Inside pitch

My takes on players who want to go to the States and how well they’ll make the adjustment to MLB because it’s not always about physical skills, size, and strength. The opinions here are mine alone.

Who’s here?

Tomoyuki Sugano

The Yomiuri Giants ace has the power and command to pitch pretty much any way he likes. He’s stocky but not physically imposing at 1.86 meters and 92 kilograms, but his record with back-to-back Sawamura Awards in 2017 and 2018 speaks to his fire and competitiveness.

Activation, injury report

8/14/20149/10/2014Neck pain, lower back discomfort, middle finger tendon inflammation
10/3/20143/25/2015Lower back discomfort, right elbow ligament damage
5/31/20156/10/2015Neck pain
8/6/20168/16/2016blister on right thumb
10/6/2016*Misses practice for an undisclosed reason.
5/21/20196/9/2019Lower back discomfort
9/5/20199/15/2019Lower back discomfort
9/16/2019Lower back discomfort
3/30/20214/10/2021Discomfort in leg (believed to be knee)
5/8/2021Discomfort in right elbow

Sugano’s sophomore season was cut short by injury, including ligament damage in his right elbow. Since then his injuries have largely been limited to lower-back issues, with 2019 being particularly bad. Last year colored a lot of people’s perceptions about Sugano’s durability. He was activated in order to pitch in the postseason, when he was not fully fit.

Otherwise, he’s never been deactivated in order to “find his form.”

What makes him special

Sugano brings three things: his smarts, the sharp movement on his pitches, and consistently good command.

He can be stubborn, and we’ve seen that with his current approach which is largely about expanding the zone and living on the edge. On those days when his command is not as sharp, he will fight it and run up pitch counts rather than letting his stuff play in the zone.

He appears methodical on the mound. Off the mound, he seems humble and intelligent. Most Japanese players rate extremely high on the makeup scale, but intelligence is I think extremely undervalued in the ability of some players to adapt successfully to the changes that MLB presents.

It starts in spring training. Instead of four-to-six intense workout days and a day off, its lower intensity daily workouts. Players going to the States are also confounded by the schedule. Preseason games start earlier, and players lose their personal sense of where they should be fitness-wise when games start. Players get anxious, overtrain, and suffer injuries.

I would bet that Sugano will be one of those to tackle the differences in a methodical, disciplined fashion and be ready to shine from Opening Day.

Haruki Nishikawa

The Nippon Ham Fighters center fielder is a versatile player and was a pretty good second baseman before he was converted to the outfield. There is no question that he has solid skills, but the real question is whether he has what it takes to make the transition to the majors.

A lot of players have the skill set, but fail miserably or badly underperform in such a radically transformed environment. Gregarious and smart guys seem to have made the best transitions.

I don’t want to say a player lacks intelligence because one never knows just from meeting and talking to them. Nishikawa plays a smart game and is not shy but I have reservations about his ability to adapt. I once asked him about the adjustments he had made and he said, “I don’t really know.” The conversation went on for about three minutes.

Another player I know who also played a very high-percentage game who failed miserably in the States explained his failure due to the placement of the lights at his home park. He’s a great guy, but the adjustments proved too hard.

Hirokazu Sawamura

In the beginning of November Major League Trade Rumors published a report from a source that said, “Multiple MLB teams are interested in Sawamura.”

I can confirm that at least one team is interested in the right-hander, but if you ask who would be in a position to talk about “multiple teams,” the answer is probably, the player’s agent, which means that it may or may not be true.

In May 2019, weekly magazine Asahi Geino reported an inebriated Sawamura had choked someone in an elevator. According to the report, the Giants admitted the incident occurred and was settled by an apology from the player. It was the second report of a drunken assault by the right-hander, another occurring in 2014.

I haven’t spoken with Sawamura at any length since before the start of his rookie season, and he seemed gracious and kind. His 2020 midseason trade to Lotte seemed to have lifted a huge weight from his shoulders.

Ayumu Ishikawa

Activation, injury report

I’ve seen one mention of lower-back discomfort from early 2019 along with a mention of elbow discomfort that season. I’ve seen no description of any injury after the 2017 WBC, but during that season, Ishikawa was called up repeatedly to make one start before spending the next 10 days with the farm team, a tactic teams often use with pitchers who are not recovering quickly from their starts.

4/19/20175/22/2017ineffective after WBC
9/19/2017none out till end of season
10/7/2018out till end of season. Dropped from national team due to elbow pain
4/4/20194/14/2019lower back pain
6/14/20197/10/2019elbow discomfort, used from bullpen after his return
9/24/2019none out till end of season

Kohei Arihara

Activation, injury report

The only mention of fitness issues I could find were in Arihara’s 2016 sophomore season. I don’t know that the Fighters aren’t forthcoming about injuries, but the team knew center fielder Yang Dai-kang was playing with broken ribs for four weeks before reporters asked about it and manager Hideki Kuriyama gave him the day off, and Shohei Ohtani may have had other issues besides blisters in 2016 considering the elbow and shoulder issues that later popped up.

5/15/20151st team debut
3/27/2016Season debut
4/7/20164/26/2016Lumbar sprain
10/15/2016Pitched in postseason on 10/14, 10/25
5/28/20176/18/2017Poor form

writing & research on Japanese baseball