The World Baseball Classic is just around the corner. While the focus of most is on the star-studded roster of the Dominican Republic or the familiar-faced United States team, I’m here to tell you why you should take interest in the Japanese team.
Japan knows what it’s like to prosper in the WBC having won in 2006 and 2009 and finishing third in 2013 and 2017.
This year, Japan opens with the third-best odds to win it all and is in Pool B along with South Korea, Australia, China, and the Czech Republic. Fans will recognize the MLB All Stars on the roster, but the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) players might be some of the most interesting to watch.
Based on numbers alone it’s hard to not award the best rotation to Japan. Heading the group is the best player in baseball, Shohei Ohtani, and another established MLB pitcher in Yu Darvish. Supporting them is a group of 13 other pitchers from the Nippon League who averaged a 2.28 ERA in 2022. Let that sink in for a second.
The average ERA in the MLB last year was 3.96. It’s hard to compare talent across the two leagues, however both Ohtani and Darvish had ERAs in line with this during their time in the NPB so I think it’s safe to say they’ll fair decently.
If you found your way to this article and don’t know who Shohei Ohtani is, first, I’d like to know how you got here, but second, I suggest looking him up, the dude is pretty good at baseball. This is Ohtani’s first WBC appearance and he’ll clearly act as the poster child for this Japan team. Arguably the most impressive player to ever pick up a baseball, Ohtani won MVP in 2021 and posted a whopping 172 ERA+ on the mound last year. Oh, and did I mention he hits the ball too? Unlike a lot of players on this roster, Ohtani does not need me to hype him up for you. But here’s a video anyway to either remind or introduce you to just how good this guy is.
Yu Darvish also adds a quality arm to the rotation with his absurd arsenal of pitches. Darvish owns a career 3.50 ERA and has played some of his best baseball in the last five seasons. At age 36, he has continued to excel since debuting in 2012. His outing in the World Baseball Classic will be his first big showcase since signing an extension with the Padres. He’s also no stranger to WBC success. Darvish was on the bump when Japan closed out their 2009 championship:
And just for fun here’s Ohtani and Darvish scheming what I can only imagine is a pitch that’s going to dice up lineups throughout the next few weeks:
Next up, Yoshinobu Yamamoto. This guy is a workhorse. Last year he had a 1.68 ERA through 193 innings last year, 9.6 SO/9, and a 0.927 WHIP. Now would you believe me if I told you that wasn’t even his best season? He’s a 2x Nippon Pacific MVP, 2x Eiji Sawamura Award winner (Nippon Cy Young), 3x ERA champion, 2x Japanese Pitching Triple Crown winner, and even tossed a no-hitter last year. The dude tops out at 97mph with his fastball and it’s an absolute delight to listen to:
The flamethrower of this rotation is none other than Rōki Sasaki. Last season Sasaki had a ridiculous 0.796 WHIP and 173 strikeouts in 129.1 innings. His nickname “the Monster of the Reiwa Era” is not only ridiculously sick but dates his dominance to the current era of the Japanese calendar.
Sasaki has always thrown heat, breaking the Japanese high school record with his 163 kilometers per hour (101.2mph) fastball. Sasaki’s accomplishments include a perfect game back in April 2022 that produced the NPB record for most strikeouts in a game (19) and the record for most consecutive strikeouts (13) which is also a world record beating Corbin Burnes, Tom Seaver, and Aaron Nola’s previous record of 10.
What’s ridiculous is that SEVEN days later Sasaki was PERFECT AGAIN through eight innings before being yanked to preserve his health. This man threw 17 perfect innings of baseball IN A ROW. I think it’s easy to get lost in the flashy names from the MLB, but I imagine Sasaki could very realistically be Japan’s ace throughout this tournament. The 21-year-old hit 102.5mph just the other day in a warmup game and gave us this hilarious moment:
Due to the nature of the WBC teams need only four starters. The guys above should get the majority if not every start for team Japan but here are some other names that could function as impromptu starters/inning eaters.
Shōsei Togō is a 22-year-old pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants. He’s coming off his best season where he had a 2.62 ERA through 171.2 innings. Togō has two NPB All-Stars to his name and was the second youngest player to win the Fighting Spirit Award which goes to the MVP of the losing team in the Japan Series.
Keiji Takahashi is a southpaw from the Yakult Swallows. In 2022 he had a 1.098 WHIP and 117 strikeouts in 105.2 innings. He’s already drawn attention from fans due to his ever-varying delivery. The MLB has announced they won’t be letting erratic movements like his slide so we’ll have to wait and see if he gets away with it in the WBC.
