The Next Wave of Japanese Stars

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Among the slow-moving chaos of the 2017-18 offseason, two former Nippon Professional Baseball stars made their way stateside: the famous two-way star Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels) and submarine right-hander Kazuhisa Makita (San Diego Padres). With those two joining the likes of Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish, and Masahiro Tanaka, a host of other Japanese players could make the leap to the U.S. within the next several years. Here are just a few names stateside baseball fans will want to keep their eyes on.

P Kodai Senga

I could start off Senga’s profile by telling you about his stats (they’re great, but we’ll get to that). I’d rather start off by showing you what he did to big league hitters at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

96 MPH fastball. Bugs Bunny-like forkball. Sharp slider. Just nasty.

Senga introduced himself to the rest of the world with 11 innings of dominant pitching in the WBC, striking out 16 batters and allowing seven hits and just one walk while posting a 0.82 ERA. His teammates on the Japan team have come to expect performances like that out of the 24-year-old right-hander as he has posted a 2.52 ERA in 123 games (52 starts) across his six seasons with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

Senga became a full-time starter in 2016, and has posted remarkably similar seasons over the past two years. In both seasons, his allowed just 6.7 H/9 and a minuscule 0.9 HR/9. His walk rate was also essentially the same (2.9 BB/9 in 2017, 2.8 in 2016). He’s still a few years away from international free agency, but Senga may be the next power arm to come stateside via the posting system if he continues to have consistently dominant seasons.

P Shintaro Fujinami

Like Senga, Fujinami is a tantalizing talent. At 6-foot-5, 189 pounds, Fujinami has a similar build to fellow ex-NPB stars Darvish and Ohtani. His fastball can touch 95 MPH. He has shown flashed of brilliance … but you know there’s a “but” coming right?

The 23-year-old, who was picked one spot behind Ohtani at the top of the 2012 NPB Draft, has a 3.05 career ERA in his five seasons for the Hanshin Tigers. However, the right-hander has struggled with his control over the course of that career, posting a 3.8 BB/9 in his 727.2 career innings. He had his worst season as a pro in 2017, posting a 3-5 record, 4.12 ERA, and 6.9 BB/9 in his 11 starts. He also dealt with shoulder problems which sidelined him for most of the season.

Those shoulder problems may have their roots in how the Tigers have used him. In 2015, Fujinami tossed a shutout in which he threw 152 pitches, and in 2016 threw 161 pitches in a game. During that 161-pitch outing, the Tigers lost 8-2. While those two outings alone may not have been enough cause his shoulder troubles, it is a possibility that they played a role. In 2018, Fujinami will have to not only prove that he is healthy, but that he can figure out his control issues and bring down his walk rates. If he can do both, he figures to be a hot commodity in MLB front offices.

INF Tetsuto Yamada

Source: Matt Roberts/Getty Images AsiaPac

Yamada has the typical body one would expect from a second baseman at 5-foot-10, 163 pounds. But his numbers are definitely not typical second baseman numbers.

The 25-year-old right-handed hitter for the Yakult Swallows has crushed at least 24 home runs in each of the past four seasons, including back-to-back 38 homer campaigns in 2015-16. In 2015, he won the Central League MVP, slashing .329/.416/.610 with exactly 100 RBI, 34 stolen bases (in 38 attempts), and 119 runs scored in 143 games. Yamada had a solid showing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, hitting .296/.412/.593 with a pair of home runs and five RBI in 27 tournament at-bats. Despite his strong WBC showing, Yamada hit just .247 in 2017 with 78 RBI in 526 at-bats.

The question with Yamada is which was the aberration — his 2017 season or the previous two monster seasons? Even if his 2017 numbers are a more accurate representation of his true skill level, several major league teams would likely have interest in those types of numbers (although the track record for Japanese infielders in the major leagues is not that great).

OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

Tsutsugo has played parts of eight seasons for the Yokohama Bay Stars, yet is only 26 due to the fact he debuted with the Bay Stars at the age of 18. In those eight seasons, the left-handed batter has slashed .286/.379/.514 with 138 home runs and 445 RBI. He had a monster 2016 season, hitting .322 while mashing 44 home runs and driving in 110, but that has certainly been an outlier. Check out the outfielder’s 2017, 2015, and 2014 seasons. They’re all very similar:

Tsutsugo seems to enjoy bigger stages. He is a two-time All-Star in Japan, and took home the 2016 All-Star Game MVP. He also had a great showing at the World Baseball Classic last year, hitting .320 with 3 home runs and 8 RBI in 25 at-bats. The eight runs he drove in were tied for third in the tournament behind only Wladimir Balentien’s 12 and Carlos Correa’s 9.

Japanese players need at least nine years of service time in NPB to become international free agents, meaning Tsutsugo is knocking on the door of that mark. Since he only appeared in three games in his first season (thus not picking up a full year of service time), he could possibly become a free agent at some point over the next two off-seasons.

OF Seiya Suzuki

If there is one thing Suzuki does really well, it’s get on base. The 23-year-old Hiroshima Carp outfielder has posted a .382 OBP over his 388 career NPB games, including a .404 OBP in 2016 and .389 OBP last season. The right-handed batter also has some pop, hitting over 25 home runs and driving in over 90 in each of the past two seasons.

Suzuki’s 2017 could have been even better if not for injury. Suzuki was sidelined for the rest of the ’17 campaign after colliding with the outfield wall trying to make a catch on August 23. If Suzuki shows no ill effects from his collision and is able to replicate his success in 2018 and in future seasons, his bat will certainly draw plenty of attention from major league teams.

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