Manager: Koji Yamamoto
WBC History: Japan captured the inaugural WBC championship with a victory over Cuba in the finals in 2006, then defended its title in 2009 with an extra-inning victory over South Korea in the championship game. The Japanese are 17-6 all-time in WBC games.
How They Got Here: Japan and Cuba were the heavy favorites to make it out of Pool A in Fukuoka. Japan didn’t make it look easy, however, needing a late-inning rally to beat Brazil, beating China 5-2 and losing to the Cubans to go 2-1 in the first round. The Japanese needed another late rally before edging Taiwan 4-3 in 10 innings in their second round opener, but then they put a 16-4 beatdown on the Netherlands before defeating the Dutch again, 10-6, to go 3-0 in the second round.
Catcher Shinnosuke Abe didn’t start in Japan’s first game of the WBC against Brazil due to knee soreness, but any lingering issues he’s having seem to have worn off. Abe, who turns 34 next week, is Japan’s captain and the team’s best hitter. Abe won the MVP award last season in the Central League of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, hitting .340/.429/.565 with 27 home runs and a league-high .994 OPS in 138 games thanks to a mature hitting approach, power and his ability to keep the bat head in the zone for a long time. He’s an intelligent hitter who shouldn’t be fazed by major league arms.
Shortstop Hayoto Sakomoto, 24, is one of the young players scouts were bearing down on in Japan. Sakamoto ranked fifth in the Central League in OPS (.815) last year, hitting .311/.359/.456 in 133 games. Third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, 29, led the Pacific League in slugging last year by hitting .300/.349/.492 in 95 games. He’s been hitting at the bottom of Japan’s lineup but has been one of the team’s better hitters in the WBC. Both Sakomoto and Matsuda have unorthodox leg kicks that scouts worry might leave them vulnerable to more advanced pitching than they’re used to seeing in Japan. Yoshio Itoi, 31, hit .304/.404/.410 in 134 games to lead the Pacific League in OBP. The lefthanded hitter doesn’t have typical power of a major league corner outfielder, but he’s a smart hitter who works the count and can take advantage of mistakes.
Teams sent their top evaluators to Fukuoka and Tokyo to get a glimpse at the Cuban team and to keep an eye on two promising pitchers who could find themselves in the major leagues soon. Righthander Masahiro Tanaka, 24, won Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young (the Sawamura Award) in 2011 over Yu Darvish, then followed up last season with a 1.87 ERA, 169 strikeouts and 19 walks in 173 innings. In Fukuoka, Tanaka showed an 88-93 mph fastball, a crisp slider and an effective splitter. He has 12 strikeouts and no walks through seven innings in the WBC, but he’s been more hittable than his raw stuff might suggest.
Righthander Kenta Maeda has been extremely effective for Japan in his first two starts despite not having his best stuff in the first round, when his fastball ranged from 87-90 mph. In his second start in Tokyo, Maeda sat more comfortably in the low-90s with good sink and run, showing a quality slider and a low-70s curveball that he mixed in for an early-count strike. Maeda showed he could throw all of his pitches for strikes and work both sides of the plate, which is why he’s allowed just two hits in 10 scoreless innings with 15 strikeouts and one walk, although keep in mind his first start came against lightweight China.
Outfielder Hisayoshi Chono hit .301/.382/.432 in 144 games last year for the Yomiuri Giants, an OBP that ranked behind only his teammate Abe and Wladimir Balentien (who’s also in San Francisco playing for the Netherlands) in the Central League last season. Chono, 28, has been used as Japan’s leadoff hitter in some games but he’s also been dropped to the bottom of the order. If he’s hitting at the top of the lineup, his ability to get on base to set the table for Abe and the rest of the middle of Japan’s order will be key.
Japan loves to play small ball, so much so that there was anxiety in Japan after witnessing the Mexico-Canada brawl that was sparked by a bunt. If Japan’s leadoff man gets on first base, it’s going to be almost automatic that the next man will bunt.
The big question is how Yamamoto will employ his two best pitchers. Tanaka started Japan’s first WBC game against Brazil, but he was pulled after he allowed four hits and one run (it was unearned) in two innings. He’s made three appearances since then but they have all been in relief.
Yamamoto seems to have more confidence in Maeda, who has made both of his appearances in a starting role. Ideally both pitchers should get starts, but given Yamamoto’s usage patterns, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tanaka was used in a relief role instead. Japan also used Darvish in relief in 2009 with great effect.