The Best Hitting Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2018/2019

Offense was way up in Japan’s NPB in 2018, as, perhaps, “launch angles” have reached Japan.  Anyway, there was more hitting in NPB in 2018 than in recent past seasons.  That may be a good thing, because it might get some of the best Japanese hitters more interest from MLB clubs.  There are more potential NPB position players who could be MLB starters now than there were a few years ago, and it may be time for MLB teams to look to NPB for more than just pitchers.

Here are the best position player prospects for MLB this off-season as I see it:

Tetsuto Yamada (26 years old in 2019; MLB ETA 2019-2021).  A speedy 2Bman, Yamada bounced all the way back from a disappointing 2017 season, slashing .315/.432/.582 in 2018.  He also stole 33 bases in 37 attempts.  Because offense was up this year, Yamada arguably hit better in 2015 and 2016 than he did this year, but he was good enough.

Yamada plays for the small-market Swallows who are likely to post him when the time comes, and he’ll be young when that happens, most likely next off-season.

Hideto Asamura (28, 2019).  Another 2Bman, Asamura also had a bounce back year with the bat in 2018, putting up his best offensive numbers since 2013, when he was primarily playing 1B.  Asamura slashed .310/.383/.527.  Here’s some video of Asamura playing SS in high school, which gives you a good idea why he became an NPB star.

There are better hitters lower down this list, but Asamura is an NPB domestic free agent this off-season, and he’s still in the prime years of his career.  Asamura plays for the small market Seibu Lions, so he’ll either be posted this off-season, or he’ll sign a three or four year deal with one of NPB’s three rich teams for roughly 400-500 million yen ($3.6M-4.45M) per season.

I don’t have any real idea of how good Asamura’s or Yamada’s second base defense is — the raw numbers look good, but there are probably more ground balls hit in NPB than in MLB.  Obviously, how well Asamura and Yamada pick it and turn the double-play will have a big impact on MLB teams’ interest.

Yoshihiro Maru (30, 2019).  Maru had a tremendous season in 2018, slashing .306/.468/.627, finishing first in the Central League in on-base percentage and second in slugging percentage.  He drew 130 walks in only 125 games, and he also earned his domestic free agent option this year.

Maru plays center field in Japan but would almost certainly be a corner outfielder in MLB.  That, and being two years older is why I have him rated below Asamura.  Even so, I’m convinced that Maru would get on base enough in MLB to be a Nori Aoki with more power.

Maru plays for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.  The Carp are now one of the middle four teams in NPB that now routinely draw around 2 milllion fans a year.  However, the Carp are notorious tight-wads, so I expect that either Maru will be posted or he will end up signing with the Yomiuri Giants or Hanshin Tigers this off-season for 4 years and 2 billion yen ($17.8M).

Dayan Viciedo (30, 2019).  Former MLBer Dayan Viciedo had an eye-opening 2018 season in Japan.  He led the Central League with a robust .348 batting average and finished sixth with both a .419 on-base percentage and a .555 slugging percentage.

The knock on Viciedo as an MLB player was his inability to get on base.  He improved that ability dramatically in Japan in 2018, and he’s still young enough to return to MLB.  Of course, one great year is only one great year, and in his 2016 and 2017 seasons in Japan, he looked like the player who wasn’t quite an MLB every-day player when he left for Japan.

Seiya Suzuki (24, 2022-2023).  Suzuki slashed .320/.438/.618 in his age 23 season, which roughly matched his breakout season in 2016.  He’s a corner outfielder, and with only four stolen bases in eight attempts, he did not run as well as he did the previous two seasons when he stole a combined 32 bases in 49 attempts.  He can hit, though, and he’ll be young when he becomes available to major league teams.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (27, 2020-2021).  One of NPB’s top sluggers, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo slashed .295/.393/.596 in 2018.  He’s a corner outfielder who doesn’t run well, and his power numbers would drop in MLB, but he’s enough of a hitter and he’ll be young enough that he should draw MLB interest when the time comes.

Kensuke Kondo (25, 2020-2021).  Kondo is a former catcher who now plays the corner outfield positions.  He slashed .323/.427/.457 in 2018.  In other words, Kondo doesn’t have much power, but he really gets on base.  His career NPB on-base percentage of .397 is extremely impressive for a player this young.  He runs well for a former catcher.

