Yamamoto started his career back in 2017, one year after he was drafted by the Buffaloes in the fourth round of the Nippon Professional Baseball Draft. He was initially used as one of the club's mid inning relievers, but in 2018 he was made the club's set-up man. In 2018, Yamamoto finished second in the Pacific League and tied for 4th in the whole NPB with 32 "holds."
That year, he also finished with a 4-2 record, a 2.89 ERA, and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Not bad for a 19-year-old who had just pitched his first full season in the world's second strongest baseball league. (Note: Experts agree that the NPB's skill level rest somewhere between MLB and Triple A.)
It was clear that this kid had already compiled most of the intangibles to become wildly successful in the NPB, and representatives from Japan's National Baseball Team agreed, as they added him to their team for the WBSC Premier 12 tournament, which is a competition where the world's 12 highest ranked baseball nations compete for medals, similar to the Olympics. During the competition, in which Japan won gold, Yamamoto allowed one run in five innings and struck out six.
The next season, in 2020, Yamamoto continued his strong performance the previous season. He finished fifth in the league in ERA with a 2.20 and sported an 8-4 record and an incredible 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings rate.
Ohtani is arguably the face of MLB right now, and Sasaki has made international headlines. But neither of them has ever posted an NPB season on the mound as good as Yamamoto did in 2022. At age 23, he finished with a 1.68 ERA, a 0.927 WHIP and 205 strikeouts in 193 innings across 26 starts, winning the Pacific League MVP and a Triple Crown of pitching.
Those numbers were a slight downgrade from his previous season, in which he also won MVP and a Triple Crown with a 1.39 ERA. (Jack Baer and Zach Crizer - Mar 8, 2023)
Giants president Farhan Zaidi traveled to Japan to do some early free agent browsing. Zaidi observed Yamamoto who did not have his best showing in Orix’s 8-5 victory, giving up five runs on 10 hits while striking out nine in seven innings. But the line score likely did nothing to damper enthusiasm for the 25-year-old right-hander, whose combination of stuff and command is otherworldly.
Yamamoto is expected to be posted in a matter of weeks and might be the most coveted player on the free-agent market after Shohei Ohtani. “It’s been a pilgrimage over there from front-office people to see him,” Zaidi said of Yamamoto earlier this month while joining Alex Pavlovic’s Giants Talk Podcast. “He’s really one of the top starting pitchers in the world. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not.” (Baggarly - Oct 19, 2023 - The Athletic)
Back home in Massachusetts after spending a season playing for the Saitama Seibu Lions in Japan, one of Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s former opponents has encountered constant questions from childhood friends and college buddies who want to know more about the star free-agent pitcher.
Where does Yamamoto want to go?
How good is he, really?
Wherever Yamamoto signs, David MacKinnon, who reached the major leagues in 2022 with the Angels, expects success.
“He legitimately could win your Cy Young Award next year,” MacKinnon says. “Like, he’s that good. It’s not some scrub coming over here. He’s disgusting.
“It wasn’t fun facing him. You’d go up there and it was like, ‘Maybe I can get a hit. Yeah, maybe. Maybe he makes a mistake today.’ Or it was like, ‘I just gotta grind out a walk.’ You were just trying to not go 0-for-4.”
So far this winter, only superstar Shohei Ohtani has generated more buzz than Yamamoto. On a video call with Japanese reporters based in the U.S. last week, Joel Wolfe, a long-time agent with a history of representing stars, said of the fervor surrounding his client: “This is by far the player with the most interested teams that I have ever seen at the beginning of free agency.”
Yamamoto has until Jan. 4, 2024 to sign with a Major League Baseball team after the Orix Buffaloes, his team in Japan, posted him. Per Wolfe, nearly half the league has checked in on him. Though the agent wouldn’t name specific clubs, the Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Yankees, Mets and Giants headline the group of teams reportedly coveting Yamamoto. Projections anticipate him reeling in a long-term deal north of $200 million.
A lot of the fuss surrounding Yamamoto stems from his age. Players traditionally do not reach free agency until they are around 30. Yamamoto stands out because he is only 25 years old.
There’s also this: Yamamoto can pitch like an ace, according to the consensus from a poll that The Athletic recently conducted about what to expect from him.
A group of eight people, including one former longtime teammate of Yamamoto, two players with experience against him and five scouts/executives who have heavily evaluated him, largely agreed that Yamamoto projects in the major leagues as a front-of-the-rotation pitcher.
“He’s legit-legit,” said outfielder Brian O’Grady, who played for the Saitama Seibu Lions in 2022 after spending parts of the previous three seasons with three MLB teams.
Translation: Yamamoto isn’t just a legitimately good pitcher. He is the kind of pitcher who can legitimately dominate.
MacKinnon said, “He’s nasty. He’s smart. He’s just a really, really good pitcher.”
So how good will Yamamoto be? It’s always hard to tell. The questions from MacKinnon’s friends might as well serve as a microcosm of the industry. The outlook sure looks promising, though. But like every pitcher who comes from Japan, Yamamoto will have to acclimate to an array of different challenges such as different mounds, increased travel, better competition and more. The change in baseball texture alone may lead to other adjustments within his arsenal, too.
With Yamamoto, there are at least a couple of absolutes: he will surely get paid a lot of money, and wherever he goes, he will experience an adjustment period. But those who have scouted him thoroughly are confident about another thing.
