NPB news: Feb. 25, 2023

Samurai Japan played its first exhibition of the year Saturday, with Roki Sasaki easily finding his form with the MLB ball. Two fastballs were on display, one very, very fast, and the other very, very good. Daisuke Matsuzaka talked baseballs, and elsewhere, a rookie had one of the best quips of the spring so far.

Shall we get started?

Sasaki lights it up early

After striking out against Roki Sasaki a week earlier, Munetaka Murakami pronounced the Lotte right-hander “season-ready,” and we saw more of that on Saturday. Sasaki started for Japan and repeatedly hit 162 kph (100.6 mph) with his fastball. He struck out three of the six batters he faced over two innings. Sasaki allowed an infield single, but that runner was caught stealing.

Shota Imanaga, all 178 centimeters of him, followed Sasaki to the mound and was just as dominant. Imanaga has a reputation among a lot of MLB scouts as a finesse pitcher, largely because his fastball velocity averages 91 mph. If you’re a scout and a guy can throw 100 mph, you figure he’s got a lot of room for error, and even if it’s flat, like Sasaki’s typically is, there’s always the chance that he can learn to throw it better – the way Imanaga throws his.

“My fastball had a lot of life on it today,” Sasaki said, and it did have more pop on it than he usually gets.

Sasaki’s fastball is good because of its speed and his splitter. Neither are that great, but throw in the velocity and you have a difficult proposition when he can come with either, or his slider or his curve. Imanaga’s pretty much always pops, and because he changes speeds, and mixes his pitches well, he gets lots of swings and misses with it.

A couple of MLB scouts have referred to him as “the next Tsuyoshi Wada” and that’s not inaccurate. Like Wada, Imanaga knows what he’s doing, and can make batters repeatedly swing under his heater, because it’s rarely flat.

A scout told me last year that because so many teams are obsessed with velocity, having a pitcher in your system who doesn’t know how to pitch or command the ball but who throws hard is always valuable – not to his team but in trade to others, who see the velo and salivate at the potential.

Sasaki’s not that now, because he does know what he’s doing, while fastball, splitter and secondary pitches will likely get better in the next few years, but it’s worth watching.

Hiromi Ito struck out two in a scoreless inning once Japan had a big lead thanks to three RBIs from Kazuma Okamoto, who doubled in two and singled in another, Kensuke Kondo reaching base three times and singling in a run.

Hiroya Miyagi got roughed up a bit in a sloppy 1-2/3 innings before Japan added two more unearned runs against the Hawks. Tomohisa Ozeki had three solid innings against the national team in which he walked two guys who usually walk a ton, Munetaka Murakami and Kondo.

Yuki Udagawa, whose struggles with the MLB ball have been a story all spring, struck out two of the four batters he faced, and Shosei Togo, who led the Central League in strikeouts last season worked a scoreless ninth.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto is set to pitch Sunday’s game. Samurai Japan will play two more pre-tournament exhibitions in Nagoya against the Dragons on Friday and Saturday, before playing official WBC exhibitions the following Monday and Tuesday in Osaka, when the full MLB contingent will be allowed to play.

Dice-K talks baseballs

After the game, manager Hideki Kuriyama spoke of the issues with the ball and echoed something Daisuke Matsuzaka said in the broadcast booth. The 2006 and 2009 MVP said what a lot of people have, that the quality of MLB balls varies a lot more than those used in Japan, where one rarely sees pitchers getting a different ball – unless one counts former Tigers right-hander Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, who refused to throw any ball once it had been put in play, and whose teammates would throw those back to the dugout.

Matsuzaka said because of that, the quality was not such a big problem, while Kuriyama said after the game that the players had to know whether the ball in their hand felt right or not.

You getting points for that?

Shohei Ohtani may not be playing for a Japanese club anymore, and as long as Junya Nishi pitches for the Tigers, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see him in a two-way role, but Kota Yazawa, the Nippon Ham Fighters top draft pick appears to be the real deal.

On Saturday, batting second as the Fighters DH, Yazawa had the highest exit velocity recorded by a Fighters hitter this spring in a preseason exhibition against the Rakuten Eagles. Yazawa has been such a good consumer of Eagles pitches, going 7-for-9 against them this spring, that some are wondering if he was receiving loyalty bonuses that internet shopping giant Rakuten gives to its customers.

“Even my friends are asking me, ‘You’re piling up Rakuten points, aren’t you?’” Yazawa said.

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