Tetsuto Yamada keeps door open for move from Yakult

Second baseman Tetsuto Yamada ostensibly became the highest-paid player in the history of the Yakult Swallows, Kyodo News (Japanese) reported in its online edition Tuesday. The 27-year-old is the only player in NPB history to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 30 steals more than once in his career.

He accomplished the feat for the third time in 2018. In 2019, he went 33-for-36 as a base stealer with 35 home runs, but only batted. 271. Despite that slight hiccup, Yamada received a 70 million yen pay increase for 2020 after turning down a multiyear contract. This opens the door for him to file for domestic free agency next November or even ask the Swallows to post him.

As Japan’s premier second baseman since he broke out in the second half of the 2014 season at the age of 21, some have wondered if Yamada might ask Yakult to post him, and he did express some positive feelings about such a move. Since then, the lingering effects of being hit by a pitch in August 2016, and a quiet multiyear commitment to the team muted talk of a major league move.

Despite the injury that reduced his production to fairly pedestrian levels for nearly two seasons, Yamada’s peak value is unmatched among NPB second baseman, a position where Japan has traditionally obsessed about fielding and preferred slap hitters. His best three seasons using Bill James’ win shares rank 10th in NPB history. The value of his best five-year span is 15th. Both are tops at his position in Japanese pro baseball history.

Although he is not shy and retiring like notable busts like pitcher Kei Igawa and second baseman Kensuke Tanaka, Yamada seems content, like Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, to be a superstar in Japan. If Yamada does remain in Japan, expect the Giants or his hometown Hanshin Tigers to make a serious run at him next season along with the SoftBank Hawks, who have not had a big gun at second since Tadahito Iguchi left after the 2004 season.

Yamada’s 2019 salary was reportedly the highest the club had ever paid a Japanese player, while next year’s deal eclipses the 450 million paid to first baseman Roberto Petagine after he was the CL’s MVP in 2001.

Second to none: NPB’s top-10 second basemen

The following table gives my estimate of the top-10 second basemen in the history of Japanese professional baseball, based on: Each player’s ranking among all players in total career win shares, the value of their five-best consecutive seasons, and the total of their three best seasons — all as measured by Bill James’ win shares.

I don’t have win shares data prior to 1946. With those numbers, Chiba, who began playing in 1938 might move up a little closer to Yamada.

NameOverall RankCareer WS5-year spanBest-3 seasons
Tetsuto Yamada*25th153rd15th10th
Tadahito Iguchi46th22nd76th70th
Shigeru Chiba+76th132nd70th70th
Hideto Asamura*78th156th75th60th
Tatsuyoshi Tatsunami+90th34th146th231st
Bobby Rose91st172nd75th92nd
Hiroyuki Yamazaki109th60th192nd216th
Yutaka Takagi131st121st169th191st
Ryosuke Kikuchi*133rd306th125th106th
Yuichi Honda155th204th149th226th

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