Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2017/2018

[2018-2019 Off-Season version of this post is here.]

Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball produces an increasing share of top MLB pitchers.  Here are some prospects (in terms of MLB) I’m keeping my eyes on:

Shohei Otani (age 23 in 2018; MLB ETA 2018-2020).  By now, just about everyone following MLB has heard of Otani, particularly because rumor has it he wants to join MLB in 2018 in spite of the fact that he would make at least $100 million more by waiting two more years until he turns age 25 and is no longer subject to signing bonus/contract limits.  Otani is generally regarded as the next Yu Darvish / Masahiro Tanaka, except that Otani is also a legitimate elite MLB prospect as a hitter.

Otani injured his hamstring running the bases early in the 2017, which limited his pitching efforts to a mere 25.1 innings pitched this season.  MLB teams couldn’t care less, because Otani can command a 102 mph fastball and has a number of other MLB plus pitches.

Otani wants to continue hitting as well as pitching in MLB, and who can blame him.  He slashed .332/.403/.540 in the 65 games he played after coming back from the hamstring injury.  He slashed .322/.416/.588 in 104 games last year.

Did I mention he’s only 23 years old and commands a 102 mph fastball?  The question is which MLB team will win the Otani sweepstakes if he elects to sign this off-season.

Miles Mikolas (29; 2018).  Mikolas is a former MLBer who elected to take guaranteed money to pitch for NPB’s Yomiuri Giants three seasons ago.  It has worked out extremely well for him and his wife, who has also become a celebrity in Japan.  This year Mikolas’ 2.25 ERA was the second best in Japan’s Central League, and he led the six-team circuit with 187 strikeouts in a league-leading 188 innings pitched.

Mikolas now has a combined 2.18 ERA across his three NPB seasons and has steadily improved most of his peripheral numbers.  In particular, he walked only 23 and allowed only 10 home runs in his 188 IP this year.

Mikolas looks to be the next Colby Lewis.  However, an MLB team will likely have to beat the two-year $10 million offer the Yomiuri Giants will likely offer to keep him.  Given what MLB starters are now getting that seems likely.

Yusei Kikuchi (27; 2020-2021)  Kikuchi moves up sharply from last year’s list, because one of last year’s negatives has become a positive.  Prior to 2017, Kikuchi had never pitched more than 143 innings in an NPB season.

This year, at age 26 he led NPB’s Pacific League with 187.2 IP.  He also led the league with a 1.97 ERA and finished a close second with 217 Ks, while allowing only 122 hits.

I rank Kikuchi higher than the next pitcher on this list, because Kikuchi was used so sparingly before the age of 26 and also because at a listed 6’0″ and 220 lbs, he’s got an MLB-sized body.  Kikuchi is also a left-hander, which only adds to his potential appeal.

Takahiro Norimoto (27; 2020-2021).  Norimoto has been every bit as good an NPB pitcher as Kikuchi, but he’s a small right-hander who has been worked hard in his five NPB seasons.  He led NPB with 222 Ks (in a second-best-in-league 185.2 IP).  Norimoto has now struck out 200+ batters four years in a row.

His 2.57 ERA was second best in the Pacific League, and his ERA has improved every year he’s been in his league.  The knock on Norimoto is his size (5’11”, 180 lbs), and the fact that he’s almost certainly thrown more pitches than anyone else in his league over the last five seasons.  If he stays healthy, he should be the next Kenta Maeda when his MLB turn comes.

Tomoyuki Sugano (28; 2022).  Sugano convinced me a year ago that he’s the real deal, and this year he was even better.  He led all of NPB with a 1.59 ERA and struck out a second best in the Central League 171 batters in 187.1 innings pitched.  He’s been too good for too long not to give him his props and rate him as an elite MLB-level talent.

That said, the Yomiuri Giants will not post him before he becomes a unrestricted free agent, he started his NPB career at a relatively old 23, and, if he’s still healthy after the 2021 season, the Yomiuri Giants will likely give him a record setting four year deal of at least $25 million and probably more.  In short, Sugano will only come to MLB if he decides he wants to test himself against the best.

