leagues during the offseasons of 2011-13, instead signing a multi-year deal valued at about $15 million in November of 2013), but his contract is up this offseason, so a return is possible.

That said, if he rights the ship and finishes the season closer to his career numbers then I imagine Hanshin will make a strong push to keep him; but even if they do not, he almost certainly stands to command a higher average annual value with another club in Japan than he would in the United States. He is turning 35 in August, and I expect Messenger to fall into the second or third tier of free agent starting pitching options during the upcoming MLB offseason. His representation will likely play up the possibility of a return to the U.S. in hopes of driving up the rate for NPB clubs, however I imagine he will ultimately re-sign in Japan and build on what has already been a historic run for a U.S. player. – Dave DeFreitas


BaystarsShun Yamaguchi, RHP, YOKOHAMA DeNA Baystars (Central League)
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/198          B/T: R/R         Age: 28

Yamaguchi has had an interesting progression to this point of his professional career. Drafted out of high school by the Baystars in 2005, he debuted as a hard throwing 18 year old the next year, but would go on to throw only 64.2 IP in his first three pro seasons. With a big frame, a very strong lower half and smooth, simple mechanics, Yamaguchi resembles more of a western style pitcher than the traditional stop-and-start Japanese version. He broke in as a reliever with a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, but has battled command, control and consistency issues. He hadn’t put together a full season until 2009 when he threw 55 innings in 51 games, saving 18 of them. He struck out 11.1/9 IP and only walked 2.8/9 IP that year, but also gave up 7.2 Hits/9. The next three seasons he would build on those numbers, throwing 68.2, 61.1 and 62 IP with 30, 34 and 22 saves respectively, before falling to 46.2 IP in 2013. He also saw his velocity fall to the low 90s, and saw his hits-per-9 spike to 8.9 in 2013 from 6.7 and 6.8 the two years prior. He also put up kind of a weird stat in that he finished 22 of his team’s games, but only “saved” seven that year. He also threw six shutout innings in the minor leagues in 2013, in which he surrendered four hits, struck out nine and didn’t walk a batter.

In his peak years, he looked like a potential late-inning reliever with two plus secondary pitches to go with his plus fastball; a slider with 3/4, downer bite and a hard splitter with late tumble. But seeing how the stuff was coming out in 2013, it made you think that his potential to impact a big league team in the future was drying up. It was then that Yamaguchi and the Baystars went in a completely different direction and upon his return to the big leagues in 2014, it was to the starting rotation and not to the closer’s spot he was accustomed to. He ended up in 33 games in 2014, 17 of which were starts (three complete games, two of them shutouts); finished with 124 innings pitched (career best) and 7.8 Hits/9, 7.0 K/9 and 4.4 BB/9. 2015 was spent entirely in the rotation, throwing 114.1 IP and seeing his BB/9 fall to 3.3/9, his K/9 rise to 9.4/9, but he also started giving up hits in bunches – 10.0 per 9 IP.

So far in 2016 his numbers are a little bit better; hits have come down to 8.9/9, but I still think it is a stretch to see Yamaguchi having the same impact in a major league rotation that he could potentially have in a major league bullpen role. Provided that he is healthy, his best bet may be to channel his inner Koji Uehara and bill himself as a bullpen arm that can slot into the seventh inning immediately…and potentially go multiple innings. Going back to shorter stints, he should see some velocity return, and he can focus on fine-tuning his hard slider and splitter. In years past I have seen his stuff be better than that of Tony Barnette (RHP, Rangers) who just got two years and $3.5 million for his services in the majors, albeit with less command Barnette.

Yamaguchi is still just 30 years old, but not yet a free agent, so he would need to be posted by the BayStars to make the move the U.S. major leagues (he stands to hit international free agency at some point during the 2018 season*). Yamaguchi’s value as a posting target is tied directly to his ability to turn in a fully healthy and consistent 2016 season; Yokohama is not opposed to the posting system, and knowing that they wouldn’t reach the maximum posting fee of $20 million for him in any case, perhaps the team will want to capitalize on the opportunity. Industry opinions are varied on whether or not he will be posted, but he is among the top players to watch. Given the current demand for power arms in the pen, a $5-to-7 million posting fee, plus another $5-to-7 million over two or three years for Yamaguchi is not a huge stretch. -Dave DeFreitas

*Ed. Note: The exact posting dates of players like Arihara, Nashino, Tustsugo and Yamaguchi are uniquely hard to pin down.  The NPB requires players to have eight full seasons of service on an NPB league roster to reach domestic free agency, and nine full seasons to be eligible for international free agency.  Players with less than the required service time are subject to ‘posting’ by their clubs at the end of any season, at the club’s discretion.

A player’s time in the Japanese minor leagues does not count towards their NPB service time, nor does certain time spent on the Disabled List.  With regards to the NPB Disabled List system, there is a concession that some players are eligible for called 故障者特例措置, or “Kosyousya tokurei sochi” that will allow the service time clock to run while they are on the DL–the NPB incorporated this in 2007 and it states that up to 60 days will count towards a player’s service time if they are hurt during baseball activities and have to be deactivated.  To qualify for this, the previous year the player has to have had at least 145 days of service time in their career.  Also, they cannot qualify in back-to-back years. This is the concession that Kosuke Fukudome used in order to reach his service time requirements for international free agency prior to signing his four-year, $48 million deal with the Cubs.  With future injury circumstances being unknown, and because players generally remain under control of their team for longer period than the U.S. major leagues, a specific date or season that an NPB player reaches free agency can be unpredictable.