NPB Update: Players We’re Following in Japan (Vol. 4)

Dave DeFreitas takes a closer look at Dennis Sarfate and the reason for his success over in the Nippon Professional Baseball League after struggling in the big leagues, while Mike Shubin has updates on Tetsuto Yamada (2B, Tokyo Yakut Swallows) and Yuki Yanagita (CF, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks).

Nippon Professional Baseball League Players to Watch


UnknownYoshihiro Maru, CF, Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/198         B/T: L/R          Age: 27

The Hiroshima Carp drafted Maru out of high school in the third round of the 2007 NPB draft, and he would spend almost three full seasons in the minor leagues before making his NPB debut towards the end of the 2010 season. Since the start of the 2011 season, Maru has been a fixture in Hiroshima’s outfield, and although he moved around between the three outfield positions earlier in his career, he is now almost exclusively a center fielder.

Maru’s first two seasons as a full-time player were unremarkable, as he hit only .244 with 13 home runs, 23 stolen bases, and a 90/164 BB/K ratio over 237 games. However, he turned a corner in 2013, and over 140 games, he posted a .273/.376/.425 line with 14 home runs, 29 steals, and a much-improved 85/103 BB/K ratio. 2014 was the arguably the best year of his career, as he improved his slash line to .310/.419/.491 with 19 home runs and 26 stolen bases while playing in all 144 games. 2015 saw his batting average regress to .249, but the power remained consistent (19 HR) as did his durability (143 games). So far in 2016, Maru is back to hitting for a higher average (.292), and he is currently on pace for his first 20/20 season, with 10 home runs and 11 stolen bases through 71 games.

It’s easy to look at Maru and compare him to another former Central Leaguer who made the jump to MLB, Norichika Aoki (OF, Mariners). Maru hasn’t piled up hits at the same rate that Aoki did during his NPB career (Aoki had four full NPB seasons with an average of at least .344), but they have similar styles of play and both have put up similar power numbers in Japan (Aoki’s NPB career high in HR was 20). Maru, however, is a superior defender and would likely stay in center field should he ever make the jump the big leagues. Maru has come a long way since his draft year, and while he is not elite in any one area, he does a lot of things well and is one of the more hard-nosed players in the league. He could almost certainly play everyday in the big leagues for someone right now, and his caliber of play should make him a regular contributor to Japan’s WBC team.

Aoki was 30 years old when he made his MLB debut after seven full seasons in the NPB; Maru in currently in his sixth full season, and he won’t turn 28 until the start of his seventh. Hiroshima has never received a great deal of financial support and they are rarely able to keep their star players, so they could be inclined to post Maru before he is eligible for domestic free agency in a couple years, similar to what they did with Kenta Maeda (RHP, Dodgers) after his sixth season with the club. – Mike Shubin


hokkaido_nippon-ham_fighters_000000_eda34cDai-Kan Yoh, CF, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/180         B/T: R/R         Age: 29

A native of Tawian, Yoh went to High School in Fukuoka and was drafted by the Fighters as a shortstop in the 2005 NPB Draft. He debuted at the Ichi-gun level (NPB big leagues) in 2007 as a 20-year-old, but would spend the next three seasons shuttling back and forth from the minors. It wasn’t until 2011 that he cracked the lineup full-time. He has since become a fixture in one of the more prominent lineups in the NPB, but I would argue that he has yet to fulfill the promise he showed as a young player. Seeing him for the first time in 2008, he showed bat speed that really set him apart. He was a high-energy player that got carry to the middle of the field and was an above-average runner. Like many young players he lacked plate discipline, but the ingredients were there. In 2009 as a 22-year-old, he moved to the outfield full-time and showed plus range into the gaps with above-average arm strength.

Over the next several years however, his progress seemed to plateau, and while he still has been above average across the board in the NPB, has never really realized the potential his tools and plus athleticism promised as a young player. He has had less than 100 K’s only once since becoming a full-time player (93 in 2015), but is back on pace to break 100 K’s this year. He knows the strike zone and has been better about expanding in my looks so far this year, however there is some swing and miss in the zone and seems to struggle particularly with changeups and splitters.

He does a good job recognizing spin and does have some ability to keep his hands back when fooled, but gets easy to pitch to as he is often overmatched by above-average velocity up in the zone. The big leg kick creates a lot of movement in the box and results in more hip travel than you would like to see. He likes the ball out over the plate and looks to drive the right-center field gap, but he opens his front side early and has the bat drag a bit, making the ball out away from him the only place he can really get extended. As a young player, he had more of an MLB approach at the plate and looked to turn on velocity.

