Here’s a quick look at a few higher-profile names from the Nippon Professional Baseball League who we could be hearing about in the U.S. soon, following solid performances in Japan this year.
Ryosuke Hirata, LF/RF, Chunichi Dragons
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/195 B/T: R/R Age: 28 yrs, 7 mo
Hirata is a little-known player in U.S. baseball circles, but the 2005 first-round pick for Chunichi has been a fixture in the Dragons’ lineup since 2011. Hirata has some pop in his squat, thick build, but has it play more as doubles-type power rather than being a real over-the-fence threat. He has some length to the swing and really tries to buggy whip the barrel through the zone, but tends to open his front side early and has to cheat a bit to get to the ball inside. He does a good job keeping his hands back, and he shows some carry to the right-center field gap, but he doesn’t have great bat speed and is geared more for the breaking ball. Ryosuke’s averaged about 20 doubles and 12 home runs a year since he became a regular in 2013, and he’s hit .353 with runners in scoring position in 2016. His slugging percentage and and strikeout rate are both going in the wrong direction— with SLG % going from .430 in 2015 to .411 this season, and the K-rate going from 15% in 2015 to 18% this year, so even in the smaller Japanese ballparks he has not shown a propensity for doing excessive damage. Ryosuke has been a consistent on-base guy as a pro with a .347 career mark, and while not a base stealing threat, runs pretty well (4.19, 4.22, 4.29 HP-to-1B). Defensively, though, he is limited to a corner-outfield spot with fringe-average range and 45-grade arm strength.
Hirata is set to be an international free agent this offseason, and he’s rumored to want to test the MLB waters. He profiles as an extra outfielder right now, and his below-average power and lack of premium-position capability will limit his value to a big league club. At this point I don’t see an MLB club giving him a big league deal with guaranteed money equal to the $700K he is making this year in Japan. He is a good candidate for a split contract with an invite to spring training. If he is willing to do that, then I could see him having value as a right-handed hitting fourth outfielder for a big league club. Think Cole Gillespie (OF, Marlins) for a big league comparable. Don’t be surprised to see his name bantered about this winter as I expect his agents to play up his desire to head to the U.S. in efforts to raise his value in Japan. But realistically, I don’t see him leaving the NPB, as he stands to earn far more money as an everyday player should he re-sign with an NPB team. Check out my full report here.
Takahiro Norimoto, RHP, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/185 B/T: R/R Age: 25 yrs, 10 mo
Norimoto entered 2016 as one of the better-known assets currently playing in Japan. Currently he stands as a defacto #2 to #1a of Shohei Ohtani (RHP, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters) and #1b of Tomoyuki Sugano (RHP, Yomiuri Giants). He’s got a potent three-to-four pitch mix and is a guy that has a chance to pitch consistently with above-average command. Drafted out of college by the Eagles, he does not have the same time in the league that Masahiro Tanaka (RHP, Yankees) had at this age, however the stuff is comparable to Tanaka’s, as is the aggressive approach on the mound.
Unlike a lot of Japanese pitchers, Norimoto is not a nibbler – he tends to pound the zone with fastballs and then take hitter out of the zone with the slider and forkball. He has seen his K’s/9 rise in each of this first four season, and outside of his rookie campaign in 2013, he’s put up over 200 K’s (204, 215, 216 each of the last three seasons). On top of that, he has been a model of durability and consistency innings-wise, with 170 innings his rookie year followed by 202.2, 194.2 and 195 innings over the next three seasons. He does have some effort in his delivery, but is an excellent athlete and has shown the ability to throttle up and back and repeat consistently. Looking at their stature, power stuff and effort levels, I see Norimoto comparing well to (a pre-injury) Sonny Gray (RHP, Athletics), but ultimately Norimoto profiles/projects to be the better of the two righties.