Shintaro Fujinami (24; 2021-2023).  In last year’s post on this subject, I wrote, “The Hanshin Tigers seem determined to burn out their young ace before he ever reaches MLB.”  The Tigers may have done so.

Fujinami had an absolutely brutal 2017 season, making only 11 major league starts and allowing 53 walks and HBPs against only 41Ks in 59 innings pitched.  It’s little short of amazing that he managed a run average below five per nine innings pitched, given the number of base runners he allowed, and probably attests to Fujinami’s abilities as a pitcher.

Has Fujinami’s arm been ruined, or is it a mechanical problem with his motion? It’s hard to say.  On July 29, 2017, he reportedly hit 98 mph on the radar gun in an NPB minor league start, matching a major league pitch Yusei Kikuchi reportedly threw around the same date.  In 61 innings for Hanshin’s minor league club, Fujinami struck out 77 but also walked 31 and posted an ERA of 2.66, but a run average of 3.39.

I would guess that overwork has something to do with it, as his 2016 performance was down from his breakthrough 2015 campaign.  We’ll have a better idea a year from now.

Yuki Matsui (22; 2022).  A small (5’8.5″, 163 lbs) left-handed closer for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Matsui has electric stuff (366 Ks in 303.1 career NPB innings pitched) and what appears to be close to four full seasons of NPB experience through his age 21 season.

As I wrote a year ago, it’s anybody’s guess whether a pitcher this small and this young can hold up to the often high-stress workload of a closer long-term.  He had a 1.20 ERA this season and was almost unhittable, but his strikeout rate was down from 2016.

Takeru Imamura (27; 2020). A reliever who moved into the closer role in 2017, he’s got an MLB-sized body (6’0″, 216 lbs) and has impressed the last two seasons with sub-2.50 ERAs and high strikeout rates.

Kodei Senga (25; 2023-2024).  A very talented young starter who now has a career NPB ERA of 2.52 and 467 Ks in 418 innings pitched.  He’s not real big (6’1″, 189 lbs) and has many more years to put in in Japan before he’ll have an opportunity to pitch in MLB.

Yasuaki Yamasaki (25; 2023).  A small right-hander (5’11”, 187 lbs) who has saved 96 games in his three NPB seasons, has a career 2.35 ERA and 211 Ks in 179.2 IP.

Shota Imanaga (24; 2024).  A small lefty starter who has been good enough his first two NPB seasons to put a bookmark in.

NPB pitchers available this off-season include:  Yoshihisa Hirano (34), Hideaki Wakui , Kazuhisa Makita , Hirotoshi Masui (34), Scott Mathieson (34) and Josh Lueke (33).

The St. Louis Cardinals reportedly have interest in Hirano. Wakui has expressed interest in pitching in the U.S., although I suspect he’ll get better offers from NPB teams.

Makita and Masui are both NPB “domestic” free agents, meaning their teams would have to post them.  Masui has good stuff, but is awfully small (he’s listed as weighing 154 lbs.)  Makita is a ground ball pitcher (46 HRs allowed in 921.1 IP) who might draw MLB interest, if MLB teams think he can prevent MLB hitters from hitting home runs.

Scott Mathieson has had a great NPB career and could potentially return to MLB.  However, I suspect he’s probably just making noises to get a better offer from the Yomiuri Giants.  It looks like Josh Lueke has burned his bridges with the Yakult Swallows, and I don’t know how interested MLB teams would be given his history.

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20 Comments on “Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2017/2018”

  1. Burly Says:

    Haruhiro Hamaguchi is a small lefty, who as a 22 year old rookie this year who struck out 136 batters in 123.2 innings pitched. Earlier today, he shut down the SoftBank Hawks to keep the Hawks from sweeping the 2017 Japan Series against Hamaguchi’s team, the DeNA BayStars.

