Could Ohtani Pave the Way for the Japanese Hitter?

The arrival of Shohei Ohtani was always going to change baseball. Dubbed “the Japanese Babe Ruth” with the ability to both hit and pitch at a major league level, Ohtani brought a skill set that we may only see once in a generation. Yet beyond his on field performance for the Angels, the impact of Ohtani’s arrival might soon be felt across baseball as he helps to usher in a new wave of Japanese talent.

Japanese players coming to the MLB is nothing new. In recent seasons, star pitchers like Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka have come across the Pacific alongside a bevy of competent relievers and back-of-the-rotation starters. Yet, quite surprisingly unlike these Japanese hurlers, the last marquee hitter to make the jump from Japan’s top league, the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball League) to the MLB was probably Hideki Matsui in 2003. There are a number of reasons for the seemingly few Japanese hitters in the MLB but perhaps the most prevalent explanation is that the transition for a hitter is much harder than for a pitcher from the Japanese to American versions of the game. If a pitcher has great stuff, it will translate, however for hitters, this translation of skills is much more difficult to predict. While many professional analysts have determined the quality in Japan to be similar to AAA, the style of pitching and hitting is vastly different. Pitchers often top out in the high 80s and often use a variety of unique breaking balls to get outs -- this is in direct contrast to the major leagues where nearly every pitcher now throws 95+. The slower pitching means Japanese hitters often take a different approach at the plate, lunging themselves at balls with loopier swings and high leg kicks.

This perceived inability of NPB hitters to make the jump to the MLB simply because they don’t “look the part” or have the ability to adjust to MLB pitching has kept many out of the majors, including Ohtani himself. As a hitter alone Ohtani wouldn’t have been nearly the commodity or perhaps even playing in the majors at all, as many scouts projected he would be a below average to replacement level bat and would soon make the full time move to pitcher due to his unorthodox hitting mechanics. Yet, due in part to a torn UCL, Ohtani actually made the transition to full-time hitter in 2018 where he posted an impressive .925 OPS with 22 HR and 10 SB in just 367 plate appearances. While it is true that Ohtani may just be a once in a lifetime player, his All-Star level success as a hitter in the MLB certainly paves the way for a number of Japanese hitters (with better Japanese stats than Ohtani) to make the jump to the big leagues. And even if they can perform at just an average to above average level, they could be a relative bargain making Japanese hitters the new market inefficiency for analytically minded teams to exploit.

So now the question is posed...which Japanese hitters are targets to make the transition from Japan to the MLB, how much would they cost, and how much are they worth? For this analysis, I will be using OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging) from baseball reference, while not a tell-all offensive metric, it certainly provides a good base level understanding of the offensive quality of a player. Additionally, I will be standardizing OPS for both league (Japan has the same league structure as the MLB: one league with DH and one league without) and ballpark (some parks in Japan are extremely hitter or pitcher friendly). Then, using a formula that averages recent OPS changes of players  who have moved from Japan to the majors or visa versa we can create a graph that allows us to plug in the adjusted OPS of a Japanese player and give a very rough projection of what we’d expect this player to hit like in the major leagues. By filtering the Japanese league by players over the age of 25 as these players eligible to sign professional contracts with MLB teams and sorting that list by OPS, a list of five solid contenders to play in the MLB emerge.

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Tetsuto Yamada 2B, Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Yamada is considered by many to be Japan’s top prospect. He has a unique mix of power and speed, as well as still being relatively young (he will be 26 at the start of next season). He has incredible plate discipline (1.14 K/BB in 2018), coupled with 30/30 steal and homerun ability making him an ideal target for the top of most lineups. His lack of a solid defensive position seems to be his only true weakness. Of all of the hitters in Japan, Yamada seems to be the only one currently on MLB radar’s and might have a chance to be the playing in the US sometime soon.

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Yuki Yanagita OF, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks

Yanagita is easily the most impressive hitter in Japan, with OPSs over 1.000 three of the past four seasons despite playing in a pitcher-friendly stadium. This success comes at a high cost as Yanagita is one of the highest paid players in NPB recently inking a 3 year, 10 million dollar contract, that could make the financial cost of bringing him over to the MLB too high for a number of teams. His age (he will be 30 this offseason) may also be a deterrent for a long term commitment.

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Yoshihiro Maru OF, Hiroshima Toyo Carp

Maru is another 29 year old veteran outfielder who is probably soon going to be too old to get a real chance to be a MLB star. While over the course of his career he has consistently hit for over .300, in 2018 he really began to find his power stroke his nearly doubling his previous career high in home runs of 23 with a stunning 39 long balls. Whether he can continue this transformation into a slugger for seasons to come is perhaps the biggest barrier to his future in the MLB.

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Yoshitomo Tsutsugo OF/1B, Yokohama DeNA BayStars

The 26 year old Tsutsugo is Japan’s top young power bat, blasting over 38 home runs in two of the last three seasons. While on paper his profile suggests he might be Japan’s best offensive player, his numbers must be taken into perspective. He plays in what is widely considered to be Japan’s most hitter-friendly ballpark, which most likely highly inflated his home run numbers.

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Hotaka Yamakawa 1B, Saitama Seibu Lions

Yamakawa had a breakout season in 2018, hitting 48 home runs with an OBP of .399, however anyone studying the numbers could have seen this breakout coming. In partial playing time in the previous two seasons, Yamakawa’s OPS still hovered around the mid .900s. For the Lions first baseman, however, there will be yet another obstacle for him to overcome before making the shift to the major leagues, his unorthodox size. While few MLB players stand below six feet tall, rarely do you ever see a 5’9” first baseman who aso weighs 231 pounds. This unathletic build might be enough to scare off would be suitors.

Despite a bevy of flaws, these five players have all posted very compelling stats over their last few seasons.  Understanding the transition to the major leagues, however, involves a deeper dive into the numbers. In the table below I take a look at the four most recent players to either transition from Japan to the MLB or MLB to NPB with at least 3 years of experience in each league (with the exception of Ohtani). By plotting these values on a graph there is an r^2 of .44, which indicates a moderate correlation between NPB statistics and MLB statistics.  While the sample size of just four hitters may be too small to make broadscale generalizations, the limited number of players to make the transition in the last few seasons meant getting recent data with a large sample for each individual player more important.

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Using the trendline provided, we can plot the adjusted OPS values for each of the potential MLB players along the line and get a value for their projected MLB OPSs. (Park factor is the % above or below 1 where PF > 1 is hitter friendly, so 1.1 is 10% more favorable for hitters then the average stadium)

The MLB average OPS for the 2018 season was .728 meaning each of the selected players is projected to be an above average major league hitter, with a few (Yanagita, Maru) projected to be All-Star caliber players. While it is reasonable to temper expectations based on the small sample and difficulty of transitioning between leagues, it is clear these players are certainly capable of performing at an MLB level and most likely at reasonable salaries. As the highest NPB salary is only about 6 million USD, most MLB teams could easily outbid Japanese teams for their services. In fact, perhaps the biggest challenge is convincing the players to leave home and take up their craft on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, by making the assumption that hitting mechanics are not a problem for Japanese players, major league teams should certainly start to consider signing Japanese hitters regardless of size, mechanics or age, because for the small cost, they could soon become some of the best values in baseball and the next major market inefficiency to exploit.  

Jacob Wessels

USBC Journal Writer

Class of 2022