Soccer may be gaining ground here, but Japan is still mad for baseball. The country’s fans are devoted to the game, and the yearly summer ritual of high school baseball that is the Koshien tournament draws millions of TV viewers.
And even the most casual of baseball fans knows that Japan has produced several world-class players who have made their mark in Major League Baseball since Masanori Murakami first pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964. Among the 54 Japanese players who have come to the majors since, there have been quite a few standouts, from Hideo Nomo and Hideki Matsui to Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish.
It should come as no surprise, then, that MLB scouts are keeping sharp eyes on Nippon Professional Baseball players, in the hopes of finding the next superstar from the Land of the Rising Sun. Earlier this month, we caught up with a Major League scout to find out more about some young NPB players who could be on the verge of making the jump to the Big Leagues.
One thing the scout pointed out was that hitters who go from NPB to MLB often find that their power doesn’t always carry over, something that can be attributed to slightly smaller parks in Japan, balls that carry a little better due to the climate, and the overall higher caliber of pitching in Major League Baseball. But with that in mind, here are some names that US fans may be learning how to pronounce in the years to come.
Tomoyuki Sugano (Yomiuri Giants) RHS, 27. Of the pitchers I saw on this trip, he is the most polished and ready to step into a Major League starting rotation. He doesn’t have big stuff (mostly average to solid stuff) but really knows how to pitch and has good control. His fastball is anywhere from 90-93 [mph] & can touch 94 or 95 on occasion. He also has a pretty good slider.
Shintaro Fujinami (Hanshin Tigers) RHS, 23. Tall and lean frame, and has a good arm. Throws hard – has a fastball that can reach 96 – and he also has a good slider. Overall, he is still developing. His control and command need to improve. He will need to cut down on the walks. He was interesting but may need more seasoning before he’s ready.
Kodai Senga (SoftBank Hawks) RHS, 24. He has a good arm with an above average Major League fastball (can touch 95-96). He put himself on the MLB map with a good showing in the World Baseball Classic.
Daichi Osera (Hiroshima Carp) RHS, 26. Saw him pitch, but wasn’t overly enamored with him. He doesn’t have big stuff but throws strikes and has an idea of how to pitch. He’s more of a crafty right-hander who mixes pitches and changes speeds. His fastball is in the upper 80s / topped out at 91. Has an assortment of off-speed pitches that he will mix in.
Hayato Sakamoto (Yomiuri Giants) SS, 28. Veteran player with good instincts. Good glove, plays good defense and has an accurate arm. He’s a contact hitter who has hit for power in Japan but don’t see him hitting for nearly as much power if he came over to MLB. Doesn’t have great running speed. He’s a polished player who could play defense in MLB…probably won’t put up nearly the same type of numbers as he has over his career in Japan.
Seiya Suzuki (Hiroshima Carp) OF, 22. RH hitter with an athletic body. Runs well, has a good arm, and plays good defense. He looks like a pretty good hitter who makes contact but also has some power. Still very young and developing but looks like he may have a chance to play in MLB in the future if he wants to…
Tetsuto Yamada (Yakult Swallows) 2B, 24. Another fairly young guy who is not having a very good season to date. Very athletic, but he didn’t do much to stand out for me. He has hit for big power numbers over the past few seasons for his club, but not sure how his power will translate.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (Yokohama Baystars) Corner OF, LH bat, 25. He has a big frame and a thicker body type (bigger than most other players). Power is his best tool. His defense is adequate but not great, and he doesn’t have good speed. His arm is very ordinary. He had a monster season last year but hasn’t put up the same type of numbers to date.
Yuki Yanagita (SoftBank Hawks) OF’er who can play all 3 spots w/ LH bat, 28 yrs old. Slightly older. Didn’t get to see much of him (one game only). He’s an athletic body, and he looks like he has decent tools across the board. Runs ok, throws adequately, plays pretty good defense, and has raw power in his bat. He’s someone that some teams are considering.
Of course, all this goes without mentioning the player that almost every team would love to have: Shouhei Otani. The 22-year-old has pitched a 100mph fastball and has an ERA of 2.49, bats .275, stands 193cm (6’3″) and weighs 98kg (216 pounds). Otani plays for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and was nursing an ankle injury when the scout was visiting Japan. Every team from the Yankees on down the line are looking at the youngster from Iwate Prefecture, and it’ll only be a matter of time – and plenty of dollars – before baseball fans in the US will be seeing more of him.
Main Image: Kai Oberhäuser