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Who is the Real Munetaka Murakami?

 Yuri Karasawa  |    Jul 9th, 2024 12:59pm EDT

TOKYO, Japan – On October 3, 2022, Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ third baseman Munetaka Murakami hit his 56th home run in his final at-bat of the regular season, breaking Sadaharu Oh’s single-season Japanese-born home run record, which stood for 58 years. From June to August, Murakami hit .393 with 34 home runs, 69 RBI, and an OPS over 1.300 in a Bondsian display that earned him the nickname “Murakami-sama,” replacing the last character of his family name with God. Overall, the 22-year-old slashed .318/.457/.710 with 10.3 WAR en route to the Triple Crown and the first unanimous Central League MVP award in 45 years.

However, Murakami has not replicated his success since the incredible heights of his scorching-hot 2022 summer. A walk-off double against Mexico and a 432-foot bomb against Team USA made him a hero in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, but it had been a month to forget until that point as he was 2 for 18 with ten strikeouts to open the tournament. He then entered the 2023 NPB regular season in a massive slump, hitting .157/.311/.265 with a 37.9 K% through the end of April. Murakami gradually found his stride again, posting an OPS of over .900 in four of the next five months. Ultimately, he finished the campaign with a .256/.375/.500 line and 31 home runs, a far cry from the previous year, but a solid showing nonetheless.

During the winter, Murakami admitted on X that he had lost himself and struggled to make mid-season adjustments. Many fans speculated that playing with global superstars like Shohei Ohtani on Samurai Japan gave Murakami a sense of imposter syndrome, feeling like he didn’t belong with the best of the best. Still, expectations were high for Murakami going into 2024 as he lost weight and started swinging a longer bat over the offseason. Would Murakami return to his MVP form?

It took him 13 games to get on the board in the home run category, but Murakami got off to a great start in 2024. His excellent plate discipline was on display as usual, walking at a 21.0% clip through the end of May with a .406 OBP and .889 OPS. He also became the youngest player in NPB history to reach the 200-home run milestone. Considering that NPB’s league-average OPS was in the low .600s due to the effect of pre-tacked deadened balls, the 24-year-old was putting up superstar numbers.

However, things turned for the worse in June as he fell into a slump reminiscent of his start to the 2023 season, hitting just .215/.319/.354 with a 34.1 K% for the month. Things haven’t improved in July yet, as he’s batting .190 with no extra-base hits. Overall, for the year, Murakami has a .232/.374/.423 slash with 15 homers in 78 games. The low-scoring environment means he still has a very good 149 wRC+, identical to last season, but it isn’t close to the 224 wRC+ he displayed in 2022.

He has the worst strikeout rate (30.2%) since his 2019 rookie campaign, and his whiff rate (38.6%) is the worst ever of his career. Since the start of 2023, he’s been a .247 hitter, which is acceptable for a slugger of his caliber, but is nowhere near the .300 hitter he was from 2020 to 2022. His in-zone contact rate (74.1%) is by far the worst in NPB among qualified hitters and is much closer to a Joey Gallo or Max Muncy profile than a batting champion. So, was 2022 merely an outlier, and is this the true version of Munetaka Murakami as he sets his sights on MLB by 2026?

Year Chase% Z-Contact% HardHit% wRC+
2019 24.0 74.5 38.0 112
2020 24.4 79.9 43.2 162
2021 24.5 80.8 42.2 169
2022 23.5 77.1 48.5 224
2023 26.0 74.4 45.8 149
2024 26.5 74.1 48.5 149

Munetaka Murakami advanced stats

Luckily, while Murakami’s contact skills have declined in recent years, he still possesses a tremendous power-discipline combo like few other batters in the world. According to SIS Baseball’s synthetic statcast data, Murakami has the highest average exit velocity and hard-hit rate in Japan, and his xSLG on balls in play is in the top five at .632. It’s fair to attribute some of his shortcomings to the dead balls this season, as his batted ball profile has remained remarkably steady throughout his entire career. Moreover, his chase rate has consistently stayed between 23.5% and 26.5%, pointing towards exceptional plate skills that should translate to many walks at any level. In other words, even at his worst, Murakami has several elite skills that provide him a higher baseline floor than almost any other 24-year-old.

Regarding his career outlook, Murakami has already established himself as one of the premier Japanese sluggers of all time and is expected to move stateside in the coming years. If and when he is posted, he’ll have to adapt to pitchers with higher velocity who ambush the strike zone more aggressively, which Seiya Suzuki says is one of the biggest differences between NPB and MLB. In NPB, Murakami has a 127 wRC+ with a 36.7 K% against fastballs over 93 mph (for context, Yoshi Tsutsugo has a 117 wRC+ and 43.5 K%, Masataka Yoshida has a 219 wRC+ and 10.7 K%).

For Murakami, it’s not whether he can hit velocity – he certainly can, as he slugged .796 against 93+ mph pitches in 2022 – but whether he can mitigate his swing-and-miss enough to be impactful. His below-average defense at the hot corner will also put additional pressure on his bat as he transitions to first base or DH. Needless to say, there are many challenges ahead for the Kumamoto native, but at just 24 years old, Munetaka Murakami has already tasted greatness and has all the talent to continue down that path.

Photo Credit: Munetaka Murakami #55 of Team Japan hits a solo home run in the second inning against Team USA during the World Baseball Classic Championship at loanDepot park on March 21, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

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Yuri Karasawa