Scouting some of Japan’s top potential MLB pitchers
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.
Kodai Senga, RHP, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
Age: 26 | Free Agency Eligibility: 2022 | Posting Eligible?: Yes
Kodai Senga doesn’t just possess some of the best raw stuff in Japan, he possesses some of the best raw stuff in the world. The 26 year old righthander has been electric in 2019. He leads all qualified starters with a 20.4 K-BB%, and his 11.5 K/9 rate also tops the NPB rotation leaderboard.
Senga typically averaged around 92 MPH on his heater during his previous four years as staff ace of the Hawks, but has seen his average fastball velocity jump to around 95-96 MPH in 2019, and will touch 98 and 99 routinely in starts. He’s still adjusting to his newfound velocity, and will either need to improve his ability to hit the corners or start attacking the zone more to blow hitters away with his premium velocity and plus spin.
His main out pitch is a devastating forkball splitter, which has plus plus depth due to Senga’s innate ability to neutralize spin with how he grips the ball. Senga’s been working on a cutter in recent years, which has jumped up in velocity as well. It sits in the high 80s with average bite, but plays up by keeping hitters off his fastball and vice versa. His fourth pitch is an average slider with inconsistent shape and location that flashes above average.
Senga has top of the rotation upside, and would easily earn a nine-figure deal if he were posted this offseason. Unfortunately, SoftBank is one of the more intransigent teams when it comes to posting their players. Barring a drastic change of institutional practice, it seems that MLB franchises will have to wait until Senga is eligible for international free agency in 2022.
Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP, Yomiuri Giants
Age: 29 | Free Agency Eligibility: 2022 | Posting Eligible?: Yes
When consistency meets excellence in the NPB, it produces a pitcher like Tomoyuki Sugano. From 2014-2018, Sugano never had a season with an ERA lower than 2.33 or less than 150 innings pitched, and did it all for the Yomiuri Giants– the flagship franchise of the NPB. However, in 2019 Sugano has taken a step back. His ERA is a career high 3.89, he’s on pace to pitch fewer than 150 innings, and he’s averaging 1.3 homers per nine–more than double his career rate.
Sugano works off a fastball that sits 90-92 and tops out at 94 MPH. In later looks his fastball was sitting 89-91, but he still generates strong armside run and gets good sink on his two seamer. It’s lively enough to be an average pitch at present, though he has lost a tick on his heater and can’t really afford to lose any more velocity. His bread and butter is mixing that fastball with a pair of slider variations, both plus.
The harder slider, which is classified as a cutter in some reports, has a nice tight hook and sharp gloveside bite. The more traditional slider has a more vertical hook that Sugano is able to finish down with regularly. He’ll mix in a hard forkball splitter that flashes plus depth, but the lack of consistent feel keeps it from projecting any more than an average pitch at the major league level.
Like Senga, you can pretty much bank on Sugano not coming over to the majors until 2022. Yomiuri has made it very clear that they do not intend to post their players under the current posting agreement between MLB and NPB. That’s a shame, because Sugano still profiles as a No. 4 starter for an MLB team at present. But three years is a ways away, and any further loss of fastball velocity–particularly because of its correlation with an increased home run rate–could quell Sugano’s market abroad by the time he is eligible to negotiate with major league teams.
Takahiro Norimoto, RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles
Age: 28 | Free Agency Eligibility: 2026 | Posting Eligible?: Yes
If Senga’s strength is elite stuff, and Sugano’s strength is elite performance, Takahiro Norimoto strength is the blend of both. Rakuten’s ace has been stellar in his seven year career, posting a 3.06 ERA with a 25.3% K rate and a miniscule 6.1% BB rate in nearly 1200 career innings. Unfortunately, Norimoto’s season was delayed by offseason surgery to clean up his pitching elbow, which has limited his starts in 2019. The good news is that he’s been quite good in limited action since returning from the injured list, posting an ERA around 3 and showing the same level of stuff he had pre-injury.
Norimoto works off a fastball that will sit in the 92-94 MPH range and touch 96. He exhibits very good rise on it, and does a good job hiding it in his delivery to give it the “sneaky hop” that makes hitters late on it. He’ll generally follow up with a variety of three secondary pitches–a slider, a cutter and a splitter.
The slider and cutter will bleed into each other in terms of shape and velocity, and will often get classified together as one pitch. The cutter has more lateral bite and break than the slider. Flashes plus when he commands it glove side, but it will leak towards the middle. The slider grades out as plus, due to its plus downward break and Norimoto’s ability to command it to both sides of the plate. The splitter flashes plus when Norimoto can get it to dive from the middle of the plate, but inconsistent feel will cause it to spike or hang and keeps it from being plus. A curve and a straight change, both confidently used as change of pace pitches, round out his arsenal.
