The biggest name on the free agent market is Shohei Ohtani, who stands to break all records when he finally signs a new deal at some point this winter.
But the player in whom teams — including the Red Sox — have the next most interest is Ohtani’s countryman, pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Yamamoto may also be the most anticipated player to emigrate from Japan to MLB since Ohtani arrived in the U.S. after the 2017 season.
Just 25, he’s won the Sawamura Award — the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award — the last three seasons, while also capturing the pitching triple crown (leading NPB in wins, ERA and strikeouts) in each of those years.
And yet, because most North American baseball fans have only seen glimpses of him, he remains largely unknown. So, we spoke with a veteran scout who has seen Yamamoto extensively. Here’s what he had to say:
“I really like him,” the scout began. “If you’re going to break down the arsenal in terms of pitches and compare him to some other Japanese pitchers, the power of (Kodai) Senga’s fastball and his split, are really good. They’re devastating. But Yamamoto has a more complete arsenal in that Yamamoto is the type of guy who, if on a given day he’s got a pitch that’s not effective, he’s got more weapons to get you out. And he can throw strikes with all of them.
“He’s able to spin the ball in different ways. His slider and curveball are both effective. His fastball, he’ll split it, he’ll cut it, he’ll sink it. If he’s down 3-and-0, he can throw any one of them for a strike. So in terms of hitters going in there and thinking, ‘OK, here’s what I have to prepare for,’ it’s much harder against Yamamoto, because he’s got so many he can beat you with.
“That said, it’s not like it’s, ‘Holy cow, this is a dominant pitch.’ I think his biggest challenge going to the States is just trying to get acclimated and understand what works and what doesn’t. He’s going to have figure out how the different ball is going to affect his different pitches. But he has a lot to work with, so he’ll be able to do that.”
Yamamoto comfortably throws his fastball at 94-95 mph, and can maintain that velocity deep into most games. When he needs extra gas, he can reach back and get to 97-98 mph.
A big part of the appeal with Yamamoto is his age, to the point where he may just now be about to enter his prime. And because he’s only 25, it’s conceivable he could earn a 10-year contract that would see him be just 35 in the final year of the deal.
“(Masahiro) Tanaka and (Yu) Darvish kind of came over in the same age range,” the scout said. “I think that’s why we’re seeing speculation on the contract length and amount because you just don’t see a 25-year-old in the major league free agent market. I think that’s why he’s so attractive.”
Yamamoto pitched poorly in one of his starts in the recent Japan Series, but more than made up for that with his next start: a complete-game effort in which he allowed just one while striking out 14 and throwing a staggering 138 pitches.
“He’s got a track record of what he’s done over the course of time, on the biggest stages,” the scout said, downplaying the significance of the subpar start. “You actually want to see him struggle a bit and in that (outlier of an outing), and he still was able to go seven (innings). That’s a good sign, that he could still give them something.
“That’s the thing with Yamamoto — he has a lot of adjustability in terms of what he can do. That’s impressive. When Tanaka came over, his split was nasty and that was a swing-and-miss pitch. With Yamamoto, I can’t necessary say he’s got this as a swing-and-miss pitch, or that as a swing-and-miss pitch. But they’re all above-average.”
If there’s a concern, it’s with Yamamoto’s physical stature, or rather, lack thereof. He’s listed at 5-foot-10, 176 pounds, which is far from a prototypical power pitcher’s build. But there have been some pitchers under six feet who have thrived in the big leagues, including Tim Lincecum, Ron Guidry, Pedro Martinez and others.
“You want to be concerned, especially with the magnitude of the contract,” the scout said. “But looking at him perform on the mound, his athleticism makes you feel comfortable with his size. And from what I’ve heard, he has a different workout regimen. It’s almost like yoga, where he spends time on his whole body. That’s more common over there with their emphasis on balance and those things.
“Early on in his career, (his lack of height) that’s not the concern that it might otherwise be, knowing that he’s committed to strengthening himself. I do think that as he ages, the stuff might regress a little sooner, just because he doesn’t have as much strength behind his pitches. He won’t have the physicality of a Max Scherzer or a Justin Verlander.”
Asked to find a major leaguer to whom he might compare Yamamoto, the scout landed on David Cone, who had a rather average frame, but had a cerebral approach and flourished with a full complement of pitches.
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“(Cone) would find a way to get you out,” said the scout. “Yamamoto is the same. He’s a competitor. He wants to win and he’ll do whatever it takes to get you out. He’ll study the hitters and he wants to get better, day-in, day-out. Cone would adjust to whatever he had on a given day and still get you out.”
Finally, the scout was asked about Yamamoto transitioning to MLB, and how well he and his stuff will make the adjustment here against better and stronger competition.
“One of the things you have to look at,” he said, “is the quality of the talent he’s been facing (in Japan) and the quality of the talent he’ll face over here. There’s a difference there, for sure. And especially, I would say this year, as opposed to when Tanaka or Darvish came over, (the NPB), at least right now, is in a little dip compared to where it was before.
“Offensively, the last couple of years, it wasn’t what it was eight to ten years ago. You have to factor that in. But you also have to say, ‘Well, what else could he have done? He achieved everything he could have the last few years.’ That means something for sure. It also says something about him in the sense that he found a way to stay hungry and motivated, where there have been some pitchers who were coming over and were on cruise control until they came over to the States and stepped it up.
“Whereas I think he challenged himself to dominate the league as much as he could, and now he’s ready for the step up and the new challenge.”