A few days ago, I wrote a blog post about Munetaka Murakami, a young 21-year-old slugger who's quickly established himself as one of Nippon Professional Baseball's most exciting young players. With his plus power and high potential given his age, Murakami is surely destined for a future career in the MLB. But what if I was to say that even a player as talented as the "Babe Ruth of Higo" isn't even the best player in his team's infield?
Well if the scouts are to be trusted, then that is certainly the case over at the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. And today, in my never-ending search to find the NPB's best and brightest, I thought it would be appropriate to introduce all of you to that player. From the city of Toyooka in the Hyōgo Prefecture, I'm excited to talk about Tetsuto Yamada, the "Mike Trout of Japan."
Yamada, 29, is a 2nd baseman and occasional shortstop who's been playing in the NPB since his debut during the 2011 Climax Series. After becoming the second player to debut in Japan's version of the League Championship Series, he mostly sat on the bench for the entire 2012 season, as the Swallows already had two other shortstops ahead of him on the depth chart. It wouldn't be until 2013 when the team elected to make Yamada a 2nd baseman, replacing Hiroyasu Tanaka, and he finally started to find reliable playing time.
The ascent up to full-time starter allowed Yamada to fully establish himself a year later as he finished the 2014 season with career highs in practically every single major batting category. He faired so well in fact, that he tied Hiroshima's Yoshihiro Maru with an NPB-high 106 runs scored and led all of NPB with 193 hits, a mark that also set a new record in the Central League for most hits during a season by a right-handed batter. He also posted an excellent .324/.403/.539 slash line, cracked 29 home runs, stole 15 bags, and struck out only 13.8 percent of the time while walking 10.8 percent. By the end of the year, he was voted onto his first of six All-Star teams, was awarded his first of five Best Nine awards, and finished second in the Central's MVP race behind Tomoyuki Sugano.
Over the next several years until 2020, Yamada was at or near the top of many leaderboards across a variety of different statistics. From 2014-2019, he finished with an excellent .407 on-base percentage, 408 extra-base hits, 159 stolen bases, a 14.1 percent walk rate, a 17 percent strikeout rate, four separate 30/30 seasons (30+ home runs and stolen bases), and a Central League Most Valuable Player Award.
2015, in particular, was an incredible season for Yamada as he became the first player in league history to finish leading the league in both home runs (38) and stolen bases (34). In addition to winning the MVP, he also finished the regular season with the fifth-highest single-season WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in NPB history with an 11.7 and also hit three home runs in three consecutive at-bats during Game 3 of the Japan Series, a series his team would end up losing. When he was awarded his MVP, the Japan Times described his performance as something "the likes of which is seldom seen in Japanese baseball," adding later that with his additional improvements in the field as a defender, he was becoming "the total package."
By the start of the 2020 season, Yamada had already notched 202 career home runs, 168 stolen bases, a .296/.401/.533 slash line, and multiple awards and all-star appearances. Unfortunately, 2020 would be a bit of a down year for the 28-year-old, as he struggled to crack 12 home runs and finished with a 21.6 percent strikeout rate to only a 12.5 percent walk rate. Additionally, he also missed a career-high 26 games after suffering an "upper-body" injury in late July. This broke a spell that lasted several seasons from 2014 to 2019 when he missed a grand total of 15 games.
If there was one good thing that happened in 2020, however, it was that he signed a new seven-year contract worth 3.5 billion yen (30.3 million dollars) to stay with the Swallows until he turns 35. It seemed that the Swallows believed that any degression found in his game in 2020 was but a mere abnormality and not the beginning of a decline. And lucky for them, they were correct.
2021 was a big year for Yamada as he both helped lead his Swallows to their second Japan Series of his career, a series that is still underway as of writing, but he was also named to start for his country for the 2020 Summer Olympics. In the NPB, Yamada finished with a .272/.370/.515 slash line, a noticeable upgrade from a .254/.346/.419 in 2020, 34 home runs, and a 17.2 percent strikeout rate to a 13.1 percent walk rate, both noticeable improvements from the previous year. If there was anything he wasn't able to improve upon from his glory years, it was his stolen base record, as he finished with only five.
Luckily, he found his base-stealing acumen during the Summer Games, as he finished with three along as his team edged out the United States to win their first-ever Gold Medal. Yamada was the crown jewel of a Japanese squad that featured the likes of former blog post recipients Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Seiya Suzuki, and Munetaka Murakami. As a matter of fact, he was awarded the tournament's Most Valuable Player as the team's designated hitter.
Looking at everything that Yamada has done in his career thus far, it's fair to say that a move to the MLB could one day happen. He's obviously talented enough; he's a power-hitting second baseman who's displayed great speed and strong fielding ability, and what team wouldn't want a player with that resume? The only concern that I have is that Yamada will wait too long to make the jump, resulting in him failing to meet the lofty expectations a blog such as this has.
His own teammate, outfielder Nori Aoki, was once one of the NPB's brightest stars. He was a seven-time Best Nine Award recipient, a six-time Golden Glove awardee, and finished his eighth season with 1284 career hits. He left for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012 at the age of 30, just a year older than Yamada, and he never was able to reach the same heights he had in Japan. Instead, over his six-year big league career, he suited up for seven teams and was never more than an average hitter.
If Yamada truly wants to play in the MLB, then I'd recommend that he decide whether or not he wants to jump now and make an impact or wait until he's but a fraction of what he used to be.
Thanks again for taking the time to read this week's blog. Next up will probably be Hanshin Tigers' outfielder, Koji Chikamoto, so be sure to subscribe down below for that as we continue this search for the best and brightest in the NPB.
Featured Image Credit - WBSC
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