Samurai Japan’s WBC Squad Brings the Best of NPB (and MLB)

Samurai Japan’s WBC Squad Brings the Best of NPB (and MLB)

Samurai Japan
Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Samurai Japan has a long history of baseball in its popular culture. From the organized cheers for NPB players and teams to the summer Koshien high school tournament, baseball serves as not just a spectator sport but a way of life for many people. As a result, Japanese players put great emphasis on their national team’s success in international competitions to showcase the country’s best. In recent memory, Samurai Japan has dominated on the international stage, winning each of the first two World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009. Daisuke Matsuzaka claimed MVP in both tournaments, winning all six of his decisions, while hitters like Ichiro Suzuki and Kosuke Fukudome led the way offensively. In 2013 and 2017, they reached the semifinals before ultimately being eliminated, but they remain the only team to place in the top four in each iteration of the WBC. More recently, Japan claimed the gold medal at the 2020 Olympics, shutting out the United States in the championship game. Samurai Japan hopes to continue this run of international success, fielding a largely similar group of players from their Olympic title squad.

Much of Japan’s on-base skill comes from the outfield, led by current Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida. Previously a member of the Orix Buffaloes, Yoshida has one of the best combinations of contact skills and plate discipline in recent memory. A two-time batting champion, Yoshida walked twice as much as he struck out over the past three years and just finished his best season to date with a 201 wRC+. While he doesn’t have monster exit velocities, he puts so many balls in play that eventually a good number go over the fence; he has averaged 23 homers over the past five seasons. Yoshida is a bit defensively limited in left field, but he won’t be able to spend time at DH in the WBC like he did with the Buffaloes because a little-known player on the Angels already has claim to that spot.

Another member of Samurai Japan who wears a red MLB uniform is Lars Nootbaar (who might have the coolest middle name of all time). A batted ball data darling, Nootbaar had a great rookie year with the Cardinals, producing plus exit velocities, a refined plate approach, and 2.7 WAR in just 347 plate appearances. Nootbaar will likely play center field for Japan despite being a corner guy in MLB, but his above-average speed and arm strength should make the transition to center relatively smooth. Nootbaar and Yoshida are joined by Kensuke Kondoh (whose Fukuoka Softbank Hawks don’t wear red, unfortunately). While he doesn’t have much thump in his bat, maxing out at 11 homers in a season, his plate discipline makes him one of the most talented offensive players in Japan. He’s consistently run chase rates in the 18-19% range (second best among NPB hitters), and just finished his sixth consecutive season with an OBP of .400 or higher.

And while this outfield trio is loaded with talent, I think it’s important to mention two names who could have made them even more incredible. First, Seiya Suzuki was removed from the roster due to an oblique injury that will also cost him part of the MLB season. Suzuki had an impressive rookie year in MLB, but he was even more dominant in his final seasons in NPB. He slashed .317/.433/.636 for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in his final campaign before joining the Cubs, a line made even more impressive by the offensive environment of NPB (the Central League’s average OPS that season was just .683). The other player is Yuki Yanagita, who chose to sit out the WBC to focus on the NPB season. One of the greatest hitters in NPB history, Yanagita had a wRC+ of 170 or higher in seven consecutive seasons (2015-21) and won two Pacific League MVP awards while leading the Hawks to six Japan Series titles over the past decade. Both Suzuki and Yanagita represented Samurai Japan in the 2020 Olympics, but will be absent from the WBC.

Leading the way in the infield will be third baseman Munetaka Murakami, the reigning Central League MVP whose 56 homers last year set a record for Japanese-born NPB players. He also walked nearly 20% of the time, contributing to a 223 wRC+ and 10.3 WAR season in just 141 games. Murakami is the highest ranked player on the International Player section of our prospect board and is easily the best hitter on the planet who doesn’t play for an MLB organization. Murakami’s partner on the left side is Sosuke Genda, the finest defensive infielder in NPB. Genda is coming off of his fifth consecutive Pacific League Gold Glove win, and a quick glance at his highlight reel shows his reputation with the leather is well-earned. The metrics back this up, too – his 120.4 UZR over the past six seasons comfortably leads NPB, and he’s been worth at least 4 WAR each season of his career despite never being an above-average hitter.

Playing time at the keystone will likely be split between two very well-deserving players: Tetsuto Yamada, Murakami’s teammate on the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, and Shugo Maki of the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Yamada has been a bona fide superstar, with four 30-30 seasons and a 2015 MVP campaign where he amassed 11.7 WAR. He also represented Japan in the 2017 WBC and 2020 Olympics, winning tournament MVP in the latter. However, the now-30-year-old Yamada has struggled in exhibition games and is coming off his worst NPB season – while his .789 OPS is still solid, especially for a second baseman, it’s well below his career norms. The 24-year old Maki hopes to take his place in the starting lineup. His combination of excellent contact skills and gap power made him an All-Star in 2022, his second season in NPB.

Hotaka Yamakawa of the Saitama Seibu Lions has been one of the best slugging first basemen in the league, with three 40-homer seasons under his belt. However, Tokyo Yomiuri Giants hitter Kazuma Okamoto has gotten a few starts at the cold corner in exhibition games, so it remains unclear who will be the primary starter during the tournament. The younger Okamoto also has big time home run power, but his overall offensive numbers are a bit worse than Yamakawa’s. However, Okamoto may provide a defensive upgrade as a primary third baseman moved down the spectrum, leaving the defensively limited Yamakawwa available for high-leverage pinch hitting opportunities. Japan’s bench should also provide strength to the team, with Yamakawa and breakout offensive contributor Taisei Makihara available as pinch hitters, and Makihara, Ukyo Shuto, and Takumu Nakano available as defensive replacements at the up-the-middle positions.

