Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics Baseball Team Preview: Japan
Japan enters the Tokyo Olympics as the heavy favorite to win gold, but it faces enormous pressure playing in its home country and has never won an official Olympic gold medal before.
Here is a rundown of Japan's strengths, weaknesses and overall outlook for the Summer Games.
*No official medal awarded.
WBSC World Rank: 1
How It Qualified: Earned automatic berth as host nation
Previous Olympics Appearances: 1984 (gold)*, 1988 (silver)*, 1992 (bronze), 1996 (silver), 2000, 2004 (bronze), 2008.
Manager: Atsunori Inaba
Inaba, 48, was an eight-time all-star in Japan’s major league, Nippon Professional Baseball, and had 2,167 hits and 263 home runs in his 20-year career. He represented Japan in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He retired in 2014 and became Japan’s national team manager in 2017.
Top Players: RHP Masahiro Tanaka, RHP Koudai Senga, OF Yuki Yanagita,, RHP Yoshinobu Yamamoto, 2B Tetsudo Yamada, OF Seiya Suzuki
Tanaka returned to Japan after seven years with the Yankees and went 4-5, 2.86 through the first half of the season with the Rakuten Eagles. He is the veteran of a staff that also includes 22-year-old Yamamoto, who has touched 98 mph with his fastball and is already highly desired by MLB teams. Senga, 28, is the reigning Pacific League ERA and strikeout champion and has been sought after by MLB teams for years. He has been limited by an ankle injury this year but still sits 95-96 mph and owns a devastating forkball. Yanagita is the reigning Pacific League MVP, his second time winning the award, and also won MVP of Japan Series—Japan’s World Series—last year. He will be Japan’s starting center fielder and is the best position player in a lineup that also includes former Central League MVP Yamada and former Central League batting champion Suzuki.
Japan is annually one of the best teams in international play but has never won an Olympic gold medal (baseball was a demonstration sport in 1984 and did not award official medals). It will attempt to win its first official gold while playing in its home country … Tanaka (calf) and Senga (ankle) have both been hampered by injuries this season. How healthy and effective they are will go a long way toward determining Japan’s fortunes … Yanagita is 32 and signed a seven-year contract to remain in Japan after the 2019 season, so he won’t be coming to MLB. This is his chance to showcase his talent to a global audience.
Japan is solid all around. The pitching is strong, the lineup is dangerous top to bottom, it plays good defense and is fundamentally sound. Tanaka, Yamamoto and Senga give the team three MLB-caliber pitchers atop a deep staff while Yanagita, Yamada, Suzuki, OF Masataka Yoshida, 3B/1B Munetaka Murakami, SS Hayato Sakamoto, SS Sosuka Genda and 2B Ryosuke Kikuchi give it a star-studded position player core.
Japan’s roster is younger and less experienced in international play than usual, although it still has plenty of players with that experience. The team will be facing tremendous pressure to win playing in its home nation.
Japan is head and shoulders above the rest as the most talented team in the Olympic field. It is the heavy favorite to win gold, and it will be shocking if it doesn’t finish somewhere on the medal stand.