  2. Burly Says:

    Shinnosuki Ogasawara, another small lefty, has 163 Ks in 191.1 career NPB IP through his age 19 season.

  3. Burly Says:

    Tomoyuki Sugano beat out Yusei Kikuchi for the 2017 Sawamura Award, NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young.

  4. Burly Says:

    Kazuhisa Makita reportedly would like to be posted so he can take a stab at MLB. He’s a submarine right-hander who throws a lot of ground balls but doesn’t strike many out.

  5. Burly Says:

    Hideaki Wakui has exercised his free agent option and is hoping for interest from an MLB club. We’ll see if an MLB team bites.

  6. Burly Says:

    MLB teams are reportedly interested in Jay Jackson (30), another top set-up man in Japan like Scott Mathieson and Josh Lueke.

  7. Burly Says:

    Scott Mathieson reportedly just re-signed with the Yomuiri Giants for 2018 at a cool $3.2 million. It looks like I was right that Mathieson’s noises about returning to MLB were designed to get him a nice, fat contract from Yomiuri.

    • Burly Says:

      Indeed, Mathieson reportedly received a two-year deal from Yomiuri. Not too bad for a set-up man going into his age 34 season.

  8. Burly Says:

    Hirotoshi Masui signed a four year deal with the Orix Buffaloes that will pay him 900 million yen ($8 million) over the first three seasons.

  9. Burly Says:

    Miles Mikolas just signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals for a reported total guarantee of $15.5 million. My best guess was that Mikolas would get a two-year deal with an option for a third year with a guarantee of $12M. I was close based on what I thought would be the best offer Mikolas would get from the Yomiuri Giants.

  10. Burly Says:

    Chris Martin, after two very successful years with the Nippon Ham Fighters, is returning to MLB. He signed a two-year deal with the Rangers that guarantees him $4 million with $550,000 in annual performance incentives.

  11. Burly Says:

    It was reported today that Kodei Senga has asked the SoftBank Hawks to post him so he can play in the U.S. before earning his international free agent option (nine years of NPB service) at some point in the future.

  12. Burly Says:

    Jay Jackson re-signed with the Hiroshima Carp for 2018 at $1.5 million. He had garnered some interest from MLB teams this off-season, but apparently did not receive an offer as good as that made by the Carp.

  13. Burly Says:

    San Diego Padres have reportedly reached a two-year $4 million deal with Japanese sub-mariner Kazuhisa Makita.

    • Burly Says:

      Kazuhisa Makita was optioned by the Padres to AAA today. He hadn’t pitched that badly but three home runs in 16 innings pitched had uglied up his ERA. Makita was advertised as a groundball pitcher, but a lot of supposed groundball pitchers are still susceptible to the long ball in today’s MLB majors.

  14. Burly Says:

    https://www.baseballessential.com/news/2018/03/14/the-next-wave-of-japanese-stars/

    Not sure how you could fail to mention Yusie Kikuchi. He’s already on MLB’s radar in a big way.

  15. Burly Says:

    Takahiro Norimoto just became the fifth fastest pitcher to reach 1,000 career NPB strikeouts in terms of innings pitched. Three of the four ahead of Norimoto pitched in MLB.

  16. Burly Says:

    Today was a good day for pitchers on my list still in NPB. Tomoyuki Sugano pitched a complete-game, six-hit shutout while striking out nine. Shintaro Fujinami pitched what was almost certainly his best game of 2018 so far, pitching 6.1 shutout innings on four hits and three walks and also striking out nine. Kodei Senga threw only five shutout innings, but struck out 11.

  17. Burly Says:

    Rumors out of Japan are that the Seibu Lions may be willing to post Yusei Kikuchi this off-season. Kikuchi would likely command a max $20 million posting bid from multiple MLB teams.

  18. Burly Says:

    Yuki Nishi has earned his domestic free agent option and has expressed an interest in pitching in MLB. He’s a small right-hander, though, and isn’t one of NPB’s truly elite starters. He might be an MLBer in a relief capacity. He’d probably do just as well staying in Japan.


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