Future NPB Stars Who Could Make A Jump To MLB In 2022 & Beyond
As is the case most years, there is a lot of interest around who might be the next NPB player, or players, to jump to MLB. There are stars like Kohei Arihara and Tomoyuki Sugano who might be on the move either this year or possibly next year.
That doesn’t, however, mean those are the only players to watch out of Japan. There is a host of other players, from rising stars to veterans, who could be a little bit further down the pipeline.
Here is a list of a few names to watch in the coming years.
Kodai Senga, RHP
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
B-T: R-R. Born: Jan. 30, 1993 (27)
The 2020 season got off to a late start due to the coronavirus pandemic and Senga got off to an even later start as he worked his way back from a right arm issue.
He made his 2020 debut on July 7, a few weeks after NPB’s June 19 start, and pumped in a fastball at 100 mph against the very first batter he faced. Senga kept the pitch consistently in the 90s, maintaining the jump in velocity he achieved last season.
He felt his way through the early part of his season and rounded into form in the second half of the year. He finished with a flourish that saw him take the pitching Triple Crown in the Pacific League with an 11-6 record, 2.16 ERA and 149 strikeouts. He didn’t always have pinpoint control and his 57 walks were the most in the PL.
Senga threw at least six innings in each of his final six starts, and didn’t allow an earned run over his final 40.1 innings.
Senga’s ghost forkball remains a premier pitch and pairing it with his fastball makes it even nastier for opposing batters. He has a slider, a cutter and a two-seamer, and will mix in a curveball. If Tomoyuki Sugano isn’t the best pitcher in Japan then it’s probably Senga.
When he’s healthy, Senga is an MLB pitcher. He’s Japan’s premier strikeout pitcher and his forkball is a weapon in any league.
Something to keep an eye on, for a player who has a few injuries in his history, was his usage this season. Even for a pitcher starting once a week in a shortened season, Senga threw a lot of pitches. He went over 110 in 12 starts and during a four-start stretch from Sept. 15 to Oct. 6, he had pitch counts of 148, 121, 132, and 142.
The Hawks are among the NPB teams that don’t use the posting system, so unless there’s a change of heart from the club he will have to wait until after the 2022 season to leave for MLB.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP
B-T: R-R. Born: Aug. 17, 1998 (22)
The hype around Yamamoto coming into 2020 made his starts appointment viewing in 2020.
The Buffaloes’ ace shined in most of those games, living up to the hype with an array of sharp breaking balls. He’s a player who should already be on MLB radars and has firmly planted himself among Japan’s most exciting pitchers.
Yamamoto won the ERA title in the Pacific League last year in his first full season as a starter. He was in position to repeat until Kodai Senga, who went on a tear to end the year, nudged past him with eight scoreless innings in his final start to win the race, 2.16 to 2.20. Yamamoto finished tied with Senga for the most strikeouts in the PL at 149 and was second with a 10.59 strikeout rate. He finished as the PL leader with a 0.94 WHIP in his 126.2 innings
Yamamoto’s season ended when he was taken off the roster on Oct. 21. With the Buffaloes out of contention, the club opted to protect their star pitcher rather than running him out in a bid for either the ERA or strikeout title.
Yamamoto adjusted his pitching form slightly and told reporters in June that it’s given him a little bit more on his fastball, which he throws in the low-to-mid 90s. He got it as high as 98 during a Premier12 game last winter.
Yamamoto induced a lot of swinging strikes this season, which is no surprise given his repertoire. He improved his fastball velocity and has a really good splitter. He showed more feel with his slider and also has a big breaking curveball. Yamamoto is only 22 so there’s plenty of time for him to get even better before he can consider a move to MLB, if that’s part of his plans.
Seiya Suzuki, 3B/SS
B-T: R-R. Born: Aug. 18, 1994 (26)
On a weekly sports program in August former Olympic rhythmic gymnast Airi Hatakeyama mentioned that Suzuki, her husband, was a fan of Mike Trout and watched videos of the Angels star.
Trout’s name is generally invoked when someone is talking about Tetsuto Yamada, but if Yamada is Japan’s Trout, Suzuki is Trout-lite. His heights haven’t been quite as high as Yamada’s but he’s been consistently great. Suzuki is a great hitter, runs well and may have more power than Yamada. He’s become one of Japan’s biggest stars and is the betting favorite to be manager Atsunori Inaba’s cleanup hitter during next summer's Olympics.
This past year was actually a step back for Suzuki, with him hitting .300/.409/.544 with 25 home runs in 118 games. Suzuki has had an average over .300 and at least 20 home runs every year since 2016 and had double-digit stolen bases in three of those seasons. He has a .314 career average and 114 home runs after the 2020 season.
Suzuki is still a couple of years away from domestic free agency and without being posted, as Kenta Maeda was in 2015, he would have to wait until at least 2023 to move to MLB.
Munetaka Murakami, IF
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
B-T: L-R. Born: Feb. 2, 2000 (20)
In his first year out of high school in 2019, Murakami hit a lot of home runs and struck out a lot for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
The home runs were still there this year, with the young infielder showing his impressive power was no fluke by following up a 36-home run season with 28 in a year cut short by 23 games. He was the youngest Swallows player to hit cleanup on Opening Day and was there all season. He was the team’s main power threat with Wladimir Balentien having moved on.
