Analyzing Japanese Baseball Stars Aiming For MLB Debuts In 2020 And Beyond

Image credit: Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (Harry How/Getty Images)

Four talented Japanese players already this offseason have been given a path to pursue a career in the majors, and all four are big-ticket names in Japan.

Outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, infielder Ryosuke Kikuchi and righthander Shun Yamaguchi will be posted. Outfielder Shogo Akiyama will hit the market with no strings attached as an international free agent.

That’s a pretty good crop of players, but the talent down the road could be even greater.

Here’s a look at some of the Japanese stars who might be looking to jump to the major leagues in the next couple of years, beginning with the four who already have their bags packed.

Shogo Akiyama, OF
Saitama Seibu Lions
B-T: L-R. Born: April 16, 1988 (31)

Before Akiyama can sign with an MLB team, he will need to show that he is healthy. He fractured a bone in his right foot when he was hit by a pitch in an exhibition against Canada on Oct. 31 ahead of the Premier12 tournament.

Akiyama was walking without aid during the Premier12, so the injury likely isn’t too serious. Akiyama hasn’t spent much time off the field during his career and hasn’t missed a regular-season game since 2014.

He set the NPB single-season record with 216 hits (in 143 games) in 2015 and has recorded at least 171 hits in each of the past four seasons. He’s added some more power to his game in recent years, posting home run totals of 25, 24 and 20 over the past three seasons.

Akiyama also has speed and some power and has been a valuable leadoff man for the Lions. He has a career line of .301/.376/.454 in nine seasons. He might regress a bit against MLB competition, but he’s got enough skill to be a useful big leaguer. Akiyama is a solid center fielder who has won six Golden Gloves.

Ryosuke Kikuchi, 2B
Hiroshima Carp
B-T: R-R. Born: March 11, 1990 (29)

Kikuchi is a spectacular defensive second baseman. His range, speed, glovework and all-around ability are all above-average. He’ll be posted this offseason.

Kikuchi has won every Golden Glove at second base in the Central League since 2013. He’s been such a good defender that he usually pushes Tetsuto Yamada over to first when both play for Japan’s national team.

Kikuchi committed 10 errors in 2019, which is a lot for a player who had four in 2016, five in 2017 and three in 2019.

Kikuchi hit .325 in 2014 and .315 in 2016, the only seasons when he finished with an average of at least .300. His career high in home runs is 14. In eight seasons, he’s posted a line of .271/.315/.391. He’s hit at least 13 home runs each of the last four years.

Finding a way to hit consistently would increase the chances he’d get to carve out a niche for himself in MLB.

For a player whose value may be weighted so heavily on defense, one concern is the usually rocky transition for middle infielders going from NPB to MLB.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, for instance, had won Golden Gloves and second base and shortstop in Japan before flopping with the Twins. Hiroyuki Nakajima never even made out of the A’s farm system.

The difference between those two, in particular, is that Kikuchi wouldn’t be moving across second base in the majors and he’s already been working his magic on grass at Mazda Stadium in Hiroshima.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, OF
Yokohama DeNA BayStars
B-T: L-R. Born: Nov. 26, 1991 (28)

Tsutsugo has spent most of his life in Yokohama, playing at Yokohama High School before being drafted by the BayStars in 2009. Now he’ll look for a new home through the posting system this year.

Tsutsugo has hit .285 with 205 home runs and a .910 OPS in 10 NPB seasons. He hasn’t hit fewer than 22 homers since 2014 and connected on 44 in 2016. He was one of Japan’s stars during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where he hit three home runs in seven games.

If he can adjust to the quality of the fastballs he’ll face, he’ll do well as a hitter in the majors, especially if he ends up with a team that plays in a park suited to lefty power hitters.

Tsutsugo struck out 141 times in 2019, though that total is an outlier compared to the rest of his career.

Tsutsugo’s biggest questions will be in the field. He began his career at first base and spent time at third before shifting to left field, where he’s spent virtually all his time since 2014.

He’s not a terrible fielder by any means, but he’s not a great one either. That part of his game will face some scrutiny as he tries to negotiate a deal.

Tsutsugo, though, is a quiet and determined player willing to do whatever is needed to win. He’s got the temperament to fit into a clubhouse and adapt to being in a different culture. He’s got a little experience with that already, having had a brief stint in the Dominican Winter League in 2015.

Shun Yamaguchi , RHP
Yomiuri Giants
B-T: R-R. Born: July 11, 1987 (32)

The NPB veteran is going into the posting system this year after spending three seasons with the Yomiuri Giants.

The son of former sumo wrestler Taniarashi, the 6-foot-1, 216-pound Yamaguchi is an accomplished pitcher who was mostly a reliever before becoming a full-time starter in 2014. He’s spent 14 years in NPB.

His fastball sat around 90 mph in 2019, which was a slight improvement after the pitched averaged around 89 mph for a few seasons. He complements his fastball with a forkball and slider. He also throws a curve and the occasional changeup. His forkball percentage jumped this year as he dialed back his usage of the slider.

Yamaguchi got hitters to swing at more of his stuff outside the strike zone this season. He also threw more first-pitch strikes. Perhaps not coincidentally, his career high in strikeouts jumped from 144 to 188.

The forkball should serve him well in the majors but he might have to refine the slider and make it a bigger part of his arsenal without a really overpowering fastball to use against MLB hitters.

He’s strong, so he might adjust well to pitching every four days. Depending on what he’s looking for, he could be a pretty good fit in a bullpen.

