Yoshinobu Yamamoto of Team Japan delivers a pitch against Team Mexico during the fifth inning during the World Baseball Classic Semifinals at loanDepot park on March 20, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
By Conor Liguori
World Baseball Network
Even if you don’t follow Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, you might have heard the name Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
The Orix Buffaloes’ starting pitcher has been remarkably consistent the last few years and has not posted an ERA above 2.00 since the 2020 season. Yamamoto is expected to be posted for Major League Baseball consideration this off-season.
The 25-year-old is in the midst of another outstanding season in Japan and was excellent in his final start of the 2023 regular season on Monday. He struck out 11 and walked two in seven scoreless innings, throwing 112 pitches against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Orix won 3-0. Yamamoto finished the regular season with a 1.21 ERA and 0.892 WHIP in 157 innings and is going to be a pivotal piece to the puzzle if the Buffaloes are to win back-to-back Japan Series championships.
The highlight of Yamamoto’s season was Saturday, September 9, against the Chiba Lotte Marines. With many Major League Baseball scouts in attendance, Yamamoto threw a no-hitter, the second of his career. He struck out eight and walked one in the 4-0 win.
“I’m really happy,” Yamamoto told reporters after the game. “I’m going to aim higher and try to do it without allowing any walks.”
There will likely be abidding war for his services come winter, and for good reason. Yamamoto features a fastball upwards of 100 mph, a knee-buckling curveball,and a splitter that drops off the table. Major League Baseball scouts received an up close and personal look at the right-handed pitcher’s arsenal at the 2023 World Baseball Classic, where he struck out 12 of the 27 batters he faced.
The New York Yankees should be in the mix for big-name free agents this winter, including Yamamoto. Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman was in attendance for his no-hitter on September 9. Yamamoto would likely be the Yankees’ No. 2 starter behind 2023 American League Cy Young Award candidate Gerrit Cole.
According to Jon Heyman of the New York Post, Major League Baseball teams with rumored interest in Yamamoto’s services are the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, and Arizona Diamondbacks. The majority of the listed teams are generally rumored to acquire most big-name free agents winter after winter, but they may have to reach deep into their pockets for a contract for Yamamoto.
According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, Yamamoto’s MLB contract could reach $160 million. In comparison, Japanese pitcher Kodai Senga signed for $75 million over five years with the New York Mets last winter. Senga was one of the best starting pitchers in the National League this season and has quickly become underpaid. If Yamamoto were to sign with the Mets in the off-season, he and Senga could be one of the better starting duos in Major League Baseball.
The largest posting system contract in Major League Baseball history is current Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagle and former New York Yankee Masahiro Tanaka, who agreed to a $155 million, seven-year deal with the Yankees in 2014. It seems likely Yamamoto’s contract will surpass that figure.
Since the beginning of the posting system in 1998, there have been 24 players that have made the switch from Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan to Major League Baseball in the United States. Generally speaking, pitchers have signed larger contracts than position players. Even future Hall of Fame outfielder Ichiro Suzuki signed with the Seattle Mariners for just three years, $14 million.
MLB teams will have 45 days to negotiate a contract with Yamamoto if and when he is posted. If a contract agreement is not signed within that time frame, he will return to the Orix Buffaloes for the 2024 season. As of today, that seems highly unlikely.
Below are the five most significant contracts given to pitchers via the posting system.
1. Masahiro Tanaka – Seven Years, $155 million with New York Yankees (January 22, 2014)
2. Yu Darvish – Six Years, $60 million with Texas Rangers (January 18, 2012)
3. Yusei Kikuchi – Four years, $56 million with Toronto Blue Jays (January 2, 2019)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka – Six Years, $52 million with Boston Red Sox (December 14, 2006)
5. Kenta Maeda – Eight Years, $25 million with Los Angeles Dodgers (January 7, 2016)