Notable Japanese Baseball Names With Potential MLB Futures

Image credit: Daichi Osera (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

When Hideo Nomo left Japan left Japan after the 1994 season, he was met with a wave of public vitriol on his way out the door.

Even his father was against it, perhaps partly because Nomo was using a loophole in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) contract to facilitate his switch from the Kintetsu Buffaloes to the Dodgers.

Once he began to play well, the tide shifted and support swelled. Because Nomo braved the initial backlash, moving to MLB is no longer a foreign concept—Nomo was the first to leave since Masanori Murakami in 1964 and 1965.

These days, fans and even teams, throw their support behind departing players, who now leave via free agency or the posting system.

It’s a different environment these days, and young players see MLB as an attainable goal.

Four players looking to make the move this year, and a few more could follow them after that. Here are a few names to keep in mind.

To see a list of players who posted — or could soon post as early as this winter — click here. 

Kohei Arihara, RHP
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
B-T: R-R. Born: Oct. 11, 1992. (27)

The 6-foot-2, 223-pound Arihara mainly throws a low-90s mph fastball, changeup and slider, but also features a forkball, cutter, two-seamer and curveball. He found a better mix with his pitches this year, which was probably one reason his fifth season was his best yet. He doesn’t blow hitters away, but he makes good use of his secondary pitches.

Arihara—a former teammate of Shohei Ohtani— was one of Japan’s best pitchers in 2019, finished 15-8, 2.46, which was second only to Yoshinobu Yamamoto among qualified pitchers in NPB. He struck out 161 in 161.1 innings.

Arihara is still probably a few years away from a possible move, so he has time to show that he can be a consistent ace for the Fighters.

Shota Imanaga, LHP
Yokohama DeNA BayStars
B-T: L-L. Born: Sept. 1, 1993. (26)

Imanaga had a career year for the BayStars in 2019 with 13 wins, a 2.91 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 170 innings. He also struck out a career-high 186, third-most in NPB.

Imanaga’s fastball has improved in each of his four pro seasons. He also throws a slider and a curveball, and this season he turned his changeup into a weapon. The pitch generated a lot of swings and misses, and he threw it more in 2019 than in past seasons.

It’s possible Imanaga turned a corner this year and his 2019 performance becomes the norm. He’s only had one truly poor season (2018) so far and is 36-34 with a 3.55 ERA in 538 innings.

He mostly pitches his home games in Yokohama Stadium, one of NPB’s better parks for offense. His ERA was 3.14 in 17 home games there and 2.44 on the road in eight appearances.

Imanaga has already played outside Japan, spending several weeks in Australia with the Canberra Cavalry of the Australian Baseball League after the 2018 season.

He also played for the Japanese team in the Asian Professional Baseball Championship in 2017 and in 2019 at the Premier12, where he had a good showing.

Yuki Matsui, LHP
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
B-T: L-L. Born: Oct. 30, 1995. (24)

Matsui packs a lot into a 5-foot-8 frame.

The Eagles’ closer led all of NPB with 38 saves in 2019 and has recorded at least 30 in four of the past five years.

He’s touched 95 with his fastball and isn’t afraid to challenge hitters. He also has a really good slider and throws a changeup, cutter and the occasional curveball.

He struck out 107 hitters in 69.2 innings over 68 appearance in 2019 s. He rung up 91 in 66.2 innings last year and 103 in 72.1 back in 2015.

His stuff seems to play better out of the bullpen in small, electric bursts. In his lone year mainly as a starter, in 2014 as a rookie, Matsui was 4-8, 3.80 in 116 innings. His command can be an issue for him at times.

Some fans outside Japan may remember him from a brief turn in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where he was the youngest player on Japan’s roster.

Haruki Nishikawa, OF
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
B-T: L-R. Born: April 16, 1992. (27)

After signing his contract for 2020, the 27-year-old said he was hoping to be posted after that season, citing former teammate Shohei Ohtani as an inspiration. Nishikawa, who was named team captain for 2020, has been a Fighters mainstay for the majority of his career.

That may be a tough climb for Nishikawa as he doesn’t fit the profile of an MLB regular. His best attributes are his speed and defense. Nishikawa led NPB in stolen bases three times (2014, 2017 and 2018) and won Golden Gloves each of the last three seasons for his work in center field.

Nishikawa does have some defensive versatility, as he’s also played first and second base in the past.

Nishikawa hit .288 with 19 stolen bases (he was caught five times) this year, batting .337 with runners in scoring position.

At the plate, he’s only batted over .300 once and has a career high of 10 home runs. He’s a career .284 hitter with a .769 OPS. He has 245 stolen bases in his career, including three 40-plus steal seasons. He’s been named to the Pacific League’s season-ending Best Nine team twice.

Nishikawa should earn his domestic free agency rights next season and could earn his international right during the 2021 campaign.

