Yoshinobu Yamamoto

The Yamamoto market according to MLB

With the exception of Shohei Ohtani, no player is set to make a bigger splash in MLB’s offseason free agent market than Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who is just the tip of the iceberg in an offseason when four pittchers from Japan are testing an MLB market that is likely to produce some record contracts.

Although Yamamoto is being posted and will have just a 45-day window to sign and a posting fee will need to be paid to Orix, MLB scouts and executives seem certain he will shatter the record for the biggest contract offered to a first-year MLB player.

Currently, that record belongs to the seven-year $155-million deal signed by Masahiro Tanaka and the New York Yankees in 2014. Yamamoto, however, is likely to sign a deal worth somewhere between $200 and $300.

Before last month’s GM meetings were cut short due to an outbreak of illness, Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry DiPoto was asked about Yamamoto’s level of uniqueness.

“(He’s) very unique, as such that he’s just no doubt. He’s an exceptional talent. He’s played on the biggest stages in international play and an excellent career in his time in Japan, and someone is going be very fortunate to have him come and sit at the top or near the top of their rotation.”

Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean MLB teams think more highly of the three-time Sawamura Award-winning Yamamoto than they did of Tanaka or the pitcher who attracted the biggest posting fee in history, Yu Darvish.

Like Tanaka and Darvish before him, Yamamoto is going on the market with the reputation of being the best pitcher in Japan. And while they are hard to compare because of their different styles and body types, two things are easy to compare between now and then – the market for starting pitchers and front-line players salaries has grown tremendously, as has the amount of information available to U.S. teams on pitchers here.

“The domestic free agency is not very good outside of Shohei Ohtani, and Yamamoto is as young as you can be to be on the market. Because of the analytics today, teams see being a 25-year-old as a huge separator now,” one MLB scout said.

“It’s been 10 years since Tanaka, who is the closest comparison because of their ages. But the market has changed.”

One scout for another MLB club believes that Yamamoto’s dominance in Japan puts him on a higher level than Tanaka.

“I think he (Yamamoto) is the real deal by winning three Sawamura Awards,” a scout for a second team said. “He’s proved that he is a really good pitcher in Japan. You can’t make up a story like him striking out 14 guys in his last game in NPB in the Japan Series. That separates him from everybody else.”

But is he actually better now than Tanaka was 10 years ago or Darvish was in 2012?

“That’s difficult. They were all the same age more or less when they went over, but Yamamoto’s stats in Japan were better than Tanaka’s or Darvish’s,” the second scout said.

Compared to 10 or 12 years ago when Tanaka and Darvish went on the market, there is more information now. The 2019 introduction of Trackman into the main parks of all but the single cheapest franchise has made pitch tracking data available to MLB teams to supplement the eye tests of their scouts and the video they can get from other sources.

“When Tanaka came over there wasn’t access to Trackman data,” the first scout said. “There were a lot more unknowns in evaluating players, and teams now can tell themselves they are better prepared, because there is so much more access to information and are more willing to invest in a big contract on a Japanese player.”

The key phrase here is “they can tell themselves,” since the pitch movement they’re interested in is being generated with tackier baseballs that are easier to spin than the MLB balls that Swallows pitcher Cy Sneed said are “like trying to grip a wet rock.”

The second scout added, “$200 million is a ridiculous number, but in this market, it makes sense.”

Farhan Zaidi, the San Francisco Giants’ president of baseball operations said, the scarcity of starting pitching is driving a seller’s market.

“There has a been a lot of talk around the game about the relative scarcity of pitchers who can go deep into games,” he told reporters. “…So when guys are available who can give you 150, 200 innings, there’s a real premium on that.”

And there seems little doubt that despite his small 178-centimeter, 80-kilogram frame, Yamamoto is a guy who can deliver.

“The obvious risk factor is how he’s going to handle the innings they expect him to throw,” a third scout said. “The Mets did a good job with Kodai Senga, so whoever signs Yamamoto will probably follow that model. I think he could win 13-15 games this year, and that’s incredible for a first-year pitcher.”

There seems to be a unanimous belief that most teams trying to sign Yamamoto will be looking to him as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, depending on who they already have. If he goes to San Francisco, one team expected to be bidding on the Orix ace, the Giants will probably have him at the very top of their rotation.

One scout compared Yamamoto to MLB right-handers Walker Buehler, Sonny Gray.

“Walker Buehler and Sonny Gray are not that big but have power and excellent secondary pitches,” the scout said. “They don’t pitch the same as Yamamoto. There are not that many pitchers in MLB that have splitters like his. But they all pitch with power and lots of energy.”

“If he has Buehler’s career or Grey’s career, that’s pretty darn good. They’re not Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole, but Buehler and Gray have had big, big seasons.”

Another seconded the Gray comparison.

“He’s like Sonny Gray. I think he’s a perfect comparison. When Sonny Gray is healthy, he’s a Cy Young winner, but he’s small, and Gray has the curveball too, a good pitcher,” the scout said.

MLB teams, it seems, are in love with Yamamoto, his poise, his command, the quality of his pitches and his willingness to be a leader.

