Japanese players likely to move to the majors…

A word about playing in Japan

There is a tendency to dismiss some ballplayers because of size and velocity because smaller players are less likely to succeed in the majors and pitchers with more velocity come with an asterisk that says they could be good if they harness their talent and learn better fundamentals.

But because Japan has traditionally seen the game in a different context, with players raised and trained in a different kind of tradition, the game has a different spin to it.

While some things, such as Japan’s emphasis on middle distance running as the basis for all sports training can be counterproductive, very basic things, such as insistence on fundamentals and the extreme importance of being a good teammate add value to the majority of Japanese players that is easily overlooked when measuring physical attributes and skills.

Because Japanese players have been schooled — or brainwashed if one prefers — into hitting the ball up the middle and going the other way, it is with few exceptions impossible to shift against them.

2020… the Samurai Japan trio

Ryosuke Kikuchi

Current status: Being posted. The Hiroshima Carp announced on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, that they would post Kikuchi.

Team: Hiroshima Carp

Pos: 2B Age: 29, he’ll be 30 on March 11, 2020. Bats: R

NPB page

Honors: Best Nine (1), Golden Glove (7)

League leader: Hits (1). According to his baseball-lab.jp player page, Kikuchi has twice led the CL in bunt hits.

A few scouts have told me that Kikuchi has been on their radar, and there is a good chance that from 2014 to 2016 he was the best defensive second baseman in the world.

There have been three NPB seasons in which a second baseman had 500+ assists, all belong to Kikuchi when he recorded 528, 535 and 525, in 2013, 2014 and 2016, respectively. The next highest figure since the two-league system began in 1950 is Masahiro Araki‘s 496 with the 2005 Chunichi Dragons.

Two years ago, having been told by at least one scout that his team would have loved to sign Kikuchi, I told him before an interleague game. Kikuchi said he was keen to go and had been spending part of his offseason in the States in order to build himself up.

He’s nothing special as a hitter but is a serious player and an engaging character, yet another plus makeup guy who will be a positive in the clubhouse.

On Friday it was learned Kikuchi intends to return to the Carp if a deal is not forthcoming. This is no surprise really. A number of players have done this after receiving no guaranteed contract. Former Hanshin Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani tried going to the States with the condition that he receive a contract by Jan. 15 so that Hanshin would be able to prepare better for the season.

Toritani could have played in the majors, but for a relatively unknown quantity given his age at the time, it meant no camp invite and a guaranteed return to the Tigers.

Kikuchi could win a job in camp or in Triple-A, not because of what he’s done in NPB the last four years, but because, in my opinion, the change will flip a switch in this dynamic player. I may be biased because I like him so much, but Kikuchi is a smart player, and he may be like former Cardinals outfielder So Taguchi, a guy who is a better player in MLB than in NPB. There’s no guarantee. There’s no evidence. But I like the possibility.

Ryosuke Kikuchi career win shares

YearRaw WSBatting WSDef WSWARUZR
WAR and UZR ratings are from analytic site Delta Graphs: https://1point02.jp/op/index.aspx

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

Current status: Posting filed. On Tuesday, Oct. 29, he said he will seek a contract with a big league club via the posting system. According to Kyodo News, the BayStars in conjunction with the player’s agent want the posting period to coincide with the baseball winter meetings from Dec. 8 to 12.

Team: DeNA BayStars

Pos: LF Age: 27, he’ll be 28 on Nov. 26, 2019. Bats: L Height: 1.85 m Weight: 97 kg

NPB page

Honors: Best Nine (3)

League leader: HR (1), RBI (1)

Tsutsugo announced last winter that he would ask DeNA to post him after the 2019 season. Although he is not fast, he is a dependable left fielder and is seen as a potential first baseman or DH in MLB.

His home park, Yokohama Stadium, is one of Japan’s best hitters’ parks, and the big question seems to be whether Tsutsugo can generate enough offense to carry his weight at first or left field.

Although no one would pencil him in at third base except in an emergency, he did just that this summer, having barely played there in his career. He was not good, but that didn’t faze him. He kept hitting and gave it his best shot.

He is not a high average hitter, but according to data analysis site Delta Graphs ( https://1point02.jp/ ), Tsutsugo hit the ball as hard as anyone in Japan this year, with 45.4 percent of his balls in play rated as “hard contact,” although that’s a career high. He’s also one of Japan’s most consistent flyball hitters.