It was reported during the summer that Norimoto signed a seven-year extension with Rakuten prior to the 2019 season. If Rakuten chooses not to post Norimoto over the next seven years, he won’t be heading to the majors until his age 36 season. However, given Norimoto’s previously stated desire to be posted, it has been speculated that perhaps Norimoto is still interested in a move to the majors, and sought this extension as a form of insurance. Norimoto at present projects as a No. 3 starter in a major league rotation, with No. 2 upside if he continues to demonstrate the stuff and command he has shown since returning from injury over a larger sample of time.
Yudai Ono, LHP, Chunichi Dragons
Age: 30 | Free Agency Eligibility: 2021 | Posting Eligible? Yes
The longtime rock of the Dragons’ staff, Yudai Ono has been breathing fire in 2019. On the strength of a subtle increase in fastball velocity, Ono set a career high mark in strikeout rate while also cutting his walk rate down a half percent from career norms. This has helped him post a sparkling 2.63 ERA in over 174 innings pitched in the 2019 regular season.
Ono works primarily off a three pitch mix–fastball, splitter, slider. He’ll also mix in a get me over curveball once or twice a start, but those three pitches are what you need to prepare for when you step into the box. The fastball sits at 90 to 93 MPH, and will touch 94. It’s an average pitch with good rise that plays up a half grade due to Ono’s short arm action that hides the ball behind his head and makes batter late on it.
The splitter is the better of his two secondaries, an out pitch against righties and a weak contact generator against lefties. It’s a hard offering, but the above average fade and depth makes it work despite the lack of velocity separation from the fastball. The slider is a high 70s slurvy offering that’s average at best, but still useful. It will get some whiffs from lefties early on, but the general goal of the pitch is to get hitters out in front and roll over on it, which Ono executes by consistently placing it over the outer edge of the zone. Occasionally a slider or splitter will leak out over the middle, or a fastball doesn’t get high enough. But as a whole, he generally commands all three pitches well to their spots and misses barrels when he does give up contact.
Ono is not an international free agent until 2021, and it’s not clear if Chunichi is willing to post him, or if he is even interested in being posted. In years past, teams would have a hard time projecting Ono to pitch in anything greater than a relief role. He doesn’t have a very deep arsenal and lacks a plus pitch, making it hard to see him having success against MLB batters when he faces them a third time.
However, with the advent of the opener strategy, pitchers with a similar profile have had success as the “longman”. I think Ono has enough command and deception to work in this role, where he can avoid having to face batters three times in a game.
Pierce Johnson, RHP, Hanshin Tigers
Age: 28 | Free Agency Eligibility: 2020 | Posting Eligible? N/A
This strays mostly from my focus of domestic players, but outside of catcher Ryutaro Umeno there really aren’t any superlative natives on Hanshin’s roster. Johnson has put up eye-popping numbers in his first year in the NPB; among pitchers with a minimum of 50 innings pitched, he leads the league in ERA (1.43), FIP (1.52) and K-BB% (33.8). His stuff isn’t too much different than his stints in Chicago and San Fran; the curve is a little harder and the fastball lost a half tick or so. What is different is his pitch mix.
Johnson has completely scrapped his cutter in favor of throwing more curveballs, going 50/50 with his fastball and curve. Sure enough, the curve was by far the most effective offering he had as a major leaguer–he had a .225 xwOBA against on his breaker, compared to a .312 xwOBA on the cutter and a .355 xwOBA on the fastball. He also had an average spin rate of 2946 RPM on that curveball, which was 6th among pitchers with at least 200 curveballs thrown from 2017-2018. This kind of overhaul in approach isn’t uncommon in the majors, and if you close your eyes and picture a pitcher scrapping a secondary fastball for a four seam+curve mix you’d probably visualize an Astros cap on his head.
What’s most fascinating isn’t that this happened, but where it happened. NPB teams are certainly more aware of analytical concepts like infield shifting and lineup construction than ever before, but this is the most prominent example in the NPB of a pitcher overhauling his repertoire to pitch off of his best pitch–even if it’s a curveball.
Johnson, who’s on a one year deal for Hanshin making the equivalent of about $800,000, has made the adjustments that we’ve seen in so many breakouts in the States. However, he didn’t have to toil in the high minors to do it, and has at the very least a multi-million dollar market for his services in Japan.