Shōta Imanaga is the oldest member of this Japan pitching staff at 29 (!). His 2.04 ERA was the third lowest amongst the Nippon starters on the team. As he’s the most seasoned pitcher of this second group expect him to get the call if Team Japan needs an emergency starter. His arsenal includes a fastball peaking at 94.4mph, slider, curveball, and changeup.
Japan will have a fun young guy in Hiroya Miyagi. In 2021 he put up a 2.62 ERA and 135 strikeouts through 151 innings which won him the Pacific League Rookie of the Year. While he tipped towards regression in 2022, Miyagi still produced a good year with a 3.16 ERA and 127 Ks. What’s most fun about this guy is palmball which has hitters looking silly as it blows past them almost 20mph slower than Miyagi’s fastball.
Hiroto Takahashi is the youngest member of Team Japan at 20. Last season he had a 2.47 ERA with 10.3 SO/9. His lack of experience in the NPB leaves him as a little bit of a mystery but he should help the team should he be called on.
Middle-inning guys will include Yuki Matsui who had a whopping 1.92 ERA last year which was shockingly only his third-best full season (0.87 through 72.1 innings in 2015 and 1.17 through 53.2 innings in 2017). Disappointingly, he hasn’t faired too well in exhibition games where he gave up 10 runs in just two outings. Despite his NPB dominance, expect him to take a step back this tournament in favor of other relief options.
Atsuki Yuasa and Hiromi Itoh will also see time out of the pen. The two had a 1.09 and 2.95 ERA respectively last season. Yuasa won the award for most valuable setup pitcher last year in the NPB and Itoh won a gold medal with Japan in 2020. Itoh also throws possibly the best Eephus you’ll ever see:
Taisei Ota has just one year of NPB experience under his belt but took the league by storm winning the Central League Rookie of the Year Award and posting a 2.05 ERA with 37 saves. He’ll likely be one of the go-to closers for team Japan and rightfully so. Here’s Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish giving their looks of approval as Ota tosses absolute filth in a Japan exhibition game.
The other two options to close out games will be Yuki Udagawa and Ryoji Kuribayashi. Udagawa managed to increase his fastball velocity from 88.8mph in college to 98.8mph with his NPB team the Orix Buffaloes which he pairs with a forkball. Kuribayashi was 2021 Rookie of the Year with a ridiculous list of accolades to accompany it including a 23-game clean sheet and the record for consecutive games without giving up a run since opening with 22.
Team Japan is bringing three catchers to the World Baseball Classic. The first of which is Takuya Kai who will likely start behind the plate in most games. Kai is not much of a hitter but makes up for his lackluster plate presence with impeccable defense evidenced by his six NPB Gold Gloves. His presence should keep aggressive runners wary during the games he’s playing.
The other two catchers are Takumi Ohshiro and Yuhei Nakamura. Oshiro is the best hitter amongst the catcher Team Japan has. He had a .745 OPS last season with the Yomiuri Giants and hits lefty. I expect he’ll pinch-hit when necessary and catch only if it’s a last resort. Nakamura is another experienced player with 7 NPB all-star appearances and 3 Gold Gloves. He should be the backup catcher but could take over as the primary guy depending on Kai’s performance.
Munetaka Murakami. Know the name because this guy is going to take the world by storm. The back-to-back Nippon League MVP is an absolute unit of a baseball player and is about as thrilling as one can get. His 2022 season was something from a video game where he slashed .318/.451/.711 and broke the record for most home runs in a season by a Japanese-born player with 56. With Murakami comes some incredibly entertaining moments. Just watch this video of him breaking the HR record and find me a crowd more electric than this.
Oh, you thought that was fun? Here’s him tying the record. Note the crowd again, music playing during the at-bat, him watching the ball, the trot, bench appreciation, etc. I can’t get enough of this environment.
With Murakami almost certain to hit back-to-back with Ohtani in the lineup, this one-two punch for Team Japan could cause a lot of trouble for opposing pitchers. Plan on him starting at third base. If you’re from the US and can bear waking up at 5 A.M. to watch these guys play it will 100% be worth it. Pool B plays in the Tokyo Dome so expect crowds like the ones from these videos.
Sōsuke Genda will start at shortstop in the absence of Hayato Sakamoto (the best NPB shortstop of all time). Genda is an average hitter who thrives more on defense with 4 Gold Gloves. Like many of the hitters in this lineup, the pitching during the later stages of the tournament could be an issue for him. But if Genda can make plays like this it will make up for it.
