A standout third baseman and a crafty left-hander, both of whom should be named to Japan’s 2017 WBC squad, highlight this week’s look at some standout performers in the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
Nippon Professional Baseball League Players to Watch
Hirano has been on MLB teams’ radars for a few years now. Since moving to the bullpen full-time in 2010, Hirano has been a force, using his above-average fastball and plus forkball to rack up significant strikeout numbers and lock down the back end of the Orix bullpen.
Hirano sits in the low-to-middle 90’s with the heater, with his forkball being the secondary he relies on the vast majority of the time. Since 2010, he has averaged 10.1 K/9 paired with a 2.3 BB/9 over that same stretch. His fastball is fairly straight with some flat run to both sides of the plate, but he also has some funk in the arm action, with a pronounced hook and wrap in back that helps to play up the stuff slightly. He has some feel with the forkball and is able to add and subtract with it – his really good one getting late dive and generating some swing and miss. One of the knocks on Hirano is that he lacks much going away from righties, which can limit him vs. hitters that are able to work the count. He also has some maintenance in the delivery, and will see the fastball leak to the arm side at times and can be very hittable when left out over the plate.
He has the benefit of some margin for error facing a typical NPB lineup that he wouldn’t be afforded vs. a deeper MLB nine, so even with the forkball being as good as it is, ultimately he will need to go to the slider more often than he has the past few years to keep hitters off of his fastball and not be too predictable. The slider is presently a below-average offering, but even at that level it would give him enough of a wrinkle to be effective. As it stands now, I see his value being in the 7th inning relief role, where he gives a club an experienced arm with match-up stuff who can pitch some high-leverage innings. Tony Barnette (RHP, Rangers) and what he has been able to do so far in 2016 is a good representation of what to expect from Hirano when he makes the jump.
Hirano signed a three-year deal before the 2014 season so while he will gain his international free agent status this year, he is technically under contract through 2017. It is unclear whether or not he has a player option for 2017, but Orix may be open to posting him, which would give MLB clubs some relatively inexpensive bullpen depth. Hirano makes about $2.5 million on his current deal so my guess is that he would need at least a base of $2 million along with some achievable incentives, but even with a $2.5 million posting fee and a $4-5 million contract over two years, it puts him about 30% below what relievers of his caliber are going for in the current free agent market. For a more in-depth breakdown, see my full report here. – Dave DeFreitas
After dominating in the collegiate ranks, the Dragons made Ono their first-round pick in the 2010 NPB Draft. He made his debut the next year, and saw limited time (44 innings) in 2012. In 2013 he became a regular in the rotation, and since then he has averaged about 173 innings over the last three seasons. Ono has always been a pitchability guy that relies more on location and changing speeds than on pure stuff, but sitting 86-to-89 mph with the fastball is a step back from the 90-to-92 mph he averaged in college. I attribute some of this to him learning how to pitch at the big league level in Japan, where it is common to see starters try to throttle back, and far more is made of one’s ability to command their secondary stuff and pitch deep into ballgames.
Ono features variations on his slurvy breaking ball, dialing up some fringe-average bite for put away. His circle changeup doesn’t get a ton of depth, but shows late action that, when coupled with the arm action, is more than enough to keep hitters off balance. He has average command and his feel with the secondaries helps to play up the overall below-average stuff.
The NPB is a contact-heavy league, and since Ono isn’t a guy with power stuff, he has learned to look for soft contact and keep the ball on the ground. He has only averaged about 6.8 K/9 the last three years and is currently sitting at 5.9 K/9 in 2016, but also has a 0.878 WHIP and has thrown three complete games approaching the halfway point. He is adept at working inside with the fastball and he will challenge where appropriate, so this guy knows his strengths and knows how to compete.
Ono has worked his way into the ace position in the Dragons’ rotation, but that is not the type of player he would be for a big league club. He lacks a real out pitch, and he can have trouble putting guys away. Couple that with his high contact rate and you potentially have a guy that is going to get figured out if he has to try and run through a big league lineup multiple times. I do think that there is a little more fastball velo in there than he is showing currently, and if he were to join a big league club right now there may be some value in a swingman role with similar results to what we saw a few years ago from fellow lefty Hisanori Takahashi (NYM, LAA, PIT, CHC).
But alas he is still several years away from free agency, and the Dragons are known for their disdain for the posting system. By the time he becomes available, his best fit is likely going to be in a situational lefty role, should he choose to try and make the jump. We all should get a look at Ono next spring as he will likely be one of the arms on Japan’s 2017 WBC roster. Assuming he is named to the team, this will be Ono’s first taste of professional international competition. For a more in-depth breakdown of Ono, see my full report here. – Dave DeFreitas
Using the same declaration system as Yoshiro Itoi, Matsuda declared for, and was drafted by, the SoftBank Hawks in 2005. He made his NPB debut on opening day in 2006 and played in 62 games in his first season with the Hawks, but after hitting only .211 in just over 200 ABs, he was demoted to the minor leagues in June, where he would spend the rest of the season. 2007 was just the opposite, as Matsuda began the year in the minors before being called up to the Hawks in June, and his performance (.254/.321/.451) was enough to keep him on the team for the rest of the year. 2008 was Matsuda’s first year as a full-time starter, and although various injuries have hampered him over the course of his career (most notably in 2009 when he appeared in only 46 games), Matsuda has been SoftBank’s starting third baseman for the past nine years.
