The 2022 Nippon Professional Baseball season is over, and while there won’t be any games to watch during the off-season, that won’t stop us from evaluating the best performers from this past year. Many of these choices are almost impossible to make, but here is the best player at each position – our “Best Nine” – for the 2022 season.
Catcher: Tomoya Mori, Seibu Lions.
Mori’s season got off to a nightmare start when he fractured his finger in April, throwing his catcher mask in frustration. Once he returned in June, however, the 2019 Pacific League MVP got his year back on track and slashed .251/.328/.391 with 21 doubles and eight home runs across 102 games. It was a bit of a down year by his standards, but he still led all NPB catchers in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) at 3.7 and 120, respectively. The backstop had a particularly impressive July, hitting .325/.435/.481 in 20 games. Mori has posted a .400+ OBP in two of the last four seasons, and his batted ball profile was consistent with his career marks, so he is expected to rebound again in 2023 with his new team, the Orix Buffaloes.
First Base: Hotaka Yamakawa, Seibu Lions.
From 2018 to 2019, Hotaka Yamakawa blasted 90 bombs and slugged .565 as one of the biggest power threats in Japan. But as Yamakawa dealt with various injuries and lost protection in the lineup with the departures of players like Hideto Asamura and Shogo Akiyama, his production also took a hit, reducing him to just 24 homers each in 2020 and 2021. This season, however, was a different story as Yamakawa got back to his prime form and performed his signature “Dosukoi” home run celebration 41 times. In 129 games, he batted .266/.375/.578 with a wRC+ of 186 while leading the Pacific League with 90 RBI. NPB is much more fun when Yamakawa is clicking on all cylinders, so Seibu fans will hope to see more of the same next year.
Second Base: Shugo Maki, DeNA Baystars.
This selection is particularly difficult. Between veteran stars like Hideto Asamura, Tetsuto Yamada, and Shogo Nakamura, 24-year-old Shugo Maki stood above the rest. After a fantastic rookie campaign in 2021, Maki built on his success with a .291/.354/.507 slash line in 2022. For the first two months of the year, Maki looked like one of the best hitters in the league, with an OPS well above 1.000. An early-summer slump brought him back down to earth, but Maki finished the season strong, compiling 36 doubles, 24 home runs, and 87 RBI. He still needs to improve his defense, but Maki is clearly emerging as a true superstar at the keystone.
Third Base: Munetaka Murakami, Yakult Swallows.
This one requires no explanation. Munetaka Murakami firmly etched his name in the NPB history books by becoming the first Japanese player since Hideki Matsui in 2002 to have a 50+ HR season. Then, he took it a step further by setting the all-time single-season record for a Japanese-born player with 56 home runs. He also set a world record by homering in five consecutive plate appearances between July 31 and August 2. Over a three-month stretch from June to August, Murakami was practically unstoppable, hitting .393 with 34 home runs and 69 RBI. His historic season netted him 10.3 WAR and a wRC+ of 223 in 141 games.
After blasting #55 to tie the legend Sadaharu Oh, however, Murakami fell into a massive slump and limped across the finish line. But this display of mortality should not put a shadow over his monstrous season. Murakami won both the “Slash Line Triple Crown” (.318 BA, .458 OBP, .710 SLG) and the traditional Triple Crown (.318 BA, 56 HR, 134 RBI), becoming the youngest player in NPB history to do so. Perhaps overlooked is his baserunning, as he became the first player since Makoto Kozuru in 1950 to steal 10+ bases while hitting 50+ home runs in a season. Simply put, Murakami had arguably the greatest NPB season of all-time.
Shortstop: Kenta Imamiya, SoftBank Hawks.
Following a disappointing 2021 season, Imamiya was in danger of losing his job. This must have lit a fire under him, though, as he posted 4.6 WAR with a .296/.352/.409 slash across 130 games. His .296 batting average placed him 4th, and his .352 OBP was good for 8th in the Pacific League among qualified hitters. Imamiya was the only qualified NPB shortstop to hit above league-average this year (131 wRC+) and provided a steady presence in the lineup for the Hawks amid injuries to key players, with 30 doubles and 7 home runs. Imamiya also shined defensively, putting up +5.9 Ultimate Zone Rating. Even at 30 years old, Imamiya’s best days may be yet to come.
Left Field: Keita Sano, DeNA Baystars.