His leadership is something people are going to undervalue, making him a bargain for those teams not put off by his lack of arm strength, speed or familiarity with major league fastballs. He’s been the team captain and is perfectly suited to the somewhat looser environment installed by BayStars manager Alex Ramirez. He may not dance, but is a visible leader in the way Munenori Kawasaki was.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo career WS

YearTeamRaw WSBatting WSDef WS

Shogo Akiyama

Current status: Eligible to file for free agency at the conclusion of the Japan Series. His team has announced it will make him a generous multiyear offer to stay in Japan. On Tuesday, Oct. 29, Akiyama revealed he told the team he was leaving.

Team: Seibu Lions

Pos: CF Age: 31, he’ll be 32 on April 16, 2020. Bats: L

NPB page

Honors: Best Nine (3), Golden Glove (6)

League leader: Hits (3) — NPB record 216 in 2015, Batting Avg. (1).

Akiyama turned down a lucrative contract extension last autumn and the Lions had been pressing another one on him. He suffered a fracture of the fourth toe on his right foot in a Premier 12 warm-up game against Canada on Oct. 31 and has been rehabbing at the Lions’ complex outside Tokyo.

He can hit for average and has deceptive power. Akiyama has always been among Delta Graphs’ leaders in “hard contact percentage,” but tends to hit the ball on the ground a lot. Once a dynamite base runner he is no longer a serious base-stealing threat. Akiyama is not slow, but now he’s just better than average.

Once a terrific defensive center fielder with an above-average arm and very good range, Akiyama’s defensive results as tracked by Delta Graphs and Win Shares show a steady decline.

At the start of this season, he seemed to be having trouble tracking balls and some who follow the Lions agreed he had unusual trouble with a number of routine catches. That issue appears to have cleared up, however.

Although he is a team captain, he’s more of a quiet leader rather than someone like Tsutsugo who will seek out his teammates to encourage them and keep them loose.

Shogo Akiyama

YearTeamRaw WSBatting WSDef WS
Career Win Shares

The next wave

Shun Yamaguchi

Current status: Yamaguchi reportedly signed a three-year contract worth 700 million yen, roughly $6.5 million, when he joined the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent following the 2016 season. On Monday, Nov. 18, multiple media reports appeared citing sources Yamaguchi had asked the Giants to post him.

Team: Yomiuri Giants

Pos: RHP Age: 32, he’ll be 33 on July 11, 2020.

NPB page

Honors: None

League leader: Wins (15 in 2019), Strikeouts (186 in 2019)

Yamaguchi was the Giants’ standout starter in the 2019 regular season, reaching double digits in wins for the second time in his career. The son of a former sumo wrestler, the right-hander was taken in the first round of the 2005 high school draft.

He had success for several seasons as the BayStars’ closer, but suffered a crisis of confidence in his fourth season in that role and ended up on the farm team where he went back to using his secondary pitches more. He was converted to a starter in 2014, in perhaps the one astute move made by former DeNA skipper Kiyoshi Nakahata.

With the Giants, Yamaguchi’s splitter has come into its own, and this season he not only executed it well but also incorporated it into his entire mix better so that batters were going after it out of the zone more than ever and coming up empty more.

He missed bats on 13.5 percent of the swings against him, according to Delta Graphs, the highest percentage of any NPB pitcher with 80-plus innings under his belt in 2019 with most of those misses coming out of the zone.

What Yamaguchi threw in 2019

  • Fastball 43.7 percent (probably a career-low), avg velocity 145.1 kph
  • Splitter 26.6 percent
  • Slider 20.2 percent
  • Curve 8.2 percent
  • Two-seamer 1.2 percent

On a pitch-per-pitch basis, his splitter, again according to Delta Graphs, was the most effective in NPB among pitchers with 80-plus innings.

Although his fastball is not an out pitch for him, Yamaguchi’s success with his splitter this season and to a lesser extent his slider is probably related to an uptick in four-seam fastball velocity.

MLB scouts I’ve spoken to see him as either a back-of-the-rotation starter or a bullpen guy, largely because he has not established his current level of success and because of the incident.

The incident

On Aug. 18, 2017, Kyodo News reported the following:

According to police and other sources, Yamaguchi had been out drinking and visited the hospital early on the morning of July 11 to have an injury to his pitching hand treated.

