It’s no secret that Japan is a factory for baseball talent. After falling 3-2 in a thrilling World Baseball Classic final, American fans have learned more than ever this year just how good the best Japanese players can be. With many notable Japanese free agents looming this offseason, one stands out as being the prime target for the St. Louis Cardinals.
As much as I’d love for the Cardinals to be all in on Shohei Ohtani and to write an article all about him, Shohei’s questionable future as a starter and enormous price tag will surely deter St. Louis from adding the two-way sensation. Instead, they should focus on a player whose ceiling as a frontline ace may even top that of Ohtani’s: Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
Yamamoto’s greatness in NPB has been well documented. He just finished the 2023 regular season clinching his third consecutive triple crown, leading Japan in wins, ERA, and strikeouts en route to what will also probably be his third consecutive Sawamura Award (Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young).
On paper, his 1.21 ERA and 0.884 WHIP this season are dazzling but also a bit misleading. Japan is going through a major deadball era, where the average OPS sits around .670, and the average ERA is just over 3.00. That’s a wildly different and much lower-scoring run environment compared to today’s MLB, not to mention a lower level of competition. Sure Yamamoto’s numbers are at the top of Japan, but with these numbers alone it’s difficult to predict how the young starter will fare when he joins MLB next season.
Enter Kodai Senga, another Japanese ace who made the jump to MLB after playing his whole career in Japan. The 30-year-old veteran signed a 5-year, $75 million deal with the New York Mets. In a rotation headlined by Scherzer and Verlander, it was actually Senga who anchored the Mets rotation especially after the two veterans were shipped off at the Trade Deadline. Senga pitched to a 2.98 ERA with a 1.220 WHIP striking out 10.9 batters per 9 innings.
He’ll finish towards the top in Rookie of the Year voting and is sure to get some Cy Young consideration as well. Of course, Senga’s FIP of 3.63 indicates he was a bit lucky this season but surely the Cardinals would’ve loved to have that production for just $4 million more per year than Steven Matz. A huge miss.
So how does Yamamoto compare to Senga? In short, he’s much younger and he’s quite a bit better. From 2020-2022, Yamamoto pitched to a 1.70 ERA with a 0.900 WHIP and 9.8 K/9, surpassing Senga’s 2.19 ERA, 1.104 WHIP, and 10.2 K/9 in every metric except for strikeouts. However, the slightly lower strikeout metric isn’t much to be concerned about. Japan’s hitting philosophy values contact significantly more than power, while MLB’s hitting philosophy is the opposite.
The strikeout rate is one of the stats that translates extremely well from NPB to MLB. Many established MLB pitchers coming from Japan such as Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Shohei Ohtani, and even Kodai Senga have seen their strikeout rates remain constant and sometimes even increase after making the transition. Thus, Yamamoto’s 9.3 K/9 in 2023 should be more than serviceable in MLB despite the deadball run environment of NPB.
At age 30, Senga has likely reached his full potential, but at age 25, Yamamoto is just getting started. Like Shohei Ohtani, who pitched his first full MLB season at age 26, Yamamoto could see similar development as he adjusts to the Major Leagues. Of course, Yamamoto will command higher than Senga’s $15 million AAV, but Senga’s success in MLB should quell doubts about Yamamoto’s viability.
For a Cardinals team in desperate need of ace-caliber starting pitching this offseason, Yamamoto should be at the top of Mozeliak’s shopping list. With Lars Nootbaar’s connections through the World Baseball Classic, strong relationships with Yamamoto’s Orix Buffaloes, and ties to his shared agent with Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals just might pull it off.