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Japan: Rintaro Sasaki Skipping NPB Draft to Play In NCAA

 Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network  |    Oct 17th, 2023 9:17am EDT

A rendering of proposed renovations to Hawkins Field at Vanderbilt University, where Japanese prospect Rintaro Sasaki might play college baseball after foregoing the Nippon Professional Baseball draft. (Illustration Courtesy of Vanderbilt University

By Julian Guilarte
World Baseball Network

First baseman Rintaro Sasaki was the top prospect for Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball draft coming out of Hanamaki Higashi High School this past summer. 

Sasaki decided to skip the NPB draft and instead, he will play NCAA Baseball. Vanderbilt is the favorite to land him, ESPN baseball insider Kiley McDaniel reported on October 10. 

Sasaki, 17, made history by hitting 140 home runs in his high school career, shattering the previous record of 111 set by Kotaro Kiyomiya previously in 2017 at Waseda Jitsugyo High School. Sasaki went to the same high school as Shohei Ohtani and was coached by Ohtani’s father Hiroshi. Sasaki also bats left-handed like Shohei Ohtani. At six feet tall and 250 pounds, Sasaki has been nicknamed the “Japanese Prince Fielder” by Yakyu Cosmopolitan.

Sasaki was the favorite to be the top pick in the upcoming NPB draft. He is the most significant Japanese prospect to make this move of skipping the NPB for college. The most recent Japanese player to do it before him was Rikuu Nishada. Nisahada was picked in the 11th round of the 2023 MLB draft. 

Asked for comment regarding Sasaki, Vanderbilt associate director of athletic communications Will Owens said, “Per NCAA rules and regulations, Vanderbilt University does not comment on prospective student-athletes until a National Letter of Intent has been signed.”

“There is no precedent for a top Japanese high school prospect coming to an American college and entering the Major League Baseball draft,” ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel wrote.

This move could help Sasaki get to Major League Baseball much more quickly, but he will most likely not be able to get an NIL deal in college, as students on visas are prohibited from working off-campus unless it is related to their academic endeavors.

Sasaki isn’t expected to play this coming year, and would likely make his college debut in 2025. If Sasaki had stayed in Japan, he would’ve had to wait nine years due to service time obligations to be posted by an NPB club, which would enable him to negotiate an MLB contract. 

By playing college baseball in the United States, Sasaki could enter the Major League Baseball draft as early as next year, were he to play at a junior college, or in three years if he were to go to an NCAA program.

“Given that uncertainty, scouting consensus is that Sasaki currently is roughly a third-round draft prospect,” McDaniel noted. 

McDaniel grades Sasaki’s raw power as a 70 which is the highest possible grade and views Sasaki as a potential 30-home-run guy each season. The only concern McDaniel has about Sasaki is how he’ll adjust to higher velocity pitching. In Japan, the fasting pitching he faced ranged from 82-86 mph. 

Joe Doyle, a senior analyst for Future Stars Series Plus, tweeted that scouts he spoke to agreed with McDaniel’s power grade of 70 and said that his game will likely translate to college. The scouts also noted that he can barrel the ball to all fields and his weakness is velocity up-and-in. 

Sasaki spoke to Friday Digital in July about his power and team. 

“I am not obsessed with the number of home runs I hit. I appreciate the attention, but my priority is to help the team win. I only think about fulfilling my role,” Sasaki said. 

One stretch that showed his power to all fields was when he hit four home runs in the Aichi Prefecture Tournament last June. He hit two of his four home runs in his first two at-bats. In his second at-bat, he pulled a curveball that was low and away. In his second game, he hit an opposite-field home run on an outside fastball. He hit a home run to center field in the third game. 

“I think my batting is one of my weapons, and I practice with confidence. If I take my best swing without being influenced by my condition, the pitches will scatter on their own,” Sasaki said.

Vanderbilt’s baseball program was established in 1868 and they have won two College World Series, most recently in 2019. They went 42-20 in 2023, and their season ended with a 2-1 loss to Xavier in the Regionals of the College World Series on June 4.

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Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network