It’s no secret by now that Yoshinobu Yamamoto is set to receive a huge payday, as many prominent voices around Major League Baseball rightly believe he will be the second-best player available to teams this winter, ranking only behind the unicorn himself, Shohei Ohtani. In 2014, the New York Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka – coming off an undefeated 24-0 season in which he led his Rakuten Eagles to a championship – to a seven-year contract worth $155 million. A decade later, Yamamoto is poised to shatter that record with a deal surpassing $200 million via the posting system. Yamamoto may very well be the greatest Japanese pitcher ever, and the word “historic” only begins to scratch the surface of his plethora of accomplishments.
Since making his debut in Nippon Professional Baseball in 2017, the 25-year-old ace of the Orix Buffaloes has compiled a resume that stands up against any pitcher in the history of modern Japanese baseball. Overall, he owns a 68-29 record with a 1.84 ERA, 2.40 FIP, and a 0.94 WHIP, tallying 901 strikeouts and just 204 walks over 883 innings for an elite 20.3 K-BB%. Among pitchers with at least 880 innings since the formation of NPB in 1950, only two others have maintained a career ERA below 2.00: Kazuhisa Inao (1.98) and Yu Darvish (1.99). It’s worth noting that NPB is currently in the midst of a dead-ball era, with the league-average ERA plummeting into the low-3s, but Inao and Darvish similarly benefited from a low-scoring environment throughout most of their careers. Needless to say, Yamamoto’s run prevention is truly historic.
In both 2021 and 2022, Yamamoto achieved the incredibly rare feat of winning the Pitching Triple Crown, the Pacific League Most Valuable Player Award, and the Eiji Sawamura Award (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award). Over the 72-year history of NPB, Hisashi Yamada is the only pitcher to have won three straight MVPs, and Masaichi Kaneda is the sole player to have received three consecutive Sawamuras. No pitcher has ever captured three consecutive Triple Crowns, and 2023 could mark Yamamoto’s third consecutive year achieving not only the Triple Crown but all three accolades in tandem. In other words, he would enter a league of his own and solidify his claim as not only the greatest pitcher in the modern era but possibly of all-time, at least in terms of peak performance.
So, just how close is Yamamoto to achieving the seemingly impossible in 2023? The MVP is typically bestowed upon the best player on the best team, so Yamamoto is almost certain to secure his third Pacific League MVP, as the Buffaloes are comfortably leading the pennant race. Likewise, he has all but secured his third Sawamura, as no other pitcher has a better case for the award. That leaves the Triple Crown, which appeared out of reach earlier in the season, with the 21-year-old phenom Roki Sasaki holding a significant lead in the strikeout category. But, after Sasaki missed over six weeks with an oblique injury, Yamamoto overtook him and is now poised to lead all Triple Crown categories again with 14 wins, a 1.32 ERA, and 148 strikeouts. He currently leads Atsuki Taneichi by just two punchouts, with Kaima Taira and Roki Sasaki close behind. But considering the way Yamamoto has been throwing the ball recently, it’s fair to consider him the clear frontrunner for the strikeout title.
Yamamoto’s recent dominance has been nothing short of remarkable. On September 9, he became just the 10th pitcher in NPB history to throw multiple no-hitters in a career, and the first to throw a no-no in back-to-back seasons. To add to the historic milestone, he did so in front of dozens of MLB scouts and executives, most notably New York Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman. In Yamamoto’s most recent outing, he conceded an earned run for the first time in 45 innings, spanning over seven starts. Out of his 21 starts this season, 19 have met the criteria for quality starts, and he has an astonishing 0.91 ERA since May 30.
So, what’s the secret formula behind Yamamoto’s success? While his stuff isn’t nearly as explosive as Roki Sasaki’s, his arsenal is far deeper and more polished at this point, sporting a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, forkball, curveball, cutter, and slider. When he first burst onto the scene, many opposing hitters considered the cutter his best pitch, but he gradually phased it out as that pitch became less effective. Now, his primary weapons include the fastball, forkball, and curveball, all of which are world-class. He likes to attack the outside part of the plate, and his fastball consistently clocks in at 95 mph, occasionally reaching 98 mph, with opponents batting just .176 against it. Equally remarkable is his forkball – the most popular putaway pitch among many top Japanese arms – holding a batting average against of a mere .172, coupled with a superb 22.8% whiff rate. Meanwhile, his beautiful 12-6 curveball boasts a .208 opponent batting average with no home runs surrendered. Altogether, opposing hitters are slashing just .204/.245/.248 against him in 2023 across 585 plate appearances.
|Pitch Type||Average Velocity||Usage||Whiff||BAA|
Previously, Yamamoto employed a fairly traditional Japanese delivery, featuring a mid-leg-kick pause as a timing mechanism for his stride. Over the past winter, however, Yamamoto completely overhauled his mechanics, eliminating the pause and significantly lowering his leg-kick, effectively throwing out of the stretch at all times in one fluid motion. While the change seemed unnecessary at the time – and one could argue it puts more strain on his elbow – it has only enhanced his performance, as he’s become far more adept at preventing the running game, with the number of stolen bases against him dropping from 16 in 2022 to a mere 4 in 2023, which will prove even more valuable in MLB’s new pitch clock and pickoff limit environment.
Right now, though, Yamamoto isn’t focused on where he will end up this offseason. He’s eyeing a strong finish to lead his Buffaloes to their second straight Japan Series title, particularly because he missed most of the series last year after sustaining an injury in Game 1. But his extraordinary dominance, coupled with his young age and durability, has transcended borders as fans worldwide await the next chapter in his career. Since Japanese baseball still emphasizes contact hitting, it’s not uncommon for a pitcher to record more strikeouts in MLB than in NPB, as indicated by Kodai Senga’s 29.5 K% this season compared to 27.5% in NPB last year and Shohei Ohtani’s career 31.2 K% in MLB as opposed to 28.5% in NPB. And while it would be unfair to set unrealistically high expectations, given the recent success of Senga – who was an inferior pitcher to Yamamoto in NPB with command issues – it’s entirely reasonable to expect Yamamoto to be an immediate Cy Young contender next season.