By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network
At the 2009 World Baseball Classic, American fans got their first look at Yu Darvish, arguably the best pitching prospect to come out of Japan since Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.
And while Darvish wouldn’t come to the United States to play for the Texas Rangers for another three years, his sparkling appearances in that World Baseball Classic, which included a two-inning relief appearance at the end of the championship game won by Japan over Korea 5-3, whetted the appetites of Major League organizations and their fans to bring Darvish to the majors.
And while no two baseball games are alike, history has a tendency to repeat itself. This year, Japan will again have a highly-touted young pitching prospect on their World Baseball Classic roster, one who will get American fans – and Major League organizations – excited.
Roki Sasaki, 21, has pitched each of the last two seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball, the top professional league in Japan. And though he’s only appeared in 36 games in his young career, Sasaki, a righthander who throws from a three-quarters arm angle with a fastball that touches 102 mph, has left a big impression.
On April 10, 2022, Sasaki took the mound for the Chiba Lotte Marines and gave one of the greatest pitching performances the world has ever seen – and that’s not hyperbole. The then-20 year old hurler threw the first perfect game in the NPB in 28 years, striking out 19 batters in the outing – and 13 of the strikeouts were consecutive, in a 6-0 win against the Orix Buffaloes.
The performance earned a game score of 106, the highest of any game pitched since Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game for the Chicago Cubs in 1998.
How do you follow a performance like that?
For Sasaki, there was no letdown. Sasaki stepped onto the hill and threw eight perfect innings in his next start against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters before being lifted for fear of him injuring himself.
Should Japan make it to the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, Sasaki could pitch on an American mound for the first time at Loan Depot Park in Miami on March 19 or 20.
A great performance in the World Baseball Classic will surely get American fans interested in Sasaki, whose performances last year have undoubtedly made him a bright bip on MLB organizations’ radar screens.
But you’ll likely have to wait to see Sasaki playing in the majors.
Japanese players can only leave NPB as free agents once they have accrued nine years of service time. Until they have accrued that service time, they have to ask their team to place them into the “Posting System,” a procedure where, once an NPB team has given the player permission, the player has 45 days to negotiate a deal with an MLB team. The player’s NPB club would then receive a percentage of the total value of the player’s MLB contract as a fee for releasing him.
Additionally, foreign-born players are subject to rules restricting signing bonuses to international players who are not eligible for the MLB Amateur Draft and have not reached the age of 25.
So it’s likely that Sasaki won’t be coming to America for at least four more seasons.
But if you’re an MLB fan, you’ll want to watch Roki Sasaki during the World Baseball Classic and hope with all your might that your favorite team makes him an offer he can’t refuse when he hits the market on this side of the Pacific.