Image credit: (Photo by Yuki Taguchi/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Last week, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi made the 5,000-mile trip across the Pacific Ocean to watch Japanese rigthander Yoshinobu Yamamoto make a playoff start for the Orix Buffaloes.
A top executive making the long journey to personally scout Yamamoto naturally led to widespread speculation about the Giants’ level of interest in the talented 25 year old.
In reality, top decision-makers from nearly every club have been traveling to Japan to see Yamamoto for years, and excitedly waiting for the chance to sign him.
Yamamoto is the latest Japanese pitcher set to make the jump to MLB with Orix set to post him after the end of the Nippon Professional Baseball season. The 5-foot-10, 176-pound righthander has won back-to-back Sawamura Awards, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award, as well as back-to-back Pacific League Most Valuable Player Awards. He helped lead Japan to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics and 2023 World Baseball Classic, won his third consecutive Japanese pitching triple crown this season and, with a no-hitter on Sept. 9, became the first pitcher in NPB history to throw no-hitters in consecutive seasons.
As decorated as Yamamoto is, the best part is he keeps getting better.
Yamamoto went 16-6, 1.21 in 23 starts for Orix this season, the lowest ERA of his career. He allowed just two home runs the entire season, the fewest of his career, and posted a 6.04 strikeout-to-walk rate, the best mark of his career.
“He took a step forward to being great this year,” said one National League pro scouting director who has made multiple trips to Japan. “He’s got so many weapons. Pitchability is so good….This guy has power, feel, aptitude, deception. He makes it work. He’s going to be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter.”
Yamamoto’s arsenal is explosive. His lively fastball comfortably sits 94-95 mph and touches 99. His tight-spinning, 76-78 mph curveball with late tilt and depth is a plus pitch that freezes both lefthanded and righthanded hitters. His 91-94 mph cutter is an above-average to plus offering that stays off of barrels. His best secondary, and arguably best pitch of all, is a plus, 88-91 mph splitter with huge depth he can land for strikes or bury for chase swings.
Yamamoto’s stuff stands out, but it’s not all that makes him special. He harnesses his power stuff with above-average control, has a fast arm and clean delivery and goes after hitters fearlessly and aggressively.
The only concern about Yamamoto is his size. Few righthanders at his listed height and weight have gone on to long-term success in MLB, though there are examples with similar physiques such as Marcus Stroman.
Yamamoto has mostly alleviated those concerns with his performance. He holds his stuff deep into games, has pitched at least 170 innings in three straight seasons and has a clean bill of health.
“He’s special,” an American League international scout said. “There have been some special guys who are 5-10. There aren’t that many, that’s the concern, but the stuff is good enough. He’s got the stuff to do it and he holds his stuff. I don’t think he’ll have an issue.”
Yamamoto gave US audiences—and MLB hitters—a preview of what he’s capable of in the WBC. In Japan’s semifinal matchup against Mexico in Miami, Yamamoto entered in relief of fellow Japanese flamethrower Roki Sasaki and didn’t allow a hit for his first three innings facing a lineup of big leaguers before tiring in his final frame. He showcased all four pitches, threw 35 of his 52 pitches for strikes and struck out established veterans Alek Thomas, Rowdy Tellez and Austin Barnes.
For those who have been watching him, it wasn’t a surprising showing.
Evaluators have consistently and unanimously considered Yamamoto be a better pitching prospect than fellow Japanese righthander Kodai Senga. Senga, who signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the Mets, finished fifth in the majors with a 2.98 ERA as a rookie this season.
With that kind of potential, nearly every team has wanted Yamamoto for years. As soon as the NPB playoffs conclude and he is posted, the frenzy—and cost—to sign him will be significant.
“He’d be one where he could be a big money guy,” said an NL special assistant with extensive history scouting the Pacific Rim. “No injuries, super durable, good delivery, fast arm. The sky is the limit on this guy.”