Young Pitchers Yamamoto, Sasaki Are Two Future MLB Stars Now Playing in Japan

Roki Sasaki of Team Japan pitches during the 2023 World Baseball Classic Semifinal game against Team Mexico at loanDepot Park on March 20, 2023 in Miami, Florida. Sasaki is a dazzling young pitcher in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball who will draw the interest of Major League Baseball teams soon. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

By Matthew Tallarini
World Baseball Network

The next two potential Major League Baseball stars from Nippon Professional Baseball who could seek to be posted, starting pitchers Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes and Roki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines, pitched lights out during their first starts of the 2023 regular season.  

Yoshinobu Yamamoto pitched at home against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on April 5 and went six innings, allowing two hits, no earned runs, walking two batters and striking out six in his 2023 debut. In his season debut with Chiba, Roki Sasaki went six innings allowing one hit, no earned runs, no walks, and striking out 11 batters. 

Both pitchers have been on the major league radar since before the start of the 2023 World Baseball Classic after impressive numbers from last year during the 2022 NPB season. During the 2023 World Baseball Classic, Yamamoto helped Japan win their third WBC title, going 1-0 and recording a 2.45 ERA in two games, throwing 7.1 innings and allowing four hits, walking two batters and striking out 12 during the tournament. 

Yamamoto can potentially be posted after the 2023 NPB season, which would allow him to have discussions with Major League Baseball teams on signing with an MLB organization for the 2024 season.  Yamamoto has been with Orix since he made his debut on August. 20, 2017, when he was 18 years old.. 

In a breakthrough 2020 NPB season, Yamamoto went 18-5, leading the Pacific League with a 1.39 ERA through 193.2 innings pitched and striking out 206 batters. Last year, he won the 2022 Pacific League MVP Award and pitched a no-hitter on June 18. Yamamoto went 15-5 last season, recording a 1.68 ERA through 26 starts and pitching 193 innings, allowing 137 hits, walking 42 batters and striking out 205. 

Yamamoto has built quite a resume through the last six seasons, winning an NPB championship, two Pacific League Gold Glove Awards, two Eiji Sawamura Awards, which is equivalent of the Cy Young Award in the NPB, a four-time All-Star, and two-time Japanese pitching Triple Crown winner in 2021 and 2022.  

Yamamoto started to draw the interest of major league scouts during the 2020 Olympics, where he helped Japan win gold and was selected as the Tokyo 2020 All-Olympic Team after recording a 1.59 ERA in two starts, pitching 11.1 innings and allowing seven hits, walking two batters and striking out 10 en route to capture Olympic glory on his home soil. 

According to MLB Trade Rumors, “The MLB club that eventually signs Yamamoto after the 2023 season will need to pay the Buffaloes a fee that is equal to 20 percent of the contract’s first $25 million, plus 17.5 percent of the next $25 million and 15 percent of any dollars committed thereafter if the Buffaloes decide to post him during the end of this year.”

During the World Baseball Classic, Sasaki appeared in three games, making two starts and earning a 1-0 record along with a 3.52 ERA through 7.2 innings pitched, allowing seven hits, walking two batters, and striking out 11. 

Sasaki pitched a perfect game in NPB on April 10 last season, the first in the NPB regular season since Hiromi Makihara in 1994 and the 16th perfect game overall in the league’s history.  He also tied the NPB record with 19 total strikeouts during his perfect game, which was originally set by Koji Noda of the Orix BlueWave in 1995.  

Sasaki, 21, is about to start his second full season for the Chiba Lotte Marines after he went 9-4 in 20 starts with a 2.02 ERA pitching two complete games and one shutout last year. Through 129.1 innings pitched, he allowed 80 hits, walked 23 batters and stuck out 173 along with being selected to his first All-Star Game. 

“I don’t know, for the Major League, I think the timing — rather than the timing, I think I will play in Japan, and then I think something will become clear when I’m going to shift over,” Sasaki said of a potential move across the Pacific to Major League Baseball.

Sasaki can potentially make the shift from Nippon Professional Baseball to Major League Baseball during the 2027 season. If he does so, he would be covered under the international bonus pool restrictions for Major League clubs, who would also have to go through the Japanese posting system. Sasaki has expressed his interest to the media that his dream is to play in the United States. 

Sasaki is still young and mixes four pitches effectively, including a fastball that tops out near 102 mph. He will again be on an international stage for Major League Baseball scouts during the 2024 Premier 12 tournament next November, where he will help Japan remain try to remain No. 1 in the World Baseball Rankings.  

If they can both stay healthy through the course of the 2023 Nippon Professional Baseball season, Sasaki and Yamamoto could have Major League organizations’ front offices pondering how big a check they can write to the two Japanese standout starting pitchers.

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