The ability to get on base is the ability that best translates for NPB hitters trying to make the jump to MLB.  That, and Kondo’s tender age relative to his NPB service time, are the reasons why I like him.

Tomoya Mori (23, 2022-2023).  Moyi is a true catcher who slashed .275/.366/.457.  That’s actually a slight drop-off from his career .288/.369/.465 slash line.  If he can stay healthy at catcher, he could be an MLB player when the time comes.

Yuki Yanigita (30), Hayato Sakamoto (30) and Shogo Akiyama (31) are three NPB players with MLB-level talent we may never see in MLB.  Yanigita, who slashed .352/.431/.661 leading NPB’s Pacific League in all three categories and has a career .422 on-base percentage, still has two more years to play on his current three-year deal with the NPB-wealthy SoftBank Hawks.  When his contract ends, he’ll be 32 and past his MLB window, as I’ll explain below.

Hayato Sakamoto is NPB’s best SS and has long since achieved his international free agent option.  However, he’s shown no signs of wanting to leave the Yomiuri Giants.  Sakamoto slashed .345/.424/.537 in 2018.

Despite ten full years of NPB service, the Yomiuri Giants, NPB’s richest team, paid Sakamoto only a reported 350 million yen ($3.2M) in 2018, which seems criminally low.  However, as an ethnic Japanese, Yomiuri Giants superstar, Sakamoto likely makes more money in endorsements than any MLB player.  There aren’t any basketball and football player in Japan to take the big endorsement money away from baseball players and specifically, ethnic Japanese, Yomiuri Giants superstars.

Shogo Akiyama isn’t as good as Yanigita or Sakamoto, but he did slash .323/.403/.534 in 2018 and has an OBP above .400 and an SLG above .500 over the last four NPB seasons in which he’s played every single game.  However, he has one season left on his three-year contract with the Seibu Lions, and he’ll be 32 in 2020.

I don’t think that any NPB position player once he reaches his age 32 season is worth being signed by an MLB team, unless he’s willing to play for less guaranteed money than he’d make staying in NPB.  Hitters, in particular, are on the decline once they reach their age 32 seasons, and almost all NPB players with the talent to make the jump to MLB successfully do so in their age 27 to 29 seasons.

Kosuke Fukudome is a case in point.  He came to MLB as a 31 year old rookie on an MLB market rate four-year $48M contract.  Fukudome was decent major league regular, but he wasn’t worth anywhere near the contract the Chicago Cubs gave him, which was far, far more than any NPB would ever have given Fukudome.  Had the Cubs signed Fukudome for four years at $30M, Fukudome would still have made more money than any NPB team would have given him, and his MLB career would not be remembered as such a disappointment.

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6 Comments on “The Best Hitting Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2018/2019”

  1. Burly Says:

    Word out of Japan is that Hideto Asamura will be exercising his domestic free agent option, and his current team, the Seibu Lions, have already offered him a three-year 1.5 billion yen ($13.24M) contract. The Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks, Rakuten Golden Eagles and Orix Buffaloes are also all reported to be interested in Asamura. No rumors that he will be posted for MLB teams.

    • Burly Says:

      It has been reported that Asamura has reached an agreement with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. No word on the amount of the contract or for how many seasons, but it seems clear now he won’t be coming to MLB anytime soon and likely never.

  2. Burly Says:

    Yoshihiro Maru will be staying in NPB also, having reached a deal with the Yomiuri Giants, possibly for five years and 3 billion yen ($26.6 million). NPB teams do not report salary amounts, so media sources give best estimates. It’s unknown whether the 3 billion yen figure includes performance incentives, for example, although I would guess it does, because Maru’s reported contract is in total amount almost certainly the largest contract in NPB history.

  3. Burly Says:

    19 year old 1Bman Munetaka Murakami is impressing with his power bat. He’s only batting .244 but has 14 home runs already in the young season.

    • Burly Says:

      Murakami has now hit 28 HRs, the third best season in NPB behind Kazuhiro Kiyohara twice. Unfortunitely, HRs are the stat that transfers lease well to MLB.

  4. Burly Says:

    Yoshitomo Tsutsugo just became the 8th youngest NPB player to hit 200 HRs. Too bad that’s the stat that transfers least well to MLB.


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