Tomoyuki Sugano, exclusive insiders notes and his activation, injury history in Inside Pitch.
Current status: Until Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, (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 last year, 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 the Kyodo News story from May 2018, when Sugano talks about playing in the majors.
Team: Yomiuri Giants
Pos: SP Birthdate: Oct. 11, 1989. 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. These numbers are through Nov. 7, 2020. His cutter and two-seamer, both big weapons when he won the Sawamura Award in 2017 and 2018 were less prominent this year, while the curveball has continued its relegation toward being a surprise pitch. This year, he was primarily a fastball, slider, splitter guy.
|Pitch||Percent used||Avg. Velocity (kph)||Run value per 100 pitches|
From 2017 to 20118, Delta Graphs rated 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.
2020 saw Sugano rebound to the level to where for much of the season he was the prime contender to win his third Sawamura Award in four years due to his 13-0 start.
Delivery and other changes
Sugano changed his delivery after the 2019 season, and increased his velocity. Spin data is proprietary in NPB, which operates TrackMan systems at each home park, but just from watching pitches this year, it appears that effective spin on pitches has improved all across the leagues along with a steady increase in velocities.
Another way in which Sugano is tracking Japan’s pitching population is with his no form. A lot of pitchers have introduced these robotic-looking takebacks this year. Sugano twists his torso and arms back first before he moves a muscle in his lower half.
Six years ago, Sugano was an extreme groundball pitcher, but has evolved over the past three years to becoming the second-most extreme flyball pitcher among frontline starters in Japan.
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.
Sugano’s game is getting guys to chase, and he’s good at it. He leads Japan in percentage of pitches out of the zone. Batters have swung at 34.8 percent of his pitches out of the zone, the second-highest rate in Japan this year after the amazing Yudai Ono, and he is hard to foul off–an extremely valuable skill in Japan.