Yutaro Sugimoto's Phenomenal 2021
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
Prior to the start of the 2021 Nippon Professional Baseball season, Orix Buffaloes outfielder Yutaro Sugimoto asked his teammate and former Baltimore Orioles center fielder, Adam Jones, for some advice so that he could improve his hitting. Prior to the start of the year, the then 29-year-old right-handed hitter was a fringe player for Orix. He was a player who had displayed great raw power prior to being drafted second to last in 2016 but had yet to show any of that potential in Japan's big leagues. Over his first half-decade in NPB, the Tokushima Prefecture native swatted only nine home runs over 210 at-bats, good for a tepid 23.33 at-bats per home run rate, and only had seven other extra-base hits (six doubles and a triple).
Adam Jones told Sugimoto, who had also experienced his high school friend and Orix teammate Masataka Yoshida become one of NPB's best hitters, to use his massive six-foot three-inch frame as a means to direct the baseball while also adapting to the situation at hand and not forcing bad swings and misses. Well, based on the fact that I decided to write a short blog post, it appears that Sugimoto must have listened to every word Jones said because a few days before the NPB is set to give out their end of season awards, Orix's new starting right fielder and cleanup hitter might be in line for some awards consideration. And today, we're going to crunch the numbers and appreciate the ascent of this fine player.
Over 134 games played, Sugimoto finished with a strong .301/.378/.552 slash line (batting average/on-base/slugging), a Pacific League-leading 32 home runs (good for a 14.93 at-bats per home run rate), 22 additional extra-base hits (20 doubles and two triples), and a wRC+ of 184, meaning this guy created 84 percent more runs than the league average hitter did. This last mark placed him third in the NPB behind only Seiya Suzuki and Masataka Yoshida. Additionally, he was one of three Buffaloes to earn a player of the month award from the PL, the others being superstar ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto and the aforementioned Masataka Yoshida, and was also voted an All-Star for the first time. As of writing, we haven't learned who's won the other major awards including a spot on the NPB's Best Nine or MVP, but I could see him receiving votes for each.
Looking into some of his splits, Sugimoto interestingly hit better when his team was losing than when they were either tied or winning. According to baseballdata, (which I should mention is only available in Japanese, so make sure you use google translate), he hit .343 when his team was behind, .289 when the game was tied, and .250 when leading. Additionally, he also hit better when his team was on the road, as he finished 2021 with a .288/.383/.535 slash with 28 extra-base hits while in either of Orix's friendly confines (you heard that right, they have two home stadiums for some reason) and .315/.373/.570 slash with 26 extra-base hits everywhere else.
Moving on to what might be my favorite split was the difference between him hitting against right-handed pitching with when he hit against lefties.. While he sported strong marks in batting average (.311), on-base percentage (.411), and walk rate (13.6%) against left-handed pitching, he earned better marks in slugging percentage (.555), extra-base hit percentage (38.2%), and at-bats per home run (16) against righties. To me, this split illustrates how Sugimoto took Adam Jones' words to heart as he adapted to each situation when he was at the dish, meaning he wasn't chasing for that first pitch to hit and drawing more pitches during each plate appearance.
This fact is further proven when you take his pitching count splits into account. Again using baseballdata.jp, you'll notice that Sugimoto only placed a ball in play on the first pitch 64 times, or 13.4 percent of the time. To compare, he finished plate appearances on their first pitch 17.3 percent of the time the year prior. With that added plate discipline, Sugimoto was able to see more of what opposing pitchers were trying to do, and take advantage of a later pitch. His strongest split in this area was whenever he faced a 3-1 count. While this only happened to him seven times, he notched six overall hits and smacked four home runs.
Partially thanks to Sugimoto's ascent, the Orix Buffaloes moved from the Pacific League's cellar to the top of the standings, which earned them a first-round bye in the PL's Climax League where they would end up sweeping the Chiba Lotte Marines over three games. While Sugimoto was held hitless in both the series' first and third games, he scored the only runs off a two-run homer in game two. He would also add another home run off Swallows' starter Yasuhiro Ogawa in the Japan Series as well.
Looking ahead, all roads point to Sugimoto being the Buffaloes' starting right fielder and cleanup hitter for the foreseeable future. And while Adam Jones might not be with the squad anymore (if some reports suggest), there's little doubt that his words will forever echo in Sugimoto's head. I for one will be watching out for more success from the slugger.
Special thanks to WhoScored, Transfermarkt, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and 1.02.JP for helping make me a more well-informed fan.
Come back next time when we'll take a break from the NPB and talk about something completely different.
Featured Image Credit - Kyodo
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