That said, he has spent his entire career in a breaking ball heavy league and adjusted away from waiting to get a fastball to hit. He is now 29 years old, and rumor has it that he will be posted this coming offseason. While I don’t have him as an everyday guy, I do think his athleticism in the outfield and gap power will be enough for a team to take a chance on him. He is not going to be a bog home run guy (his best season saw him hit 25 in 2014 in very small NPB ballparks) but his gap power to right-center will play well.

Right now I have him as an average defender in the outfield, but have had him better in the past, and would not be surprised to see him show up with above-average defense in his first season in the big leagues. He is a guy that enjoys the spotlight and would have two countries rooting for him should he end up making the jump. He won’t represent a huge haul for the Fighters, but I could see a $2.5 million posting fee along with a contract at $3-4 million over two years. – Dave DeFreitas


Softbank-HawksDennis Sarfate, RHP, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
Ht/Wt: 6’4”/225         B/T: R/R         Age: 35

Sarfate has really found a home in Japan after an inauspicious tenure in the big leagues that saw him post a 4.53 ERA with 81 walks across 119.1 IP for the Brewers, Astros, and Orioles. In 2011, he signed with the Hiroshima Carp of the NPB after being released by the Orioles, where he promptly struck out 82 in 62.2 IP and saved 35 games. He regressed the next two years, posting slightly more pedestrian SO/9 rates at 8.0 and 10.3 respectively, but took off in 2014 when he signed with SoftBank. He saved 37 games that year and struck out 96 in 68 1/3 innings. Last season, he topped that by striking out 102 through 64 2/3 innings to go along with a career-low (in any country) of 3.8 Hits/9.

He was handsomely rewarded for such eye-popping swing-and-miss rates with a three-year deal valued at approximately $14 million. So far in 2016, he has slowed slightly with a 10.2 SO/9 through his first 36 innings, but is still getting results with a 4.2 H/9 and 25 saves. Such success later in a career may make you wonder what changed, and Sarfate has definitely made some strides in limiting the walks that often torpedoed him here in the States, but the power stuff and swing-and-miss capability has always been there. In his first full season in the major leagues with Baltimore in 2008, his fastball sat in the middle-to-high 90’s and he struck out 86 through 79.2 IP. What we see now is a guy that still has below-average command in the strike zone, but is using the rather large margin for error that his elite velocity creates for him vs. NPB lineups.

He also sports two-to-three average-or-better secondary pitches on any given day. His splitter is above average, showing hard, late tumble. It’s a weapon vs. lefties while his slider and knuckle curveball can both flash plus at times. He tends to open his front side early, and will often miss out over the plate with the fastball, however his ability to locate his secondary stuff allows him to get away with those types of mistakes. Also, NPB lineups tend to house less overall power than those in MLB, making fastballs up in the zone less likely to get turned around.

I have not heard if there are any opt out clauses in Sarfate’s deal or not, but chances are that he will be back in Fukuoka in 2017. That said, stranger things have happened, and NPB clubs tend to be far more open to buyouts when it comes to foreign player contracts. Should he become available, I would expect a few MLB teams to be interested in slotting him into a seventh or eighth inning relief role. – Dave DeFreitas


SwallowsUpdate on Tetsuto Yamada, 2B, Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Yamada continues to rake, and he now leads all of NPB with 23 home runs in only 72 games, a pace that would give him 46 on the year. He also leads the Central League in doubles (18), runs scored (60), RBIs (55), and stolen bases (17), and his OPS currently sits at a ridiculous 1.106. Unfortunately, unlike Yanagita’s Hawks, Yamada’s Swallows are having anywhere near the same level of success that they had last year, and are currently in the basement of the Central League standings, three games behind the fifth-place team. However, despite the team’s struggles, Yamada is still the main draw for most fans, and it is extremely unlikely that the team will look to post him in the near future. MLB fans hoping to see Yamada over the course of the next couple of years will either need to buy a plane ticket or get on YouTube. – Mike Shubin


Softbank-HawksUpdate on Yuki Yanagita, CF, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks

When we first profiled Yanagita back in mid-May, he was in the midst of a slow start to his 2016 season. As expected, he has picked it up considerably since then, and his slash line currently sits at .293/.452/.526 with 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 66 games. It seems unlikely at this point that Yanagita will replicate the numbers he put up in last year’s MVP season (.363, 34 HR, 32 SB), but he is having another very productive season for the reigning Japan Series champions. Yanagita is still a long way away from domestic or international free agency, and the Hawks are cruising to their third consecutive first-place finish. It’s hard to imagine him wanting to walk away from such a successful team to pursue a career in Major League Baseball, and SoftBank has very little incentive to post him given that they are one of the three most profitable teams in NPB (along with the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers). We may eventually see Yanagita in MLB, but it is unlikely to be within the next couple years. – Mike Shubin