Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2016/2017
Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball always generates far more pitchers who are potential future MLBers than it does position players, and this year is no exception. Here are the ones I’m keeping my eyes on:
Shohei Otani (age 22 in 2017). As a pitching prospect, less is more with Otani. He pitched only 21 games and threw only 140 innings in 2016, because he was not only the Pacific League’s best pitcher, but also its best hitter, posting a 1.004 OPS in 382 plate appearances.
As a pitcher, Otani went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and a pitching line of 140 IP, 89 hits, 45 BBs and four HRs allowed and 174 Ks. Had he pitched three more innings, he would have led his league in ERA and strikeout rate. He hit 101 mph (163 km/hr) on five pitches during a start in June, one start after hitting 163 km/hr on a pitch for the first time, thus setting a new NPB record. He’s the next Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka if his arm stays healthy, which sure seems likely if his bat turns him into a pitcher who only makes 20 starts a season.
I found it kind of amusing following Otani’s 2016 season on Yakyu DB. Instead of just saying that they were trying to find a balance between having the league’s best pitcher and the league’s best hitter in the same person, Otani’s team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, announced a series of phantom injuries in the second half which allegedly prevented Otani from pitching but not from playing as the team’s designated hitter. Never has a pitcher suffered so many blisters and muscle pulls without a trip to the disabled list.
From what I know of Japanese culture, I chalked it up to management’s need to save face: no matter how much sense it might make to have Otani’s bat in the line-up as often as possible, they just couldn’t come right out and say they were reducing the league’s best pitcher’s pitching starts in order to play him more games as a hitter. Well, having to decide how best to use a player of Otani’s enormous talent is a great problem to have, even if it requires routinely making silly excuses, and the Fighters finished a league-best 87-53, beating out a very strong SoftBank Hawks team by 2.5 games.
Another problem Otani creates is with the relatively recent $20 million posting fee cap. For players as good as Otani, a $20 million posting fee gives the Fighters no reason to post Otani before they absolutely have to due to free agency. I have previously suggested an obvious solution to this problem — raise the posting fee by $5 million for each year before free agency an NPB team agrees to post its superstar. The sooner (and thus younger) a superstar player becomes available to MLB, the bigger contract he’s going to get even with a bigger posting fee. Current MLB ETA: 2021.
Shintaro Fujinami (23). The Hanshin Tigers seem determined to burn out their young ace before he ever reaches MLB. After throwing a 152-pitch shutout in 2015, the Tigers had Fujinami throw 161 pitches on July 8, 2016, a game the Tigers lost 8-2 and were losing 5-2 after six innings. Nevertheless, Fujinami pitched eight full innings and faced 37 batters, striking out 13 and walking five. It’s just no way to treat a 22 year old pitcher, even if the Tigers did skip his next start to give him a rest.
The overwork apparently effected his 2016 overall performance. After a breakout 2015 season, Fujinami’s 3.25 ERA this year was only 9th best among 12 qualifiers in the six-team Central League, and he finished third in strikeouts with 176, 45 Ks fewer than in 2015. However, he still had the best strikeout rate (9.4) among the league’s qualifiers.
Fujinami is still a legitimately great prospect. It’s just that all the evidence suggests the Tigers are determined to ruin his arm before he becomes a free agent. MLB ETA: 2021.
Takahiro Norimoto (26). NPB pitching prospects for MLB take a marked dip after Otani and Fujinami, mainly because of factors other than NPB pitching success. There can be no dispute after the 2016 season but that Norimoto is a terrific pitcher. His ERA was 2.91 for the second year in a row (4th best in the Pacific League this year) and he led his league in strikeouts (216) for the second year in a row, the third year in row he’d struck out more than 200.
The problem with Norimoto is that he’s a small right-hander, listed at 5’10” and 180 lbs, and he’s thrown a whole lot of innings (762.1) in his four NPB seasons through age 25. That’s not a recipe for a pitcher who’s going to last long enough to pitch in MLB while his arm is still relatively strong. If he can defy the odds, he compares favorably to Kenta Maeda. Of course, even with Maeda, the jury is still out on how long he can be an every fifth game starter in MLB. MLB ETA: 2020/2021.
Tomoyuki Sugano (27). As with Norimoto, Sugana’s 2016 performance has convinced me he’s the real McCoy. He led the Central League in ERA this year (2.01) and strikeouts (183). His strikeout rate (9.3) was far and away the highest of his career, which is unusual for a 26 year old pitcher in his 4th full season. Even if a one-year fluke, his NPB career 2.34 ERA and 4.2 career K/BB rate speak for themselves.