Like many MLB teams these days, Samurai Japan is using the catcher position primarily as a defensive one, deploying the right-handed Yuhei Nakamura and left-handed Takumi Ohshiro in a possible platoon setup. Both have hit around a league-average level over the past couple years, but have been significantly worse at other points during their careers. However, both have positive reputations as pitch framers and game callers and should provide solid enough production out of the ninth spot in the lineup. Japan is also rostering Hawks backstop Takuya Kai as a third catcher. While he had just a 58 wRC+ last season, he was a better offensive performer in previous seasons and has one of the best throwing arms in the world, gunning down 37.8% of attempted base stealers since 2020. Kai could serve as a late-game substitute if Nakamura and Ohshiro are pinch-hit for, and could provide valuable running game suppression against the tournament’s speediest baserunners.

Samurai Japan’s greatest strength likely comes in their pitching, especially the starting rotation. MLB fans already know of Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish, the two best Japanese-born starting pitchers in MLB history by ERA+, FIP, WHIP, and K/9. Both finished in the top 10 of their respective league’s Cy Young voting last year, and they’re two of the most prolific strikeout pitchers in the world. But their legend status in Japan with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters began long before they made the jump to American baseball. Darvish had one of the greatest runs as a pitcher in NPB history, with an ERA below 2.00 in each year from 2007-11. During that stretch, he tossed 15 complete game shutouts while averaging over eight innings per start and was rewarded with a Sawamura Award (NPB’s award for the league’s finest pitcher) and two MVPs. After Darvish left for the Rangers, Ohtani captured the 2016 Pacific League MVP with a 1.86 ERA as a pitcher and 181 wRC+ as a hitter, leading the Fighters to a Japan Series championship. The Fighters’ new stadium, opening for the 2023 season, will feature a mural honoring the exploits of both players.

While Darvish and Ohtani represent a previous generation of NPB pitching stars, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Roki Sasaki are its present and future. The 24-year-old Yamamoto has laid waste to the league over the past two seasons, earning consecutive Triple Crowns, ERA titles, Gold Gloves, Sawamura Awards, and MVPs, and his 1.39 ERA in 2021 was nearly a full run better than anyone else. While his Buffaloes fell to Murakami and the Swallows in that year’s Japan Series, the Buffaloes took home the hardware in a 2022 rematch. Despite an undersized frame (5-foot-10 and 176 pounds), Yamamoto still has plus fastball velocity (averaging 95 mph), with a hard splitter and slow curveball, and the occasional cutter mixed in. While Yamamoto has won seemingly everything there is to win, Sasaki is a 21-year-old phenom who appears to be the world’s next big pitching star. Sasaki first became world famous when he nearly threw two consecutive perfect games last April, but his reputation as a future ace began when he was in high school. In 2022, Sasaki was limited to 129 innings but his 30.6 K-BB% and 1.72 FIP led all pitchers by a considerable margin, as did his 98.9 mph average fastball velocity. In a WBC exhibition game, he threw a 102.5 mph fastball, tied for the hardest pitch thrown in NPB history.

While Japan boasts the best rotation of any WBC team, you won’t see them pushing complete games like Darvish did during his time on the Fighters. The tournament has pitch count rules, limiting hurlers to 65 pitches in the group stage, with higher caps in the knockout round. Luckily, Japan’s relief group is also quite strong, led by some of the best high-leverage closers in NPB alongside young fireballers and even starters coming out of the bullpen for the WBC:

Team Japan’s Bullpen – 2022 NPB Stats

Name Age Throws Innings ERA K% FB Velo Saves
Shota Imanaga 29 L 143 2.26 23.6% 91.1 0
Hiromi Itoh 25 R 155 2.95 17.5% 91.1 1
Ryoji Kuribayashi 26 R 48 1.49 31.9% 93.1 31
Yuki Matsui 27 L 51 1.92 42.8% 92.8 32
Hiroya Miyagi 21 L 148 3.16 20.8% 89.8 0
Taisei Ota 23 R 57 2.05 27.1% 95.6 37
Hiroto Takahashi 20 R 116 2.47 29.0% 94.4 0
Keiji Takahashi 25 L 102 2.63 27.2% 92.1 0
Shosei Togo 22 R 171 2.62 21.9% 91.6 0
Yuki Udagawa 24 R 22 0.81 36.8% 94.3 0
Atsuki Yuasa 23 R 58 1.09 30.3% 93.6 0

SOURCE: Deltagraphs

While Kuribayashi, Matsui, and Ota have the most experience as closers and will likely get the bulk of the ninth-inning opportunities, the contributions of Udagawa and Yuasa shouldn’t be understated. Udagawa was a midseason call-up after an impressive small-sample showing with the Buffaloes’ farm team, and he continued his performance in NPB, allowing just two runs in 22 innings. While he averaged 94 mph on his fastball last year, he’s been clocked up to 100 this spring, and he pairs the pitch with a high-80s splitter. Yuasa has a lethal fastball/splitter combination of his own and walked just 5.4% of batters faced, but he primarily served as a setup man to Hanshin Tigers closer Suguru Iwazaki, who had 28 saves despite a worse ERA and FIP than Yuasa. The starters on the roster may also get late-game appearances as well, given that the tournament format won’t require many long relief outings.

WBC action begins tonight, with Cuba and the Netherlands kicking it off in Taiwan at 11 PM Eastern time. Japan begins to play on Thursday, facing China in the Tokyo Dome (likely with Ohtani on the mound) at ungodly hours of the night for American viewers. And with a roster stacked with MVP-level talent from both NPB and MLB, Samurai Japan will look to continue their dominance in international baseball competition with their third WBC title.

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