Murakami also saw a big jump in batting average, going from .231 last season to .307 in 2020. He hit 30 doubles and a pair of triples, both more than last season, and finished with a CL-best 1.012 OPS.
He still struck out a lot, leading the Central League for the second straight year with 115—only the Seibu Lions’ Cory Spangenberg struck out more.
Murakami has shown great power in just two full seasons. Playing home games at Jingu Stadium helps, but a lot of his homers would go out of any park.
Livan Moinelo, LHP
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
B-T: L-L. Born: Dec. 8, 1995. (24)
Moinelo was a buzzsaw out of the bullpen for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in 2020. Moinelo made 50 appearances and struck out 77 in 48 innings. He led all relievers with 14.4 strikeouts per nine innings, outpacing the Seibu Lions’ Kaima Taira, who clocked in at 10.53.
Moinelo produced those numbers after fanning 86 in 59.1 innings in 60 games last season. He’s racked up 256 strikeouts in 188.2 innings across four seasons with SoftBank.
He has a fastball that sits around 93 mph and a big breaking curveball that flummoxed hitters all year. He also throws a slider.
Moinelo is one of the Cuban players the Hawks have signed in recent years, a group that also includes Oscar Colas and slugger Alfredo Despaigne. In April 2019, the Associated Press reported Moinelo was included on a list of players the Cuban Baseball Federation deemed eligible to sign contracts with MLB clubs, so there could be a path for him sometime in the future.
Masataka Yoshida, OF
B-T: L-R. Born: July 15, 1993 (27)
There was no letdown from the Orix outfielder, who continued to impress in his third season as a regular. Yoshida, who played in 120 games (his third straight year playing every game), added a batting title to his burgeoning resume in 2020, batting .350 in 408 at-bats to win the Pacific League crown for the first time. Yoshida also hit 14 home runs and stole eight bases. He also finished the season with more walks (72) than strikeouts (29) for the second straight season. Among qualified batters, no player struck out fewer times. He also posted a career-best .453 on-base percentage.
Yoshida has a good approach and decent power. He has room to fill out at the plate but his selective approach and ability to get on base is serving him well. He doesn’t play a big role as a basestealer, but moves well.
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Taishi Ota, OF
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
B-T: R-R. Born: June 9, 1990 (30)
Ota was a hard-slugging high school player who was drafted by the Yomiuri Giants and promptly given Hideki Matsui’s old No. 55 and a dorm room that had been used by both Matsui and Hayato Sakamoto in the past.
Such was the hype around Ota when he was drafted in 2008. He didn’t live up to the hype with the Giants and never played in more than 62 games for the team before being traded to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters after the 2015 season.
The change of scenery has worked out for him. Ota has played in at least 100 games every year since 2017 and finished with double-digit home runs in his last four seasons. He batted .275 with 14 home runs in 2020.
Ota has a decent bat and decent speed and is a good right fielder. During the news conference after his contract renewal last year, he said playing in the majors was one of his dreams, though also commented it was a far off dream. Ota is a career .266 hitter with 72 homers, but since the move to Nippon Ham he has a .274 average and 62 home runs.
Yudai Ohno, LHP
B-T: L-L. Born: Sept. 26, 1988 (32)
Ohno’s season got off to a slow start with an 0-3 record and 4.04 ERA after six starts. What followed was a tour de force that resulted in the best year of his career.
Ohno threw 10 complete games over his final 14 starts and was 11-3 with a 1.12 ERA in 113 innings during that span. At one point, he put together a streak of 45 consecutive scoreless innings. He finished the season 11-6 overall, leading the Central League in ERA (1.82), complete games (10), shutouts (six), innings (148.2), strikeouts (148) and WHIP (0.87). Opponents hit .203 against him, with only Tomoyuki Sugano (.196) besting that mark.
Ohno didn’t arrive on the scene this season. He threw a no-hitter last September and won the ERA title with a 2.58 mark in 177.2 innings. He also had the best batting average against (.206) in the Central League last season and was on Japan’s Premier12 teams in 2015 and 2019. He plays his home games at Nagoya Dome, which trends toward pitchers and his ERA at home has been under 2.00 each of the past two years while being over 3.00 on the road.
Ohno was in the low 90s with his fastball this year and has a good mix of pitches that includes a two-seam fastball, forkball, slider and changeup.
His performance over the past two years should have him on the MLB radar. In November, he signed a three-year extension to stay with the Chunichi Dragons.
Ayumu Ishikawa, RHP
Chiba Lotte Marines
B-T: R-R. Born: April 11, 1988 (32)
Ishikawa's main weapon is a hard sinker he gets most of his swings and misses on. It’s probably his best pitch and has brought him a long way in Japan. He also throws a fastball, two-seamer, cutter, and curveball. Ishikawa doesn’t overpower hitters, with velocity around 88-89, so he has to pitch with guile and location.
He’s been a starter for virtually all of his career, with the exception of 10 appearances out of the bullpen last season.
If he reaches the majors one day, he’ll have taken a long route there through high school, college, the Japanese industrial leagues and finally NPB. He was the Pacific League Rookie of the Year in 2014, won the PL ERA title and pitched for Japan in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. In seven seasons with the Marines, he’s 63-55 with a 3.56 ERA.
He’s not coming off a great season. He posted a 4.25 ERA in 133.1 innings, the highest among the 14 players who qualified for the pitching titles.
He might have to wait until 2023 to reach full free agency, but is a candidate to be posted before then.