Daichi Osera, RHP
Hiroshima Carp
B-T: R-R. Born: June 17, 1991. (28)

Osera has pitched to 52-35, 3.38 record in 783 innings in six seasons. Even though the mantle of best pitcher on the Carp squad has passed between Osera, Kris Johnson and Yusuke Nomura, Osera has shouldered most of the pressure as the biggest star of the three.

He got off to a hot start in 2019 but cooled off in the second half, ending up 11-9, 3.53.

Osera pitches with decent control and does a fair job at keeping the ball on the ground. He relies a lot on his 88-92 mph fastball and cutter in 2019, but also throws a slider, forkball and curve and mixes his pitches well.

Seiya Suzuki, OF
Hiroshima Carp
B-T: R-R. Born: Aug. 18, 1994. (25)

Suzuki has already established himself as a bonafide star in NPB. His personality and skills have made him a fan favorite around the league, especially in baseball-mad Hiroshima.

Suzuki won the batting title in 2019 with a .335 average and also hit 28 homers. He’s finished with an average above .320 and an OPS north of 1.000 in three of the last four seasons. The year he missed the mark he hit .300 with a .936 OPS.

He’s also shown good discipline, with more walks (103) than strikeouts (81) in 612 plate appearances in 2019.

Suzuki doesn’t quite have the power numbers of Tetsuto Yamada or Yuki Yanagita, but he’s had four straight seasons with at least 26 homers and hit 30 in 2018. He also made a leap on the bases this season, with 25 steals. He led all of NPB in 2019 with an 8.6 WAR (per DeltaGraphs).

Suzuki is a good defensive outfielder with a strong arm from right field. He was recognized for his defense with his third Golden Glove in 2019.

Suzuki is a smart and patient hitter and has all the tools to be successful stateside. He was the MVP of the Premier12 in November, leading the tournament with a .478 average, three home runs (tie) and 12 RBIs.

The Carp have previously posted Kenta Maeda and Ryosuke Kikuchi (this season), so it’s possible Suzuki could go the same route after a few years.

Seiji Uebayashi, OF
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
B-T: L-R. Born: Aug. 1, 1995.

Uebayashi is an impressive athlete who has shown flashes of real potential. MLB scouts are probably already familiar with him from their time looking at his teammate Yuki Yanagita.

The 6-foot, 185-pound Uebayashi is a solid defender in the outfield, but he needs to bounce back from an awful fifth NPB season. He was hit by a pitch in April and hit only .194/.254/.360.

Uebayashi’s best year was in 2018, when he played every game and put up a 270/.315/.488 slash line with 26 doubles, 14 triples and 22 home runs. He’s also logged at least 10 stolen bases in each of the past three years.

The 24-year-old’s above-average arm makes him a solid fit in right field. If he can do both better, which would mean finding ample time in SoftBank’s crowded outfield, he could develop into a player who one day could play in the U.S. How he recovers from a bad year this year will speak a lot about his further development.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP
Orix Buffaloes
B-T: R-R. Born: Aug. 17, 1998 (21)

Yamamoto has the potential to be among the most exciting pitchers in Japan if he continues on his upward trajectory.

In his first season as a full-time starter, the 21-year-old made 20 starts and finished the season with an NPB-best 1.95 ERA and posted a 0.96 WHIP. He struck out 127 in 143 innings. Among all qualified NPB starters, Yamamoto tied with Shun Yamaguchi for the fewest home runs allowed, with eight.

Yamamoto throws a good cutter and a low-90s forkball with late drop. He has great stuff and a great makeup on the mound. He also throws a solid low-90s fastball, a curve and slider.

He was electric out of the bullpen in this year’s Premier12, mixing mid-90s fastballs with his biting forkball.

He has MLB stuff right now, and whether he can get better and continue to develop will be interesting to watch. If he has any MLB aspirations, though, those days are likely several years down the road.

Masataka Yoshida, OF
Orix Buffaloes
B-T: L-R. Born: July 15, 1993. (26)

Yoshida has already proven to be a rising star in Japan in his first four seasons. He was drafted out of college with the Orix Buffaloes’ first pick in the 2015 draft and delivered solid returns in 2016 and 2017.

Then he started to break out.

Yoshida hit .321 with 37 doubles, 26 home runs and a .956 OPS in 2018. In 2019 he had a .322/.413/.543 line and 29 home runs. He also had a 168 wRC+ this season, second in Japan, according to DeltaGraphs.

Yoshida has a good-looking swing and hits the ball hard. He’s got great power and has graced the upper deck at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome a few times.

Yoshida only struck out 74 times in 514 at-bats in 2018 and had 64 in 521 this past season. He finished 2019 with more walks (79) than strikeouts.

Yoshida is a good fastball hitter and also does well against breaking balls.

He hit just .238 in 147 at-bats against lefties in 2019, compared with .356 vs. righthanders in 374 at-bats. He hit lefthanders well last season, however, with a .306 average in 121 at-bats.

He’s already seemingly on track to becoming one of the top hitters in Japan. He was on the Premier 12 roster but played sparingly.

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