If you've been on this blog before, then you know that one of the things I like to do on here is spotlight baseball players who I believe are the stars of the future. Whether they're already in the Major/Minor League system here in the states, or they're playing abroad, my goal is to cast a wide net so that we can all become more knowledgeable fans of the world's greatest game. With that, this week I decided to write about a player who's currently preparing to compete in the Japan Series, starting this weekend, for his Tokyo Yakult Swallows. While he's still years away from even thinking about jumping stateside, I think the sooner we all know about Munetaka Murakami, the better.
Murakami's story began back in 2017 when he was picked by the Swallows from the Kyushu Gakuin Integrated High School in the first round of the NPB Draft. He spent most of the 2018 season playing for the Swallows' farm league team, where he concluded the season with a .288/.389/.490 slash line (batting average/on base/slugging), 17 home runs, 16 stolen bases, and a few awards from the farm league including Rookie of the Year and Eastern League Most Valuable Player. While he did play a few games for the Swallows' first team, he didn't show much, though he did crack his first career home run in his first big league at-bat.
One year later in 2019, Murakami was called to play for the Swallows' first team from the start of the season, becoming the youngest player to suit up for the Shinjuku based club in their 60 year history. He answered that call with a remarkably dominant season. Over 143 games played, the then 19 year old racked up a .813 OPS (on base + slugging), 36 home runs, which broke the record for most home runs in a season by a player under 20, and a 12.4% walk rate. Looking at his stat line, you will also find some blemishes including a .231 batting average and a 31% strikeout rate, but remember that Murakami was literally a teenager at the time. So these numbers, while raw, were staggering for a player his age. Murakami finished his first full season in the NPB with his first All Star team appearance and the Central League Rookie of the Year award.
Murakami developed greatly in 2020, as he saw improvements to many of his weaker stats from a year prior. Over a 120 game season, which was shortened due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, he finished the year with a .307 batting average, a 76 point increase from the previous season, a 22.3% strikeout rate, an almost nine percent decrease, and a 16.9% walk rate, which was 4.5% higher. All of these stat changes, and his additional 28 home runs and league leads in both On Base Percentage (.427) and Slugging Percentage (.585) indicated that he was starting to find his footing as one of the NPB's best batters. And although his strong play didn't translate to wins for his squad, as the Swallows finished dead last in the Central League, it did result in him earning his first Best Nine award (essentially a Silver Slugger award in MLB). Another player who earned a Best Nine in 2020 was recent Long Story Sport blog post recipient Seiya Suzuki.
All of this strong play over his first two full seasons in the NPB made him a shoo-in for a call-up to the Japanese National Team for the 2020 Summer Olympics, of course played in the summer of 2021. While he had suited up for his country before, this competition would be the biggest stage for him at that point in his career. And he did not disappoint at all, as the 21 year old emerged as one of his nation's most prominent stars as Japan clinched their first ever Gold Medal in the games.
Over a five-game stretch, Murakami finished with a .333/.474/.533 slash line, six runs, and a go-ahead solo home run off Nick Martinez in the final against the USA. His play was instrumental for "Samurai Japan", a team that is now rated number one in the world.
His play of course translated in the NPB, as he continued to be one of the most consistently great players in the league. This season, the now three-year pro finished with a .278/.408/.566 slash line, a .983 OPS, and career bests with a 21.1% strikeout rate, and a 17.3% walk rate. He also became the youngest player in league history to reach 100 career home runs with a blast to right field off southpaw starting pitcher Kouya Takahashi at the age of 21 years, seven months, and 17 days, besting the previous record holder, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, by almost two months. He finished the season with a league tying 39 home runs and 104 for his career.
Now while all of this sounds great and you're probably ready to tweet your favorite team with all of this useful information (please do by the way and tag @SoSBaseball while you're at it), I feel the need to pump the breaks just a little bit. While Murakami is indeed a blue-chip prospect, he's still way too young to be thinking of leaving Japan at this point.
The youngest position player to make the move from the NPB to the MLB was reigning American League MVP Shohei Ohtani, who was 23 years old when he moved from the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (what a name) to the LA Angels in 2018. Of course, Shohei is the exception to any rule laid down by the baseball gods, so I feel it would be unfair to expect Murakami to follow in his footsteps.
So, with that being said, I expect Munetaka Murakami to come over stateside in around four to five years, as he'll be in his mid-20s by that point, and thus nearing his prime years. I expect that over the next few seasons, he'll continue to raise his game both at the dish and on the field so that by the time he does decide to move on, he'll be one of the most highly sought after Japanese free agents of all time, just like Shohei was in 2018.
I know I'm excited to watch out for this potential generational talent, and I hope you'll all join me in the years to come as we continue to scour the world to find the next superstar to be. Be on the lookout for more of these explainers, as next week we'll remain in Japan so that we get a look at Murakami's teammate, middle infielder Tetsuto Yamada.
Featured Image Credit - KYODO via The Japan Times
Video Credit - @tom_mussa_v2 on Twitter
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