A career .276/.306/.458 hitter, Matsuda’s aggressive approach tends to lead to high strikeout and low walk totals, and his career BB/K is 278/928. However, he has developed into a legitimate power threat, and after hitting a career-high 25 homers in 2011, he broke out in 2015 with 35 homers and a solid line of .287/.357/.533 while helping lead SoftBank to their second straight Japan Series title. His numbers are down a bit so far in 2016 (.251/.306/.458), but the power is still there, with 16 home runs in 76 games. He no longer runs as often as he used to (his stolen base totals have gradually declined each of the past six seasons from 27 in 2011 to only 4 so far in 2016), but he is certainly not a liability on the base paths. Matsuda is also a very strong defender, and he has won three consecutive Gold Gloves at third base and a total of four in the past five seasons.
Matsuda is no stranger to international competition. He was a member of Japan’s 2013 World Baseball Classic team, the 2014 Samurai Japan national team that played against the MLB All-Stars, and he will almost certainly be on Japan’s 2017 WBC squad. Matsuda became eligible for international free agency after the 2015 season, and he originally stated his intent to sign with an MLB team. However, after receiving multiple offers from MLB teams, he ultimately decided to return to SoftBank on a four-year contract. Assuming he remains with the Hawks for the duration of the contract, Matsuda would not be a free agent again until after the 2019 season.
A move to MLB is certainly still a possibility at age 36, but his performance over the next three-and-a-half seasons will determine whether MLB teams will remain interested in his services, as well as whether Matsuda himself is still interested in making the move to the big leagues to finish out his career. Given that MLB pitchers have a much higher average velocity than pitchers in Japan, Matsuda would likely struggle to duplicate the power numbers he has shown in recent years, and home run totals in the teens are more of a reasonable expectation. However, he still makes enough hard contact to maintain a high average and rack up extra base hits. Had he elected to sign in the States, he likely would have seen production similar to what players like Jung Ho Kang (3B, Pirates) and Justin Turner (3B, Dodgers) have done for their clubs. – Mike Shubin
Hiroshima selected Nomura with the first overall pick of the 2011 NPB draft after he posted an ERA of 1.92 in his three years at Meiji University. Nomura had a very successful rookie season in 2012 for the Carp, as his 1.98 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, 172.2 IP, and nine wins for a 60-win team earned him Rookie of the Year honors. However, a labrum injury early in 2013 necessitated a trip to the minor leagues to work on his form, and although he would make 23 starts for the Carp that year and win 12 games, his ERA jumped almost two full runs to 3.74. 2014 and 2015 were also marred by ineffectiveness (ERAs of 4.39 and 4.64, respectively) and stints in the minors, and it left many to wonder whether or not Nomura would ever regain the form that allowed him to be so successful throughout college and his rookie year.
So far in 2016, that pitcher seems to have returned. In 14 starts (only one fewer than he made all of last year), Nomura is 10-2 with a 2.36 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, and he is one of the main reasons the Carp have established themselves as the team to beat in the NPB’s Central League. Nomura has never been much of a strikeout pitcher (his career K/9 is only 5.7), and he generally doesn’t go more than six or seven innings in his starts, but like most Japanese pitchers, he features a variety of pitches and mixes them up very well. His motion is almost identical to that of Kenta Maeda’s (RHP, Dodgers), which is no coincidence, seeing as how the two were teammates for Nomura’s entire career before Maeda departed for the United States. Nomura’s fastball generally sits in the 86-to-89 mph range, and he also features a cutter, slider, a sharp 12-to-6 shaped curveball, and a changeup. Minus the better velocity, his repertoire and pitching style are similar to that of Clay Buchholz (RHP, Red Sox), as he features the same type of hard-breaking curve as Buchholz, and he likes to throw his cutter inside to left-handed batters to generate weak contact.
Given his lack of strikeout stuff and the fact that he has only once topped 150 innings in a season, it’s hard to envision Nomura as anything more than a back-end of the rotation MLB starter. However, if he continues to pitch like he has in 2016, MLB teams will surely take notice. Nomura won’t be a free agent for at least another few seasons, but Hiroshima has obviously not shied away from using the posting system in the past. The Carp are currently in the midst of their most successful season in years, and it will be interesting to see how they deal with their stars, should more players begin to show an interest in making the move to MLB. – Mike Shubin