Current status: Until Monday, Nov. 18 (the day hell froze over as one Twitter wit put it) one of Japan’s premier pitchers was going to be in Japan until eligible to file for international free agency. That day, the Yomiuri Giants revealed they made an agreement to post pitcher Shun Yamaguchi at an unspecified date in the future, opening up the door for Sugano to ask for equal treatment.
In 2019, Sugano accumulated the seven years of service time needed for players who didn’t turn pro out of high school to file for domestic free agency.
Here’s Kyodo News story from May 2018, when Sugano talks about playing in the majors.
Team: Yomiuri Giants
Pos: SP Age: 30. Will be 31 on Oct. 11, 2020. Throws: R
Honors: MVP (2014) Sawamura Award (2017, 2018) Best Nine (3) Golden Glove (3)
League leader: ERA (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018). Wins (2017, 2018). Strikeouts (2016, 2018).
Sugano got a late start to his pro career after refusing to sign with the Nippon Ham Fighters as their first draft pick in 2011. At the time, he said he would turn pro with a major league team out of university if he were unable to sign with the Giants. But the Giants lost his negotiating rights in a draft lottery after both they and the Fighters named him as their No. 1 pick.
Although his first choice was apparently the majors, he was persuaded to join the Giants to play under his uncle, Giants manager Tatsunori Hara after the Giants were the only team to select him in NPB’s 2012 draft.
While Sugano’s pitches are not the nastiest one will see in NPB, his quality comes from his consistent ability to locate everything in his arsenal. He struggled with lower back issues from the middle of the 2019 season and had one disastrous game — when he was not fit — when he couldn’t locate his fastball and he was not getting the usual tight spin on his slider.
What he throws
This is what his most recent arsenal looks like, according to NPB analytics site Delta Graphs.
|Pitch||Percent used||Avg. Velocity (kph)||Run value per 100 pitches|
From 2017 to 20118, Delta Graphs rates his slider and cutter as his most effective pitches, but that was far from the case in 2019. His two-seamer is something of a mystery pitch. He has thrown it, but he also throws a one-seam fastball with his index and middle finger on either side of a seam that does more or less the same thing.
From their summary of his season, Delta Graphs indicates two problems. Sugano, who has in the past had an uncanny ability to locate pitches just outside the zone, had been getting swings on roughly 35 percent of his pitches outside the zone. In 2019, that was down to 30 percent. His swinging strike percentage was down by about 10 percent.
The other problem is that he was losing a huge number of infield flies. While he’s been evolving into a flyball pitcher, 16 percent of his flies stayed in the infield. This year his fly ball percentage increased from 43 percent to 49, while keeping just 11 percent of those in the infield.
In my mind, most of those issues were location as he fell behind in counts and was unable to locate his high hard pitches as consistently as he had in the past.