Over the past few weeks, I've taken some time to write about a few pitchers who I believe are all destined to become massive stars in the Major Leagues. Devin Williams has already proven himself to be a brilliant reliever thanks in large part to holding the most magestic pitch in baseball. Kumar Rocker has long shown himself to be a dynamic threat ever since he was a freshman at Vanderbilt University. And his own teammate, Jack Leiter, has since taken the crown as college baseball's most enticing pitching prospect thanks to his unhittable arsenal.
But what if I told you that above all of those guys lies one more pitching prospect who could very well be the best of the bunch? This pitcher has already been named his club's ace, and he's only 22-years-old. Last year he inserted himself into the discussion of best pitcher in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league, and he could conceivably sign with a Major League team as soon as next year, if he so chooses.
Today we're going to conclude this series on pitchers to watch out for by talking about Orix Buffaloes ace, Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
Yamamoto started his career back in 2017, one year after he was drafted by the Buffaloes in the fourth round of the NPB Draft. He was initially utilized as one of the club's mid inning relievers, but in 2018 he was made the club's set up man, meaning he would pitch in the eighth inning and "set up" the closer for a potential save. In 2018, Yamamoto finished second in the Pacific League and tied for 4th in the whole NPB with 32 "holds", which is the stat used for when a set up man, or any reliever, successfully maintains his team's lead in line for a save. The stat is only counted when the save is completed.
That year he also finished with a 4-2 record, a 2.89 ERA, and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Not bad for a 19-year-old who had just pitched his first full season in the world's second strongest baseball league.
(Note: Experts agree that the NPB's skill level rest somewhere between MLB and Triple A.)
The big thing that allowed Yamamoto to find early success as a professional was simple, he had already developed a strong arsenal of pitches. According to international baseball scout Kazuto Yamazaki, Yamamoto has been known to throw up to five pitches, and all with high proficiency. Those pitches are:
Yamamoto's repertoire covers a ton of pitches that feature high velocity. According to Yamazaki, Yamamoto's 4-seam fastball has a peak velocity of around 97 miles per hour and an average speed anywhere between 92-95, which is par for the course for most pitchers in MLB today. The one thing that can be said about the heater that can't be said about most pitchers' fastballs in The Show, however, is that he hasn't been known to lose velocity, even deep into his games. Yamazaki noted in his scouting report that the pitch "hit 94 on the stadium gun on the 122nd pitch" during one of his evaluations.
The other "fastball" type pitch that is worth a mention is his splitter. According to Yamazaki, this pitch has the potential to be "a future elite MLB put-away pitch" down the road, meaning this pitch could be used to get a lot of outs. While we don't have enough data to currently quantify the nature of this pitch (ie: spin rate, whiff %, etc.) the pitch passes the eye-test in my opinion. Don't believe me? Check it out down here. (Shoutout to @DBITLefty for sharing these on Twitter)
But if you ask me, I'm probably most impressed with his curveball. The pitch doesn't make physical sense to me. In my humble opinion, Yamamoto's curveball is on the shortlist for the most pretty looking curveball in the game today, regardless of league. If you want a dictionary definition of the term "swords", or the moment when a hitter swings his bat in a foolish fashion, then just watch this kid throw a curveball.
It's this combination of his speedy fastball, his nasty splitter, and his beautiful curveball that have helped Yamamoto quickly establish himself as one of the NPB's best starting pitchers. After the 2018 season, new Buffaloes manager Norifumi Nishimura transitioned Yamamoto out of his team's bullpen and into the starting rotation. During his first season as a starter in 2019, Yamamoto rewarded his manager by going 8-6 and sporting the league's best ERA with a disgusting 1.95. He also notched eight strikeouts per nine innings.
It was clear that this kid had already compiled most of the intangibles to become wildly successful in the NPB, and representatives from Japan's National Baseball Team agreed, as they added him to their team for the WBSC Premier 12 tournament, which is a competition where the world's 12 highest ranked baseball nations compete for medals, similar to the Olympics. During the competition, in which Japan won gold, Yamamoto allowed one run in five innings and struck out six.
The next season in 2020, Yamamoto continued his strong performance the previous season. He finished fifth in the league in ERA with a 2.20 and sported an 8-4 record and an incredible 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings rate.
Yamamoto has continued his consistent excellence in the NPB in 2021 as well as he currently sports a 2-1 record, a phenomenal 0.78 ERA, and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings. His performance on April 1st against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks was particularly fantastic, as he pitched a two-hit complete game shutout and struck out 13 hitters on his way to his first win of the season. Even during his one loss, he still pitched seven strong innings and gave up only one run. Unfortunately, however, his team decided to not help him out as they couldn't give him any run support. Reminds me of a certain New York Met.
Regardless of whether or not Yamamoto elects to move stateside in 2022, 2023, or at all, I hope that this post helped illustrate just how special a pitcher this kid is already. While we're all clamoring at the possibilities surrounding guys like Leiter and Rocker, I think it's important to know that star pitchers can come from anywhere. Be on the lookout in the months to come for more of these posts where I hope to shed a light on other star players who are currently putting in those hours in leagues from around the world.
Oh and one last thing, here's one of his curveballs.
Featured Image Credit - Japan Forward
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