On the right side of the field is power-hitting Shugo Maki. He holds a few records with the most doubles in a Central League rookie season (35), the most consecutive NPB at-bats producing a double (5), and a tie with the most hits in an NPB rookie season. Last season he had an OPS of .860 which should land him in the middle of the Japan lineup. Maki can play second but I expect he’ll spend the most time at his primary position of first base.
Rounding out the infield starters is second baseman, Tetsuto Yamada. At 30 years old, Yamada is past his prime, but he was once one of the best players in the league. A once 1.00+ OPS player now hits closer to the league average. That being said, his defense is still quite sound and his veteran presence should help the younger players on the roster given he produced moments like these in the 2017 WBC.
Corner infielder Hotaka Yamakawa is the definition of donkey pop when it comes to power-hitting. He had a career-high 41 home runs last season and a .953 OPS. Should Japan opt for a lineup consisting of more power hitters at the expense of defense Yamakawa could easily play first with Maki sliding over to second which could this team that much more fun to watch. And with a swing like this, that case becomes more compelling depending on how many times you rewatch this video which includes an awesome homerun celebration at the end:
The final player is middle infielder Takumu Nakano. Having been the NPB stolen base leader in 2021, Nakano looks to act as mainly a pinch runner. In two seasons he’s produced average hitting with almost no profile for power. His fielding is sufficient but leaves no reason to make a case for a starting spot. Nakano should serve as a solid depth player
Masataka Yoshida signed with the Red Sox during the offseason so technically he’s an MLB name now. But being that he has yet to play a regular season game for them I’ll use this opportunity to share how crazy he was in Japan. He’s a career .327 hitter in the NPB and has a laundry list of awards to his name including two batting titles. He’ll likely start in the outfield for Team Japan. Here’s a clip of him sending a ball into orbit to walk off a game:
He’s also one of the most likable guys on the planet. Despite him only speaking Japanese, in his Boston introductory press conference he prepared a speech fully in English about how honored he was to be a part of the Red Sox. He’s even vowed to honor his former team, Orix Buffaloes, with success in Boston.
People were quick to draw comparisons between Yoshida and Ichiro Suzuki given their similar tracks to the MLB (Yoshida playing for 7 years in Japan to Suzuki’s 9) and hitting styles. The two are some of the best pure hitters Japanese baseball has seen with .353 and .327 career averages for Suzuki and Yoshida respectively. For further comparison, Suzuki posted a .943 OPS with 118 HR during his time in Japan. Yoshida leaves behind an NPB career .960 OPS with 133 HR.
The relative stats shouldn’t be taken too seriously given that one has never seen a regular season pitch and the other should be a Hall of Famer but it’s always fun to draw comparisons.
Joining Yoshida in the outfield is St. Louis Cardinals Lars Nootbaar. Nootbaar is the first non-Japanese-born player to ever make a national team for the country. He put up a 125 wRC+ last season and had some impeccable plate discipline earning him a 14.7% walk rate. Fellow MLB player Seiya Suzuki was supposed to join him in the outfield before withdrawing with a left oblique strain.
With Suzuki out, Team Japan looks to either Kensuke Kondoh or Ukyo Shuto. Two utility outfielders who will likely now split time with the vacancy in right field. Kondoh is a seasoned veteran (age 29) who could benefit Japan at the plate. He is a walk machine drawing 71 of them in 420 at-bats which was sixth in the Pacific League. Shuto will serve better on the basepath as he was originally planned to be the team’s primary pinch runner. He stole 50 bases in 2020 which led the league. He’s a wizard on the basepath as evidenced by this sequence:
Team Japan has two true utility players this year. First is Taisei Makihara who plays both outfield and middle infield. At 30 years old he is still putting up decent numbers as he slashed .301/.330/.406. Where he falls behind is his defense which is keeping him from starting on this team. Regardless, Makihara should be a solid option coming off the bench or getting the nod in certain situations. If he’s able to see some time in the outfield here’s to hoping we can see his next-level range on display.
Kazuma Okamoto can play both corner infield and outfield. A solid bat who’s hit 30+ home runs in each of his last five seasons is expected to be a power-focused pinch hitter. Limited at the plate by his high strikeout rates, Okamoto doesn’t have enough to start over the likes of Murakami or Maki but could still be a vital piece of the offense deep into games.
So there they are. Your 2023 Japanese World Baseball Classic team. There is no doubt in my mind that these guys will be one of the more exciting groups in the tournament. With their environment in the Nippon League being an already established gateway to an MLB contract, a lot of these players will be looking to show off with the attention of the baseball world directed toward them. Japan is set to play China on March 8th, Korea on the 10th, Czech Republic on the 11th, and Australia on the 12th. The Quarterfinals 1, should they make it, will start on March 15th.
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