Yoshi Tsutsugo left the Baystars after the 2019 season, leaving an offensive void that needed to be filled. Sano was the right man for the job, as he’s hit at least .303 with an OPS of .842 or higher in each of the past three seasons. Overall, he batted .306/.362/.490 in 133 games with a 140 wRC+. Not only did Sano crush 29 doubles and 22 home runs, but he did so while maintaining a strikeout rate below 10%. Among qualified NPB hitters, only Masataka Yoshida and Sano had a strikeout rate in the single-digits while also slugging .490 or better. He was also second in the Central League in Win Probability Added with 4.12. Sano makes up for the lackluster defense by being one of the most consistent pure hitters in NPB, and there is no reason to expect him to stop anytime soon.
Center Field: Yasutaka Shiomi, Yakult Swallows.
Shiomi was a big reason why the Swallows won the Japan Series last year, becoming the team’s leadoff hitter with an impressive combination of power and speed. But he was even better this year, decreasing his strikeout rate from 29.2% to 21.5% and still maintaining the same power output. Shiomi finished third in the Central League with 24 stolen bases, including a particularly impressive June in which he swiped ten bases and had a 1.079 OPS. Overall, he slashed .276/.345/.453 with 30 doubles and 16 homers. Despite the relatively late breakout, Shiomi is quickly emerging as one of the most well-rounded outfielders in Japan.
Right Field: Yuki Okabayashi, Chunichi Dragons.
It’s rare to say that a hitter with zero career home runs is the best player at his position, but Yuki Okabayashi has made his name through unconventional means. Astonishingly, the 20-year-old finished second in NPB with 6.8 WAR, despite a very underwhelming ISO (Isolated Power) of just .081. The majority of Okayabashi’s value comes from his superb base running and defensive abilities. Between Center and Right Field, he accumulated a total of +27.2 Ultimate Zone Rating, by far the best of any player in NPB. In 142 games, he batted .291/.329/.373 for a wRC+ of 112 while swiping 24 bases. If his hitting continues to develop, Okabayashi has the potential to become the face of the Dragons franchise.
Designated Hitter: Masataka Yoshida, Orix Buffaloes.
The Buffaloes are preparing to post their superstar to MLB, but Yoshida gave his franchise one last gift, helping lead the team to their first Japan Series title since 1996. Across 119 games, Yoshida batted .335/.447/.561, surpassing the 1.000 OPS mark for the first time in his career. Going back to 2017, Yoshida has managed a .300+ batting average, .400+ OBP, and .500+ slugging each year while maintaining a strikeout rate of just 9.3%. This year, he hit 28 doubles and 21 home runs with a Pacific League-best 201 wRC+ and 46.0 Hard Hit percentage. Yoshida’s time with the Buffaloes may be coming to an end, but he will be remembered as one of the best pure hitters in Japanese baseball history, as he ranks 6th all-time with a career 174 wRC+ among hitters with at least 2000 plate appearances.
Starting Pitcher: Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Orix Buffaloes.
This one is another no-brainer. Yamamoto’s stellar 2021 has made some fans numb to his sheer dominance. He won the Sawamura Award and Pacific League Triple Crown for the second straight season, winning 15 games with a 1.68 ERA while striking out 205 batters across 193 innings. On the surface, those numbers aren’t quite on the level of his stellar 2021 season, but removing his May 3 clunker against the SoftBank Hawks lowers his ERA to 1.44. Additionally, the 24-year-old threw the first no-hitter of his career on June 18 against the Seibu Lions and went undefeated in the second half of the season. Yamamoto also led all qualified NPB pitchers in K-BB% (21.8), FIP (2.05), and WAR (7.9), among other key statistics. He will likely win back-to-back Pacific League MVP awards, too, and he will be the favorite to win it again in 2023.
Relief Pitcher: Livan Moinelo, SoftBank Hawks.
There are dozens of relievers worthy of recognition, but none more so than Moinelo. After taking over the closer role from veteran Yuito Mori, Moinelo never looked back, picking up eight holds and 24 saves. The Cuban was lights out all year, sporting a spectacular 1.03 ERA and 1.43 FIP through 52.2 innings of work. This was his fifth consecutive year with a sub-2 ERA. Opponents hit just .123 against Moinelo, and he led all qualified relief pitchers with a 43.1% strikeout rate. The southpaw’s best pitch was his changeup, which generated an opponent batting average of just .036 and a whiff rate of 35.1%. It’s difficult to find any pitcher more electric than Moinelo.