Top Japanese Position Player Prospects
About a year ago, I wrote a piece about the Japanese position players most likely to break through to MLB one day. The three I noted were Tetsuto Yamada, Hideto Asamura and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. Almost a a full year has past, and these three players are still the ones who stand out as possible future MLB stars.
The factors that make these guys the best Japanese position prospects for MLB are simple: youth and a high level of offensive performance in Japan’s NPB. Age is a key factor for any MLB prospect — the younger a player establishes a certain level of performance/ability, the most likely that player will go on to become a major league star.
For NPB players, age takes on another dimension, because NPB players don’t become true free agents until they have completed nine years of NPB major league service. The upshot is that an NPB player who hasn’t established himself as an NPB regular by his age 22 season at the latest, will be at least 31 years old in his first season after true free agency.
A 31 year old MLB rookie has very little chance of establishing himself as an MLB star of any duration. Most players have a learning curve of at least two full seasons to really master the majors, and after age 32, 98 or 99 of every 100 players have their best seasons behind them.
Of the three NPB stars listed above, I still like Yamada the best. He’s 22 this year (turns 23 on July 16th) and is again one of the best hitters in NPB’s Central League, as he was last year. After a slow start this season, he’s currently slashing .314/.409/.566, which are 4th/1st/1st among the 26 Central League qualifiers so far this season.
Yamada will become a true free agent after either the 2021 or 2022 season (it’s a close call whether he got enough playing time in 2012 and 2013 to constitute a full season’s credit). If he’s posted by his current team, the Yakult Swallows, he most likely would reach MLB around his age 28 season (2021).
Yamada is a 2Bman, which is a great position for a Japanese position player, since their power tends to disappear once they reach MLB; and his raw defensive numbers (5.69 chances per game, 105 double plays last season) look great.
Hideto Asamura had a huge year with the bat in 2013 at age 22. He took a big step backward offensively in 2014, when he had a knee injury and was moved from 1B to 2B in the field.
Asamura is most of the way back with the bat in 2015, although his power stroke hasn’t yet returned. He’s currently slashing .311/.395/.447, good for 6th/6th/12th among the 30 Pacific League qualifiers.
Asamura’s raw defensive numbers at 2B aren’t as good as Yamada’s, but Asamura has played at 16 NPB games at every defensive position except pitcher, catcher and center field, suggesting he’s a very good baseball player who can help a club almost anywhere on the diamond in a pinch. Asamura likely becomes a true free agent after the 2019 season, which means he would also most likely play his first major league season at age 28.
As a reference point, Nori Aoki, the last Japanese position player to “make it” in MLB was age 30 in his MLB rookie season, while famous MLB bust Kosuke Fukudome was age 31 his first MLB season. (While Fukudome was an MLB-caliber player, his $48M, four year contract was roughly twice what he was worth as an MLB player.)
Lastly, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is 23 year old left fielder for the DeNA Bay Stars who is currently slashing .326/.396/.523, ranking 2nd/3rd/3rd in NPB’s Central League. As a left fielder, he appears to have far less defensive value than Yamada or Asamura. However, he has played 108 NPB games at 3B, although his outfield assist totals do not suggest he’s got a right fielders arm.
Tsutsugo most likely becomes a true free agent after the 2021 season, which means he would most likely reach MLB in his age 29 season.
One thing that makes it more likely that we will one day see at least one of these three play in MLB is that all three play for low-revenue NPB teams. If they continue to develop as their current ages and performance levels suggest and avoid major injuries, they will all eventually be playing for one of NPB’s three rich teams (the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers and SoftBank Hawks) or in the U.S.