“Yamamoto has a fastball, slider, cutter, curve and split,” a fourth scout said. “The fastball is plus velocity. When the curveball is working it’s nasty, a little ‘12-6 boom’ that surprises everybody, arm-side run on the splitter. When he threw his no-hitter, it was off the charts. The fastball tends to be straight and he pounds the zone with it. If it hangs there he can be hit.”

“He’s confident. He leads by example. He is uncompromising, he’s ultra-competitive. He knows how to come back strong. He never gets himself into a funk and gives up. He’s like, ‘OK I gave up five runs, let’s go.’”

All the scouts love Yamamoto’s splitter, while one believes the slider might actually become his best pitch, but as a group, they expressed confidence in his ability to adapt to the different conditions in MLB, from spring training to harder mounds to larger, slicker baseballs. After all, this is a pitcher who completely revamped his delivery in 2023, and didn’t skip a beat.

“Tanaka would always come up with something different every year,” one scout said. “I can see Yamamoto doing that, too. He hardly throws his slider, but it’s really good. The shape of it is great.”

Another added, “I think he should throw his slider a lot more, because it’s really good. A lot of Japanese have trouble getting a feel for their curves in MLB, but because Yamamoto’s delivery is super clean, I can easily see him adapting and making it work in the U.S.”

“What makes him so special to MLB teams is the breadth and depth of his pitch repertoire and his location and command. It’s just so hard to find that now. You’ve got power guys and the finesse pitchers are fewer and fewer every year. He’s definitely a finesse-type pitcher but he can get it up to the mid 90s or above. That’s a good pitcher.”

And while Yamamoto is at the top of MLB teams’ Christmas pitching list, DeNA BayStars ace Shota Imanaga, Rakuten Eagles closer Yuki Matsui, and Nippon Ham Fighters right-hander Naoyuki Uwasawa are also testing the market.

Shota Imanaga is a southpaw similar to Yamamoto in some respects because of his command and competitiveness, and is expected to get a solid contract to sit in the middle of a team’s rotation, with one scout saying some of the teams looking at the lefty might see him as a possible closer.

Although Imanaga, also 178 centimeters tall, lacks Yamamoto’s velocity, the scouts believe he has even better command, and boasts a changeup and a hopping fastball that is one of Japan’s best, and a slider they would like to see more of in MLB.

“His changeup is nasty when it works, sometimes it has incredible movement and is a game-changer,” one scout said. “He sets you up with the changeup and then the fastball down the middle is unhittable. He is well loved by his teammates and wants to lead by example.”

Another said of Imanaga, “Everyone is so desperate for pitching. Imanaga will probably get $40 million to $50 million.

A third said, “He really helped himself in the WBC. In the final he went two innings against maybe the greatest lineup ever assembled and did OK. Great command, good maybe not great stuff. I think people like his slider, and really like his fastball. There’s an upshoot action to it that made him really successful. He’s going to get a pretty good contract if not one as good as Kodai Senga’s.”

While it’s tough comparing closers to starters, the scouts all believe Yuki Matsui is on his way to a good contract as a middle reliever or setup man in MLB after he overcomes any issues he might have with the MLB ball that limited his duty in the WBC to a single inning.

“He’ll get a solid deal. I’ll bet he gets three or four years at seven or eight million a year. The thing that stands out to me is that he’s a lefty. He doesn’t throw hard, touching 94 mph, but the splitter was easily the most-whiffed pitch in NPB,” one scout said.

The combination of being a lefty with a splitter and a free agent with no posting fee attached makes Matsui extremely interesting, one scout said.

“He’s been super successful,” the scout said. “He’s going to get a good contract. He’s unique. There are not a lot of left-handed split guys in MLB. I think contract-wise he’ll benefit from how unusual he is. Teams are going to think this guy can really trick people.”

“A lot of guys’ strikeout rates go up coming from Japan to MLB. Matsui has a fastball he can throw for strikes, but he has to sharpen his command because he needs batters to chase–the way Yoshihisa Hirano did. Hirano did an excellent job of getting ahead and that was his ticket.”

Uwasawa is the biggest question mark of the four, although every scout believes he has some potential and should get some offers. The pitcher’s agent disputed the opinion of one scout, who suggested that Uwasawa’s deal might even involve a split MLB-minor league contract,

“He knows how to pitch, but all his pitches are average,” one scout said. “If he goes to MLB and figures it out, and says ‘I have too many pitches’ and concentrates on his splitter or his curveball or the slider, and can make that his main out pitch, he’ll do well.  Right now everything is average to below average.”

Another scout said we shouldn’t discount Uwasawa’s ability to find work, largely because of the shape of the market, the fact that he can throw a splitter – if not a great one – and his determination to sign a deal .

“There are some things like about his fastball split combo,” the scout said. “I think there are teams that are going to look at him as an option later in the offseason. Sometimes you don’t get the starting pitchers you most want and because of that splitter, you turn to a guy like Uwasawa instead of a 38-year-old MLB veteran.”

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