Scouting some of Japan’s top potential major league hitters
By Will Hoefer
At SIS, part of our baseball operation involves collecting data on all of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) games. We’ll be sharing detailed profiles on a player from each of these teams.
Our first section will focus on the best MLB-eligible hitters (eligible through the posting system). We’ll touch on pitchers in the next piece.
There will be some notable exceptions from this series, mainly SS Hayato Sakamoto from Yomiuri, OF Seiya Suzuki from Hiroshima, and OF Yuki Yanagita from Fukuoka SoftBank. But whether it be lack of interest in leaving their current situation (Sakamoto), a more imminent posting candidate on their team (Suzuki), or injury concerns relative to a comparable teammate (Yanagita), I thought it was best to focus on one of their teammates instead of them.
While the primary focus of this series is to examine the skills and performance of NPB players that I think are most likely to be on the radar of MLB organizations, it should not be taken strictly as a list of players coming to the United States to play baseball in 2020. External factors may contribute to the decisions of some. Also, 10 of the 12 players in this series can only be signed through the posting system. Since the new posting system was ratified in 2013 only five players have been signed through it.
I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I have enjoyed writing it. All of the players featured are fun to watch, and I hope this encourages you to learn more about leagues that are outside of affiliated and amateur baseball.
Stats through September 24
Tetsuto Yamada, 2B, Yakult
Yamada is often referred to as the “Mike Trout of Japan.” He has accumulated 311 total runs since the start of the 2018 season, the most among NPB batters by quite a large margin. For comparison purposes, his compatriot Trout has led MLB hitters with 317 total runs over the same timeframe.
Yamada mixes plus hitting and running ability with above average power that could be a plus if he can demonstrate more barrel control through the zone. He’s also a good defender at second base, registering 8 PART (Positioning, Airball, Range and Throwing) runs above average from the start of 2018 to present day action.
The multi million dollar question, though, is will any MLB team be willing to match the supremely high posting fees Yakult asks for the right to negotiate a contract with Yamada. Yamada profiles as a middle of the order offensive threat with above average defensive at a premium position, which should command a nine figure payday on the open market when you factor in his relatively young age (27) among other options. The Giants make sense on paper, since they expressed an interest in going after Bryce Harper to jumpstart their rebuild last offseason and have a need in the middle infield.
Shogo Akiyama, OF, Seibu
Shogo Akiyama is certainly a name to watch right now for MLB teams, as he is a free agent at the end of the 2019 season and won’t be subject to the posting system because he has over nine years of NPB service time. Seibu has reportedly offered a 4 year, ¥ 2 billion contract–the equivalent of $19 million USD–to try and keep their star player a Lion for years to come. This puts us in a unique situation to try and evaluate Akiyama’s market. Any MLB team that’s interested will likely need to see him as a starting outfielder for their club, lest he be willing to take a fairly significant pay cut to play in America.
The good news on that front is that Akiyama has starting outfielder tools right now. His quick hands and good bat speed give him above-average game power and hit tools, albeit with some concerns about rigidity in his wrists and his occasional issues falling out of the batter’s box on contact. He’s an above-average runner in his early 30s, and while he does show good range and jumps in center, advanced defensive metrics–which should be taken with a grain of salt since they are a fairly new phenomenon in evaluating NPB players–are lukewarm at best and show a decline in Runs Saved from his earlier years in center field.
Akiyama’s combination of strong on base skills and solid power, in addition to solid center field defense should be plenty to stick in the everyday lineup for a first division team in 2020. But there’s reason to believe that this is the beginning of a decline phase defensively for Akiyama, in which case interested teams might need to consider what a move to a corner spot long term would do to their valuation of him. Cleveland would be a strong fit, since it needs offensive in the outfield badly and could probably afford to give Oscar Mercado the reins in center field going forward.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, OF/1B/3B, Yokohama
Tsutsugoh has long been viewed as a player who could immediately contribute to any MLB team. One look at his swing and you can see why. He exhibits the bat control and hand quickness of a plus hitter with the bat speed and lower half mechanics to generate plus power. He’s arguably the most polished hitter of any domestic hitter in the NPB, as there’s no wasted movement in his load and his wrists are loose and quick.
There’s defensive issues that will cap his value. Tsutsugoh is a well below-average runner who shows poor reactions both in the infield and the outfield, though with his plus arm he could be hidden in right field with strong positioning. Yokohama has used him as a third baseman with some frequency this year, but he lacks the foot speed and reflexes necessary to field that position with any long term success.
With that said, Tsutsugoh should be considered by teams as a DH/1B type if he ends up on the posting market. The White Sox, who not only have a massive hole at DH but will have to make a decision on whether or not they can afford to retain pending free agent first baseman José Abreu, make a lot of sense as a fit for Yokohama’s franchise slugger.
Ryosuke Kikuchi, 2B/SS, Hiroshima
Simply put, Ryosuke Kikuchi is one of Japan’s premier glovemen. He leads all NPB second basemen with 20 Defensive Runs Saved since the beginning of 2018–when BIS started keeping track of Runs Saved for NPB fielders. He’s got a plus-plus glove at second base, but he lacks the arm strength to really excel anywhere else on the diamond. He’d probably be OK at shortstop, but his best fit is an everyday role at the keystone.
Kikuchi’s offensive contributions are light; he’s been a slightly above-average hitter in his career to date. He’s a very small guy–5’7”, 152 lbs–that puts the ball in the air too much. He shows decent bat speed, controls the plate, and demonstrates quick wrists when he’s in a groove that allows him to whip the bat through the zone and hit line drives.
This approach also lets him take advantage of plus speed to beat out grounders and stretch hits for extra bases. When he starts trying to elevate he loses barrel control and doesn’t really have the requisite strength to take advantage of the juiced ball even if he did control the barrel well on elevated strikes.
Kikuchi has expressed interest in a move to MLB via the posting system this offseason. He lacks the power to really contribute with his bat, but there are teams that could definitely use his defensive contributions at second base that could take the offensive hit. He’d profile as a bottom of the order contact nuisance that offers plus defense at second base.