As one long-time evaluator said, “His pitch-ability will allow him to expertly navigate all of those challenges.” (Sammom - Nov 27, 2023 - The Athletic)
Dec 22, 2023: The Dodgers agreed to a 12-year, $325 million deal with coveted Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The Dodgers are also on the hook for a posting fee of around $50 million to Yamamoto's former Nippon Professional Baseball team, the Orix Buffaloes. The deal includes a $50 million signing bonus, has no deferrals, and includes opt-outs after years six and eight.
|Bizen, Okayama, Japan
|2023 - Dodgers - Free agent - Out of Japan
Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto is in the discussion of best pitcher in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league, and he could conceivably sign with a Major League team, if he so chooses.
The big thing that allowed Yamamoto to find early success as a professional was simple: he had already developed a strong arsenal of pitches. According to international baseball scout Kazuto Yamazaki, Yamamoto has been known to throw up to five pitches, and all with high proficiency.
Yamamoto has both a 4-seam 92-96 mph FASTBALL with riding, cutting life. He has a SPLITTER that is a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale with huge depth he can land in the strike zone or bury for chase swings. He mostly overwhelms batters with those two pitches. He also has a CUTTER. And he has a CURVEBALL, along with a SLIDER.
Yamamoto's repertoire covers a ton of pitches that feature high velocity. According to Yamazaki, Yamamoto's 4-seam fastball has a peak velocity of around 97 miles per hour and an average speed anywhere between 92-95, which is par for the course for most pitchers in MLB today. The one thing that can be said about the heater that can't be said about most pitchers' fastballs in The Show, however, is that he hasn't been known to lose velocity, even deep into his games.
Yamazaki noted in his scouting report that the pitch "hit 94 on the stadium gun on the 122nd pitch" during one of his evaluations. The other "fastball" type pitch that is worth a mention is his splitter. According to Yamazaki, this pitch has the potential to be "a future elite MLB put-away pitch" down the road, meaning this pitch could be used to get a lot of outs.
Yamamoto's curveball is on the shortlist for the most pretty looking curveball in the game today, regardless of league. If you want a dictionary definition of the term "swords", or the moment when a hitter swings his bat in a foolish fashion, then just watch this kid throw a curveball.
Yamamoto is durable despite his size with a fast arm and a clean delivery. He aggressively pounds the strike zone with above-average control and has a good feel for mixing his pitches. Yamamoto projects to be a No. 2 or 3 starter in MLB. His club, Orix, may post him after the 2023 season. (Geoff Pontes - Baseball America - March, 2023)
- 2023 in Japan: Pitch Usage/Avg. Velo: Fastball 43.6% - 95.4 mph; Split 29% - 90 mph; Curve 25.5% - 77 mph; Cutter 9% - 93.4 mph.
He has been outstanding during his short career in Japan. He’s won Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League MVP award and what is their equivalent to the Cy Young award. Over his seven-year career in his homeland, he is 70-29, with a 1.72 ERA, and has averaged just over nine strikeouts to just two walks every nine innings.
Yamamoto will be the most prized pitcher on the open market for two reasons. First, he’s posted better results in Nippon Professional Baseball than any pitcher who’s ever signed in the majors. Second, he’s only 25, making him an appealing option for teams that are both looking to win right away in 2024 and toward a sustained window of competitiveness beyond next year.
Yamamoto has won the last three Eiji Sawamura awards — Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award — and twice been named the Pacific League’s most valuable player.
Yamamoto works with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and touches higher. His best secondary pitch is a splitter that dives off the table, and he utilizes an unorthodox grip on a tight curveball. Yamamoto has struck out opposing hitters about 50 percent more than the league average in Japan. (Britton/Gleeman - Nov 6, 2023 - The Athletic)
Fastball command jumps out as a major tool. Yamamoto’s minuscule walk rate in Japan (5.7 percent) resembles Tanaka’s impressive figure in NPB (5.2 percent) and the best marks from Darvish (6.6 percent) and Senga (9.3 percent). However, scouts cautioned that NPB offense was down in 2023, especially for power, and batters in that league swung early to avoid getting down in the count and becoming vulnerable to Yamamoto’s other weapons. Clearly, he will have to pitch more carefully to MLB hitters, which would theoretically lead to more walks, a scout said.
Other scouts referred to Yamamoto’s pitch package as very good, noting he throws strikes and stays available even if there wasn’t any one particular aspect of his repertoire that was overly unique. In other words, unlike Senga, Yamamoto does not have a pitch that has garnered a nickname like Senga’s splitter or “ghost fork.” But the list of things he does consistently well is lengthy. His fastball checks in at 94-98 mph. He hits spots well. He works both sides of the plate with two-seamers in and cutters away. He weaponizes a curveball using a special grip — his thumb is more on top of the ball as opposed to spiking it — that produces a dramatic drop. And, like many Japanese pitchers, he utilizes a splitter that should perform well in MLB against batters who aren’t as familiar with it.
Yamamoto’s most distinctive feature may be his windup — he throws the ball with minimal lifting of his foot, works quickly and uses deceptive pauses. MacKinnon and O’Grady said Yamamoto does a good job of thinking ahead and using a range of speeds, even with the same pitches. For example, his curveball can go as slow as 75 mph, and he uses different sliders at different speeds. Whereas Senga possesses the better splitter, both MacKinnon and O’Grady said Yamamoto has a superior curveball and a better fastball. The way Yamamoto works down on the mound with extension gives the illusion of his fastball rising or jumping at batters. (Sammon - Nov 27, 2023 - The Athletic)