Japan Enters 2023 World Baseball Classic With Team USA In Its Sights
Since the inception of the World Baseball Classic in 2006, Japan has been a dominant power.
Japan won the first two WBC championships in 2006 and in 2009 and reached the semifinals in 2013 and 2017. Beyond the results, Japan’s rosters have often served as a preview of the next great Japanese players to come to MLB.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Kenta Maeda, Kosuke Fukudome and Hisashi Iwakuma all starred for Japan in the WBC before making the jump to MLB. Japan’s 2017 WBC team featured righthander Kodai Senga and outfielder Seiya Suzuki, both of whom received five-year contracts to come to MLB.
Yet, for all that previous talent and success, Japan’s 2023 WBC roster might be its best ever.
Japan enters this year’s WBC with a World Series-caliber rotation and a dangerous, power-packed lineup from top to bottom. After losing to Team USA in the semifinals in 2017, Japan added five major leaguers to this year’s team with an eye on taking down the defending champions.
“The ultimate goal is to beat Team USA,” Team Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said at the Winter Meetings. “We take into consideration every possible player who can play for Team Japan, obviously in the major leagues as well. We’re going to include those guys as much as possible.”
Japan assembled a rotation that features two current MLB aces and two potential future ones. Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani fronts the rotation and will participate without restrictions. Darvish, the 36-year-old Padres ace, makes his return to the WBC after starring as a 22-year-old in 2009.
But all eyes will be on young righthanders Roki Sasaki, 21, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, 24.
Sasaki is the latest Japanese pitching phenom after he pitched a perfect game with 19 strikeouts last season and followed with eight perfect innings in his next start. He features a 97-100 mph fastball, a devastating splitter and finished second in Nippon Professional Baseball in strikeouts last season. Evaluators around the game project him to be a future No. 1 starter in MLB whenever he comes over.
Yamamoto, meanwhile, has won the last two Sawamura Awards, the NPB equivalent of the Cy Young Award. He may be posted after the season and will command a nine-figure contract.
“I think the whole Japanese team is stacked,” Team USA captain Mike Trout said. “Talking to Shohei about that team, he tried to tell me he doesn’t think he’s the best player on that team. I said, ‘No way is there somebody better than Shohei.’ But he knows his baseball players.”
Pitching is the heart of Team Japan, but its lineup is plenty dangerous, too.
Ohtani provides elite power and speed in the middle of the order. Suzuki, 28, hit .262 with 14 home runs as a rookie for the Cubs last season. Outfielder Masataka Yoshida, 29, led Japan’s Pacific League in OPS each of the last two seasons and received a five-year, $90 million contract from the Red Sox. Cardinals 25-year-old outfielder Lars Nootbaar, whose mother is Japanese, hit 14 home runs in 108 games last year and became the first non-Japanese native ever added to the team.
And that's to say nothing of the team's NPB stars. Third baseman Munetaka Murakami, 23, hit 56 home runs last season to break Sadaharu Oh’s record for the most homers in a season by a Japanese-born player. First baseman Hotaka Yamakawa, 31, is a three-time Pacific League home run champion and hit 41 homers last season. Third baseman Kazuma Okamoto, 26, has had five straight 30-home run seasons for the Yomiuri Giants. Outfielder Kensuke Kondo is a career .307 hitter over 11 seasons. Outfielder Ukyo Shuto and shortstop Takumu Nakano have each won stolen base crowns.
With power, contact, speed and an elite rotation, Japan is a well-rounded team with few weaknesses. If all goes according to plan, it will get its rematch with Team USA with a medal on the line.
“Looking at the Team USA roster, that's really close to the best possible members you can get,” Kuriyama said. “Losing to them last time had us really strongly considering how we can win, how we can approach that game.
“It's really overall exciting to play with them, but at the end of the day, we really want to win that game against the U.S.”