Despite his aggressiveness in the zone he doesn’t walk many (2.3 BB/9 this season—which was his highest since his 2.7 BB/9 mark his rookie year). These sort of numbers stand out no matter where one is pitching, however in such a contact-heavy league like the NPB, consistently punching out 200-plus hitters a year is a significant accomplishment, and something that will translate well to the U.S. game. Only Yu Darvish (RHP, Rangers) and Hideo Nomo (RHP, Dodgers) routinely struck out 200-plus batters per year in Japan before coming over, and both of those guys saw a rise in their K rates once they toed a big league mound.
Norimoto sits 90-to-94 mph with his fastball, but has been up to 96 mph for me in the past. His slider is plus and probably the pitch he has the most feel with. He will add and subtract and change the shape depending on the situation, and dial up hard ¾ bite to put hitters away. He also sports a plus forkball which rivals that of former teammate Masahiro Tanaka (RHP, Yankees). In years past it has been the FB/Sld/Fk combination with the curveball mixed in, but recently has started using a circle changeup as well – and has seen it become a solid, above-average offering.
Going into the 2017 WBC, I expect Norimoto to be part of a formidable Japanese rotation and slot in right behind Ohtani and Sugano. Norimoto has a few years left before free agency (approximately four more seasons), but is on a team that is no stranger to the posting system and it’s likely he’ll made available within the next three years. It looks like Ohtani may be posted after next season, so it would make sense to see Norimoto’s name pop up in the winter of 2018. Check out my full report here.
Tomohiro Anraku, RHP, Tohoku Rakutan Golden Eagles
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/195 B/T: R/R Age: 19 yrs, 11mo
The last time I saw Anraku was in 2013 at the 18U Nationals in Korea where he sat 90-to-93 mph with the fastball and showed an above-average slider and average curveball. Shortly thereafter he was taken in the first round of the 2014 NPB draft by the Eagles, and after tossing just six innings in his debut 2015 season, finished 2016 with 15 appearances (12 of them starts) and a very serviceable 3.42 ERA over 84.1 innings pitched.
He is still just 19 years old, and he’s a ways off from being a consideration for MLB teams, but he is an interesting case due to his impressive, albeit extremely inconsistent, mix of a big fastball and plus breaking ball. He was very much a max-effort guy in high school, where his fastball would sit 90-to-96 mph, but he’s battled various shoulder injuries as an amateur (772 pitches over nine days in the 2013 Spring Koshien; 320 pitches over four days in the 2013 Summer Koshien could not have helped) and he’s still not believed to be 100% healthy.
Shoulder issues aside, Anraku has an idea on the mound and will work the fastball to both sides before going to the slider for put-away. He will change eye level, but part of that is due to him not consistently getting good extension and leaving the fastball up in the zone. He can get away with that due to the lesser power of NPB lineups, but a flat 88 mph fastball that misses up usually won’t make it to the catcher in the big leagues.
Based on his October 1 start vs. the ORIX Buffaloes, it looks like he has calmed down some of the effort in his high-maintenance delivery and is comfortable throttling up and back, but was not really tested in this outing vs. a very limited ORIX lineup. It is not uncommon to see Japanese pitchers cruise at about 80% at various points in a start, and then reach back when they get into a jam; Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP, Mariners) was an extreme example of this during his time in Japan—often pitching at 80-to-83 mph in one outing only to show 90-to-94 mph later on in a tougher matchup. Anraku is a strike thrower, but his command in the zone is below average and he has some drop-and-drive in the delivery. Like I mention above, he will rush at times causing him to work uphill, where the fastball will really flatten out and get hittable. When he stays a little taller and drives down in the zone he shows significantly more late life on the pitch. He does like to pound the fastball in on lefties, but is primarily FB/Sld/Crv and does not have any real weapon going away from the left-handed bat. This, coupled with his inconsistent execution and injury history, should lead to him make a move the bullpen eventually—where he can really lean on that FB/Sld combo in shorter looks.
The high-maintenance mechanics keep him from getting to average command in the zone and I don’t see Anraku being able to cruise in the middle 80’s multiple times through a lineup in the US. So for me, Anraku is a kid that is going to be best served going max effort for one to two innings and getting the most out of the power stuff he has shown in the past. Check out my full report here.