The pitcher has been fined 1/300th of his salary from July 11 through Thursday and will be docked the same amount each day of his suspension. The total cost of his outburst to him will likely be in excess of 100 million yen (roughly $917,000).

He is accused of shoving a male security guard in the chest, causing him to crash into a desk, leaving bruising on his lower back that lasted for two weeks. He also reportedly damaged a door at the hospital.

“I am truly sorry for having caused such a situation through my bad behavior,” Yamaguchi told a press conference at the team’s offices in Tokyo.

His makeup

The incident aside, Yamaguchi is pleasant and straightforward with the media, and I have no reason to doubt he is anything but a good teammate. At the time of the incident, he was coming off poor performances and reportedly the pressure of playing for the Giants got the best of him.

Yuki Yanagita

Current status: Eligible to file for international free agency after the 2020 season. His team has never posted a player and has rejected players’ requests to do so. He qualified to become a domestic free agent last year and is finishing the second year of a three-year contract.

Team: SoftBank Hawks

Pos: CF Age: 31, as of Oct. 9, 2019. Bats: L

NPB page

Honors: Best Nine (4)*, Golden Glove (4)

  • – In 2016, Yanagita missed over 20 games. Between his lower offensive totals and the Hawks failure to win the pennant, he was not voted to either a Best Nine or Golden Glove Award, although Win Shares ranked him about even with the PL’s MVP that season, Shohei Ohtani.

League leader: Hits (3) — NPB record 216 in 2015, Batting Avg. (1).

The biggest knock on Yanagita is his durability. He has missed 13 or more games in each of the past five seasons. This year, he suffered a leg injury in April that kept him out until August, ending his four-year streak of leading the Pacific League in on-base percentage and slugging average at four seasons. Only Hall of Fame slugger Sadaharu Oh, who accomplished the feat 11 times.

Yanagita told me he became the hitter he is in Puerto Rico after the 2012 season when by chance he was a winter league teammate of Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez. In two months on the island, Yanagita said Rodriguez worked with him and helped him iron out his front leg kick and vastly improve his timing.

A decent base stealer until this year’s injury, Yanagita is a good base runner because of his speed, although his judgment and timing on the bases is not a match for his contemporary, Shogo Akiyama.

Yanagita is always among the leaders in Delta Graphs’ “Hard Contact Percentage,” but despite his home run power hits a lot of balls on the ground. Yanagita swings really hard, but can also cut down his swing depending on the situations. Few hitters in NPB swing at a higher percentage of balls in the zone, and no Japanese hitters see fewer balls in the zone.

Although his age is working against him, Yanagita seems keen to play in the majors and though he will lose something in the adjustment process, he has retained a fair amount of his speed and strength for a player his age. He also has the kind of friendly, outgoing character that smooths some transition issues.

Kodai Senga

Current status: In the winter of 2018-2019, the Hawks ace asked SoftBank to post him and was politely told to mind his own business. Unless that changes, Senga will be eligible to file for international free agency after the 2022 Japan Series.

Team: SoftBank Hawks

Pos: SP Age: 26. Will be 27 on Jan. 30, 2020. Throws: R

NPB page

Honors: Golden Glove (1)

The SoftBank Hawks have taken greater advantage from the system of developmental contract players than any other NPB team. Senga is arguably the best player to enter pro ball through that door — the only comparable players would be a pair of former Giants rookies of the year, reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi and outfielder Tetsuya Matsumoto.

Senga now relies on four pitches: fastball, splitter, cutter, and slider. According to Delta Graphs these rate as follows:

PitchPercent usedAvg. VelocityRun value per 100 pitches

OK. So that’s five. I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition. The two-seamer is new this year, and it’s less of a sinker and more of an off-center fastball — a shoot or reverse cutter — designed to run in more on right-handed batters. He also threw a a curve less than 1 percent of the time, which is required to remain a member of NPB’s starting pitchers union.

Senga’s fastball is now among the hardest-thrown in Japan, with only three foreign relievers, Edwin Escobar, Rubby De La Rosa and Johnny Hellweg averaging more speed with it. The biggest problem with the fastball is location. Those days when he can locate are basically wins for the Hawks because no one is going to be able to handle the cutter and splitter.

Senga credited a sudden 5 kph jump in average velocity this season to staying with the Chicago Cubs’ Yu Darvish over the winter and training with him.

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