Yamaguchi is striking while the iron is hot, attempting the move on the heels of a 15-4, 2.91 season with 18 quality starts in 26 outings.

Clubs will likely ask about an incident from July 2017 when Yamaguchi was accused of shoving and injuring a security guard and also causing property damage at a hospital. He apologized and was later fined and suspended for the rest of the season.

Here are four more players who could follow previous quartet in the near-future.

Takahiro Norimoto, RHP
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
B-T: L-R. Born: Dec. 17, 1990 (28)

Norimoto began his career pitching behind Masahiro Tanaka in the Eagles’ rotation and has been one of NPB’s aces in the ensuing years. Some MLB fans may remember him as the starter in Japan’s combined no-hitter against an MLB All-Star squad in Japan in 2014.

He’s a power pitcher and one of the league’s top strikeout artists.

Norimoto sits about 92-93 with his fastball and has cranked it up has high as 98. He’s taken steps to work on his lower body in order to get even more out of his delivery in the last couple of seasons.

He’s not afraid to challenge hitters and is a dogged competitor.

Norimoto was sixth in the Pacific League in strikeouts as a rookie in 2013 and went on the lead the league each of the next five seasons. He has 1,245 career strikeouts and a career 4.19 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Norimoto mainly throws his fastball, slider and forkball. He’ll also mix in a changeup, cutter and curve.

He only made 12 starts in 2019 because of surgery to clean out his right elbow during the spring.

He’d been fairly durable before the surgery, having led the Pacific League in innings pitched four times.

Norimoto has a career record of 80-63, 3.05. He also has a 1.15 WHIP in 1,196.1 innings over seven seasons.

While Norimoto has said he has MLB aspirations in the past, he signed a new seven-year deal with Rakuten in July. If the desire is still there, he’d have to be posted by the Eagles.

Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP
Yomiuri Giants
B-T: R-R. Born: Oct. 11, 1989. (30)

Sugano wasn’t quite himself in 2019, finishing with a 11-6, 3.89 record that represented a down year for him. Since his rookie year in 2013, Sugano has a 2.36 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 1,222.2 innings. He finished 2018 with 10 complete games and eight shutouts. From 2014-18, his worst ERA was 2.33 and he went under 2.00 twice.

Before he allowed 20 home runs this season, he’d never given up more than 14.

He also fields the position well, winning Golden Gloves from 2016-2018.

Sugano’s main weapon is impeccable control of all his pitches. He has a plus slider and also throws a cutter, two-seamer, forkball and curveball in addition to his fastball.

Sugano could reach international free agency sometime during the 2021 season and move to MLB that offseason. There is a slight chance he could wind up in MLB earlier. The Giants had previously not allowed their players to use the posting system but made an exception this year for Shun Yamaguchi.

Tetsuto Yamada, 2B
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
B-T: R-R. Born: July 16, 1992. (27)

Yamada has been one of NPB’s best position players ever since bursting onto the scene in 2014.

He’s put up three seasons with at least a .300 average, 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases since then—there had only been eight total in Japan prior to 2015 and he’s the only player to do it twice—and has produced four 30-30 seasons.

He also set an NPB record with 38 successful stolen base attempts from Aug. 26, 2018 to Sept. 15, 2019.

Yamada is a .297 hitter overall in eight seasons with 202 home runs, 583 RBIs and 168 stolen bases.

He hits for average, power and runs well. He bats with a big leg kick, even when compared to other NPB hitters. He has above-average bat speed.

Yamada’s home run totals are aided somewhat by the cozy dimensions at his home park, Jingu Stadium, but he has enough strength to hit for his fair share of power, though it would probably be somewhat muted in the major leagues.

He’s also improved as a second baseman over the years, making himself even more well-rounded. He often plays first base with the Japanese national team due to the presence of defensive dynamo Ryosuke Kikuchi.

He struggled mightily after the World Baseball Classic in 2017, slashing just .247/.364/.435, but has bounced back with two solid years.

He will be entering his ninth top-team season in 2020 and could be on the radar as a possible posting candidate if he wants to move to MLB. He could also reach international free agency during the 2021 season.

Yuki Yanagita, OF
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
B-T: L-R. Born: Oct. 9, 1988 (31)

A two-time batting champion, Yanagita has a career line of .319/.422/.546 in nine seasons. He’s hit 157 home runs, racked up 525 RBIs and stole 143 bases. He was the Pacific League MVP in 2015 with a .363 average, 34 home runs and 33 stolen bases. He posted an OPS above 1.000 three times from 2015-2018.

His speed and strength also help in center field, where he’s spent the majority of his career. He has a strong arm and has won four Golden Gloves.

Yanagita has powerful and violent swing that sends his helmet flying off on occasion. Hawks fans call him “Mr. Fullswing” because of big cuts he takes.

Those swings generate great power, once knocking a ball about midway off the scoreboard at Yokohama Stadium. He took Kirby Yates and Erasmo Ramirez deep during the MLB-Japan All-Star Series at Tokyo Dome in 2019.

His power hasn’t hurt his ability to consistently hit for average, and he’s a smart hitter who has also led the PL in walks three times.

Yanagita has the size, skill and smarts to find success in the majors and wouldn’t have to navigate the tricky transition Japanese infielders have faced.

He was slowed this year by a knee injury that limited him to 38 regular-season games.

The Hawks don’t post players, but Yanagita will be in the final year of his deal in the 2020 season.

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