Japanese baseball: a pipeline of pitchers for the MLB
The ace of Samurai Japan is set to make his MLB debut in 2024 along with a host of NPB stars.
Since Hideo Nomo came over to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, there has been a steady pipeline between the Nippon Professional Baseball League, Japan’s highest level of baseball, and Major League Baseball. Almost every year since 1995, NPB players have exercised their foreign free agency rights or have been posted by their teams in Japan in order to play in the pinnacle of baseball in the MLB, and this year is no exception.
Posting is a process where foreign teams can offer their players to the MLB and receive a fee, known as a posting fee. This process is available as a way for players who do not qualify as free agents to join the MLB. So far this year, four players have either been posted or have announced that they will exercise their foreign free agency rights or be posted by their team, among them is the ace of Japan, 25-year-old Yamamoto Yoshinobu. This free agency class also includes southpaw Shota Imanaga, Yuki Matsui, and Uwasawa Naoyuki.
Yamamoto Yoshinobu headlines this group and rightfully so. The 25-year-old has won everything there is to win as a pitcher in Japan, being awarded MVP twice, Triple Crown thrice, and the Sawamura Award thrice. Yoshinobu has been the undisputed ace of his NPB team, the Orix Buffalos, and has led them to a Japan series win in 2022. In international baseball, he was a starting pitcher for Team Japan at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) earlier this year and contributed to the team's undefeated run to the title. In 2023, Yoshinobu posted an impressive 1.21 ERA and 16 wins, hardly numbers to scoff at. Yoshinobu’s 2023 was highlighted by a no-hit no-run outing in September with Yankees GM Bryan Cashman in attendance. Yoshinobu possesses MLB-level speed with his fastball clocking in at 95-99 mph and with a deadly 91 mph splitter, he is able to put away batters efficiently. Yoshinobu’s stellar accomplishments along with his video-game statistics is what makes him such a highly touted free agent this year, only falling behind fellow countryman Shohei Ohtani, a star player on the Los Angeles Angels. Fans can anticipate a generational level talent in Yoshinobu, who comes to the league younger than other highly touted Japanese pitchers such as Matsuzaka Daisuke and Hideo Nomo.
Shota Imanaga, the 30-year-old southpaw of the Yokohama DeNA Baystars may be familiar to some American fans who watched the final of the WBC this year as he started in the game pitching the first 2 innings. Imanaga will be posted to the MLB with a career ERA of 3.18 and a win-loss record of 64-50. While Imanaga’s achievements pale in comparison to Yamamoto, he led the league in K’s in 2023 and WHIP in 2022. The leftie pitcher’s arsenal primarily consists of a 91 mph fastball, 83 mph changeup, and 82 mph slider. While he won’t overpower hitters with absolute power, his strong command of the baseball should translate over well to the big leagues. Imanaga’s will be appealing primarily for teams lacking left-handed pitching where he will most likely be able to solidify himself as the 4th or 5th pitcher in a starting rotation.
Yuki Matsui, a 28-year-old lefty closer from the Rakuten Golden Eagles comes in as the player with the most unique profile out of the four free agents coming to the MLB from the NPB. Matsui, an integral part of the Golden Eagles, has recorded 236 saves as their star closer and at this current rate, is on pace to beat the current all-time save record in the NPB. The leftie has led the league in saves for three years including the past two seasons with a WHIP of only 0.89. Matsui’s fastball tops out at 96 mph and is complimented by two types of sliders, a changeup, and a curve ball. Since 2021, he has also implemented the forkball as his put away pitch which was voted 10th in the “Best pitches in the NPB award” in 2023. A forkball is similar to how a drop ball moves, with a sudden drop and slight curve. When compared to teammate and former Yankee Masahiro Tanaka’s slider, which supposedly has significant and sharp movement, Matsui’s slider accelerates towards the batter’s hands and then it suddenly drops. Matsui is a proven quality closer and will most likely remain in that role after his MLB move. Teams looking for a leftie to round out their bullpen and in need of closer talent will be sure to find his service useful.
Uwasawa Naoyuki, a 29-year-old pitcher from the Nippon-ham Fighters, comes in as most likely the least sought after player of this group. With an ERA of 2.96 and WHIP of 1.18, his statistics do not particularly pop off the screen as they do for the other three. However, Uwasawa led the league this year in innings pitched and batters faced, an indication of the trust placed in him by the coaching staff. He proclaimed in a press conference on the 29th of October that his biggest strength is his ability to last for long outings and his ability to complete games if he is given the chance. He possesses a wide range of pitch types so that even after facing the same batters repetitively, he should be able to throw new pitches. While it is hard to project his success in the MLB, a slightly unknown player may be what a rebuilding team could be looking for. He has the potential to become a low-cost high-reward signing, similar to Fujinami this past year and he could certainly become a pitcher who can eat up innings and be a solid bullpen option.
If past precedent remains true any one of these four pitchers should be able to make a strong contribution to any team. It will definitely be exciting for fans and teams alike to see what these players can do in the MLB.