Roki Sasaki Is About To Get His Close-Up At The World Baseball Classic

Image credit: Roki Sasaki (Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images)

MIAMI — For most of the Western world, Roki Sasaki has been more myth than man.

Sasaki’s feats and exploits have been breathlessly re-told by third parties but rarely seen firsthand. Visual proof of his otherworldly ability has been limited to video snippets on the internet, not unlike Big Foot or the Lochness Monster. Many in the baseball world have heard of Sasaki, but outside of Asia, few have actually seen him in the flesh.

That all changes Monday. Sasaki, the 21-year-old Japanese phenom, will make his first start on U.S. soil when he takes the mound for Japan against Mexico in the World Baseball Classic semifinals. When he does, it will be his grand introduction to a U.S. audience as the best pitcher alive who is not currently playing in MLB.

“He is one the pitchers that Japan is proud of,” manager Hideki Kuriyama said through an interpreter. “ … I just want him to do the pitching that he’s capable of and contribute to the WBC.”

Sasaki burst onto the international baseball scene last year when he pitched a 19-strikeout perfect game, the first perfect game in Nippon Professional Baseball in 28 years, and followed with eight perfect innings in his next start. His 17 straight perfect innings and 52 straight retired batters both set new NPB records. The MLB record for most consecutive batters retired is 46, set by Yusmeiro Petit over eight relief appearances and spot starts for the Giants in 2014.



Sasaki’s arsenal is the type that makes evaluators salivate. His fastball sits 97-100 mph and touches 102 with remarkably little effort. His 89-91 mph splitter is a soul-destroying pitch batters can’t hit even when they know it’s coming. He flashes an above-average slider with late, vertical snap and has a curveball that he can land for strikes. He maintains his velocity deep into his starts, has an athletic, durable, 6-foot-2 frame and fills the strike zone with plus command and control.

Sasaki’s typical recipe for success is straightforward: blow his fastball by hitters to get ahead in the count and finish them with his splitter. Batters from every stripe know that’s his plan—and they still can’t touch him.

“If he gets ahead of you with the fastball and he throws that split, it’s over,” said one longtime MLB international scout. “His fastball and splitter come from the same slot. You can’t pick it up until it lands. Same arm slot. Same arm action. He’s really special.”

Sasaki is the same age as the top college players in this year’s draft class. He would be the undisputed No. 1 pick in this year’s draft if he were eligible.

But even that doesn’t fully do his talent level justice. Nor does his standing as the best foreign prospect in the World Baseball Classic.

This does: when contacted by Baseball America, front office officials from three different teams said the only comparable pitching prospect they could think of at the same age was Stephen Strasburg.

“He’s kind of in that kind of rarified air, yeah,” a senior National League executive said. “It’s definitely a treat (to watch him pitch).”

Of course, Sasaki has never gotten to showcase his talents against MLB hitters. NPB is the second-best level of baseball in the world, with many MLB-caliber players, but facing a lineup of major league hitters one through nine is a different challenge.

Sasaki will get that chance against Mexico, which had nine active major leaguers in its starting lineup against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals.

“Being able to play with the major league players, I think that’s my precious experience,” Sasaki said Saturday through an interpreter. “There are many high-level Japanese players that I’m able to play with and it’s great. This is something very different from a regular season, that’s the feeling I have.”

In Sasaki’s first start of the WBC, he struck out eight batters over 3.2 innings and didn’t allow an earned run. His fastball averaged 100 mph and touched 102. He threw 66 pitches and got swings and misses on 22 of them.

But that came against the Czech Republic, a team largely made up of working professionals who play baseball on the weekends, and in the familiar comforts of Tokyo.

Flying halfway across the world to face a lineup of major league hitters in a do-or-die game is a different challenge entirely. Sasaki, however, has the talent to handle it.

If all goes according to plan, what transpires at loanDepot Park on Monday may be remembered as the moment Sasaki introduced himself to the wider baseball world.

“Rather than being watched, I want the team to win,” Sasaki said. “That’s my hope. In order for the team to win, I have to make the best performance. I have to show the best performance, and hopefully the people will watch me that way.”

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