Yoshinobu Yamamoto is probably the best pitcher available on the free-agent market right now. He may have been the best pitcher available when the off-season began, even before Aaron Nola and Shohei Ohtani signed with the Dodgers and Phillies, respectively. He turned 25 this fall and has never thrown a pitch at the major league level. That’s because he’s spent the last seven seasons pitching in Japan’s Nippon Baseball League.
But, this off-season, he was posted by his current club. Now, he can be pursued and signed by any MLB organization. Yamamoto’s arrival has been met with much fanfare, and it’s obvious why so many teams have courted him. Yamamoto is a special talent. In 172 career appearances, he’s recorded a sterling 1.82 ERA. That’s because he is the complete package. He generates whiffs at a high rate, especially in Japan, where hitters are taught to value contact over power. He also keeps walks to a minimum. In 897 career innings, he’s registered 9.3 SO/9 and 2.1 BB/9. He’s allowed less than one baserunner per inning across his entire career, a mark that generally demarcates an excellent season. Sonny Gray, one of MLB’s best pitchers, has never matched that feat.
Now, it’s fair to question how his stuff will translate. Hitters in the NPB are good, but MLB’s best lineups are much more difficult to navigate. We saw Yamamoto face MLB hitters in the 2023 WBC, but that sample size was so tiny and strange that it should just be ignored. Instead, it’s more productive to compare him to other Japanese talents who have come stateside.
One option is Yu Darvish. Darvish signed with the Texas Rangers at 25 and immediately became one of the best pitchers in the league. After an excellent rookie season, he rattled off four more excellent seasons before struggling in 2018 with the Chicago Cubs. He was particularly outstanding in 2013. After 2018, Darvish bounced back and has made two All-Star teams since then, bringing his impressive total to five selections. He’s also finished second in Cy Young Award voting twice, including during the 2020 season. Darvish, now with the San Diego Padres, has been outstanding. If Yamamoto replicates his success, any club he signs with will be incredibly happy to have him.
Another comparison is Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka came over to MLB to more fanfare than Darvish, who inked a relatively modest 6-year, $60MM deal. Tanaka signed a 7-year, $155MM contract with the Yankees before the 2014 season. His NPB numbers were better than Darvish’s, and are probably the best comparison to Yamamoto’s. Tanaka’s rookie season was a huge success. He was selected to the All-Star team and posted a 2.77 ERA in 136.1 innings. Unfortunately, that was the best year he’d have at the Major League level. Though he continued to post solid numbers until his departure following the 2020 season, he never truly lived up to the lofty expectations many carried. Tanaka finished his career with 1054.1 innings and a 3.74 ERA. He made two All-Star teams and finished seventh in Cy Young Award voting in 2016.
There remains a distinct possibility that Yamamoto does not fit within these parameters. He could immediately pitch at a superstar level and become Japan’s first pitcher to capture a Cy Young Award. Or, his career trajectory could resemble that of Yusei Kikuchi. Unlike the aforementioned pitchers, Kikuchi came to MLB before his age 28 season. He struggled with the Seattle Mariners while transitioning. He made an All-Star team in 2021, his third MLB season, but finished the season with a 4.41 ERA. It was just last season, his second in Toronto, that Kikuchi recorded his first season with an ERA under 4.00. He’s blossomed into an effective third starter, but it’s taken time and effort to adjust to MLB offenses.