Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Questions about Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Being at the winter meetings in Nashville allowed me to catch up with people I’d been seeing there since I first started going in 2014. With four Japanese pitchers moving to MLB this winter, there was a lot to talk about.

In the past, I’ve published injury and deactivation records of Japanese pitchers trying to play in MLB, but it has been a hectic offseason, and somehow I neglected that duty this year.

This brought a request from Eno Sarris of the Athletic::

“I’ve been furiously googling and going through your site and I can’t find anything on Yamamoto injuries — do you know off the top of your head what his major injuries were? Seems like he has a ton of innings every year except his first two?”

The answer to his injury history is that if there is one, it hasn’t been made public. The answer to his playing time requires an understanding of how NPB roster rules differ from those in MLB.

Yamamoto’s published injuries — as related to deactivations are listed below:

  • Aug. 10, 2019: Deactivated after feeling discomfort in his left oblique muscles the day before his scheduled start. He was reactivated on Sept. 8.
  • May 4, 2022: Deactivated to get some rest after being lit up for a career-worst seven runs in 5-1/3 innings. He returned after the minimum 10-day deactivation period.
  • May 20, 2023. Seven days after his previous start, Yamamoto was deactivated after developing a fever, under COVID protocols, with no minimum deactivation period and pitched 10 days later.

A couple of MLB scouts did question why some of his starts were so spread out in 2023: “It’s not like they didn’t need him to pitch.” By my count, excepting the 17 days off he had due to his illness, he had three starts on 10-days rest, and seven with seven days between.

As a rookie starter in 2017, and just a fourth-round draft pick, Orix did what SoftBank had done with Kodai Senga, waited until he proved himself in the minors, and then brought him up to pitch every 11 days, allowing him to make five starts, but receive just five days service time instead of five weeks.

Yamamoto went 2-0 in eight Western League games in 2017, allowing 20 hits but no home runs and just two walks while striking out 28 batters and allowing one run in 33-2/3 innings.

Japanese teams have 70-man rosters, with players able to be activated on the major league active roster an unlimited number of times, subject only to the minimum 10-day deactivation period. The players union has complained about the way the Hawks and Buffaloes used this loop hole for young pitchers to gain experience without padding their service time something which delayed Senga’s free agency, and are currently demanding a minimum of one week of service time for every pitcher who is deactivated after a start.

Yamamoto basically repeated that 2017 minor league performance in 2018 with a 0.38 ERA in 24 innings, striking out 23 while allowing no home runs but walking seven and going 2-0 in six games. He became Orix’s setup man and finished second in the PL in holds and was runner-up in the rookie of the year voting.

He’s like a small pitching version of Shohei Ohtani in the sense that it’s hard to find anything to dislike about him. At this stage in his career, like Ohtani, he is affable and easy to talk to, as Ohtani was when speaking to just one or two people. Unlike Ohtani, he does not lift weights but has an extensive routine he’s developed in coordination with an Osaka massage therapist, and MLB teams are apparently in no hurry to force him to fit their conditioning model.

“I didn’t have any injury trouble this year, and I was able to deliver some good performances. I credit my practice regimen for that,” he said the day before he got hammered in Game 1 of the Japan Series.

Yamamoto bounced back from that with a series-record 14 strikeouts in a complete-game victory that forced Game 7.

Pitching in the WBC alongside Ohtani, Yu Darvish and Japan’s other domestic stars, he said, helped pave the way for the season that made him:

  • The third pitcher in Japanese pro baseball to throw no-hit shutouts in consecutive seasons and the first since 1941, when the median team batting average was .194 and the median team ERA was 1.75.
  • The second pitcher to win three consecutive Sawamura Awards as Japan’s most impressive starting pitcher.
  • The third player to win three straight MVP awards, after Hall of Fame pitcher Hisashi Yamada and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

“(I learned how to) prepare so I can focus solely on one game and then competing as well as I can within that one game and going all in. This has allowed me to raise my concentration level higher than it ever was before.” he said.

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