The problem with Sugano as an MLB prospect is that he didn’t come up particularly young, and he pitches for the Yomuiri Giants, a team that has never posted a player for MLB. He won’t become a true free agent until after the 2021 season, so he will be 32 in 2022, his likely first MLB season, should he decide to cross the ocean. Also, the adoration and endorsement deals that come with being a Yomuiri Giants’ superstar make it less likely that he will come to MLB at all. MLB ETA: 2022.
Yuki Matsui (21). a small (5’8.5″, 163 lbs) left-handed closer for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Matsui has electric stuff (304 Ks in 250.2 career NPB innings pitched) and what appears to be close to three full seasons of NPB experience through his age 20 season. It’s anybody’s guess whether a pitcher this small can hold up to the often high-stress workload of a closer long-term. MLB ETA: 2021.
Kodei Senga (24). An extremely talented young right-hander who had shoulder problems in 2014 and then spent much more of the 2015 season in NPB’s minor league than his performance there deserved, probably because the 2015 NPB Champion SoftBank Hawks had all the pitching they needed at the major league level, Senga had a terrific season in 2016. His 2.61 ERA was 3rd best in the Pacific League and his 181 Ks (in only 169 IP) was second best. MLB ETA: 2022-2023.
Shota Takeda (24). I was more excited about Takeda a year ago. While his 2.95 ERA was 6th best in the Pacific League and his 144 Ks was 5th best, his strikeout rate dropped sharply from 8.9 in 2015 to 7.1 in 2016 and his walks rate was up, suggesting he might be heading for an arm injury in 2017. MLB ETA: 2022-2023.
Yusei Kikuchi (26) and Takeru Imamura (26). Although Kikuchi is a left-handed starter, and Imamura is a right-handed closer, they are the same age and both appear to have at least four full years of NPB service time. Kikuchi’s 2.58 ERA was 2nd best in the Pacific League, but his strikeout rates (7.3 career) leave something to be desired.
Imamura has good stuff (career 8.4 strikeout rate), but spent significant portions of the 2014 and 2015 seasons in NPB’s minor league leagues after a slow start in 2014. This will mean he’ll be a couple of years older before he gets posted or becomes a free agent. MLB ETA for both: 2020-2021.
Shota Imanaga (23) and Yuta Iwasada (25). Both service time rookies in 2016, Imanaga is obviously the better prospect at this point because he’s two years younger. Imanaga had a 2.93 ERA and struck out 136 batters in 135.1 IP. Iwasada had a 2.90 ERA, 5th best in the Central League, and 156 Ks (4th best) in 158.1 IP. MLB ETA: 2024 at the earliest — both have a long way to go.
Shun Yamaguchi (29), Masahiko Morifuku (30), Naoki Miyanishi (31), Takayuki Kishi (32), Yoshihisa Hirano (33) and Tsuyoshi Wada (36) are the pitchers most likely to sign with MLB teams this off-season.
Yamaguchi is still relatively young, has had success in NPB both as a closer and a starter, and was having a strong season in 2016, until shoulder problems caused him to miss the last three weeks of the regular season. That obviously hurts his chances of signing with an MLB team this off-season.
Morifuku is a very small situational lefty (5’8″, 145 lbs) who has been very good in six of the last seven seasons, but was dreadful in 2015, when he was probably dealing with an injury. Despite his size, I think he’d have a shot at being an effective MLB short man, so long as you made sure to limit him to no more than 60 appearances and 55 innings pitched a season.
Miyanishi is another left-handed short man, who is a bit bigger than Morifuki. After nine full NPB seasons in this role, Miyanishi has a career 2.37 ERA and his rookie year in 2008 was the only year he had an ERA over 2.89. I have no reason to believe he could not help at least one MLB team in this role.
Kishi is kind of a poor man’s Kenta Maeda, another small right-hander (5’11”, 169 lbs) who can definitely pitch. He has an NPB career record of 103-65 and a career 3.05 ERA, all of it as a starter. He missed almost two months to a right adductor strain this season, and he was limited to only 16 starts in 2015, possibly due to elbow soreness. That’s not promising, and since I see him as a reliever in MLB, he can probably make more money signing a multi-year deal in Japan where he will remain a starter.
Hirano had a strong 2016 season as the closer for the Orix Buffaloes. However, he signed a three-year deal before the 2015 season, so he won’t be joining MLB for at least another year.
Tsuyoshi Wada’s 2012-2015 MLB career did not go the way he wanted it to. He almost immediately blew out his elbow tendon and had to spend two seasons working his way back to the majors. That said, he did prove he’s an MLB-caliber pitcher, posting a 3.36 ERA in 20 starts over two seasons with the Cubs.
Back in NPB, Wada had a strong 2016 season, posting a 3.04 ERA and striking out 157 in 163 innings pitched. If a major league team were willing to give him another shot, he’d be worth the risk, even at age 36. However, Wada may be content being an ace for the relatively high-paying SoftBank Hawks going forward.