Yamamoto, a right-hander, is one of the premier starters in recent Japanese league history with two Pacific League MVP awards, three Pacific League ERA titles and the past three Sawamura Awards (the equivalent of the Cy Young) to his name. Since he debuted for the Buffaloes in 2017, Yamamoto has compiled a record of 70-29 and a 1.82 ERA with 922 strikeouts in 897 innings. His last outing of the 2023 season came just weeks ago in Game 6 of the Japan Series and was the stuff of legend: He threw 138 pitches and struck out 14 to help the Buffaloes reach Game 7.
That résumé will propel him to the top of a highly competitive market for elite starting pitching, one that grew even more competitive when the Philadelphia Phillies agreed to re-sign ace Aaron Nola to a seven-year contract Sunday. Nola and Yamamoto projected to be the best right-handers available and therefore seemed likely to be pursued by all of the most aggressive spenders, including the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers. With Nola off the market, Yamamoto’s bidding process will become even more frenzied, though in reality it began months ago when executives including Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman and Dodgers President Andrew Friedman traveled to Japan to see him in person.
To the extent that there are concerns about Yamamoto, they are related to his size. At 5-foot-10, Yamamoto throws a high-90s fastball. That combination of size and velocity raises questions about durability, but he has avoided major injury. Still, with almost every major-market team hunting top-tier starting pitching and only a few options available, executives expect it will require a nine-figure deal to sign him — maybe even one that begins with a two.
That market should also reward another Japanese starter, lefty Shota Imanaga, who is expected to be posted by the Yokohama DeNA Baystars soon. Imanaga started the final game of the World Baseball Classic against the United States and had a 2.66 ERA in 24 Nippon league starts this year.
That Japanese pitchers will play a larger-than-normal role in this year’s free agent market is only fitting given that the undisputed king of this year’s free agent class is Ohtani, the reigning American League MVP who would have been the best starting pitcher available had he not needed elbow surgery in September. And agents are already jockeying to represent the next big Japanese star, young ace Roki Sasaki, who is not expected to be posted for a few more seasons.
Given the importance of Japanese stars to this year’s free agent proceedings, the growing ease of scouting players from afar in an age when more games are streamed online and more advanced stats are available, and the symbolic importance of Japan’s impressive win over the United States in this year’s star-studded World Baseball Classic, more MLB teams are turning to Japan for polished, big-league-ready performers than ever. Often what evaluators are looking for is how those players succeed against the strengths of Japanese competition and how that might translate against the strengths emphasized in the American game. For example, will Yamamoto’s fastball play the same against big league hitters who see 98 mph every night as it did against Japanese hitters who do not see that velocity as regularly?
“I think what you’re really looking for is players whose swings will translate, pitchers whose pitches will translate, and a lot of times experienced scouts who have seen a lot of major leaguers can get a sense of what that adaptation might look like,” said Farhan Zaidi, president of baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants. “For us, I think it’s as much about getting experienced eyes on these players, and that’s where things like the World Baseball Classic, where they face big league players from other countries, that provides that.”
Teams pursuing top-end Japanese free agents must also account for the uncertainty provided by the human element. Moving across the world to a foreign country to be surrounded by teammates who speak different languages and arrived there via very different routes can be isolating personally as well as difficult professionally. But many of the teams expected to pursue Yamamoto this offseason — including the St. Louis Cardinals with Lars Nootbaar, the Mets with Kodai Senga, the Toronto Blue Jays with Yusei Kikuchi, the Boston Red Sox with Masataka Yoshida and the Chicago Cubs with Seiya Suzuki — have players on their roster who could ease the transition. Other teams, such as the Yankees and Seattle Mariners, have long histories with Japanese stars and histories of creating comfortable environments for them.
“I don’t want to say it’s getting easier because I’ve never been through that transition and I can’t understand what goes into it. I can’t imagine having to go to another country and having to assimilate the way those players do,” Texas Rangers General Manager Chris Young said. “But what I do believe to be true is that there have been a number of players who have come over and really paved the way, who are great resources for players coming over today. When you have somebody who has done it before you, it helps immensely.”
Even as more Japanese players establish themselves in American markets, the extent to which major league teams focus their energy on recruiting in Japan still varies dramatically. For some teams, such as the Washington Nationals, their reticence to bid on big-name Japanese free agents in recent years has largely been financial.
“We cover it. We’ve got a good feel for all the Asian players coming over, and if we were to play in that market — meaning that price point — we would,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, whose team is not expected to bid on any high-priced free agents this offseason according to multiple people familiar with its plans.
Some teams have seemed like less credible players for Japanese stars purely because of geography. The Baltimore Orioles, for example, could use starting pitching.
“There’s not enough pitching to go around, so the more that can come from all corners of the world, we’ll welcome them here in the major leagues,” said Orioles General Manager Mike Elias, whose team acquired Japanese reliever Shintaro Fujinami at last season’s trade deadline and has been in contact with his representatives since. “There’s just a long track record of success of Japanese pitchers making the transition to the major leagues. . . . I don’t know that we’re as active scouting as a California team or like Seattle, but we keep our eye on it.”
In many cases, including Yamamoto’s, the talent coming from Japan does not exactly need to be unearthed because it is almost impossible to miss. Star after star — and more specifically proven starter after proven starter — has transitioned to the majors and built a résumé defined by the same kind of consistency and durability that propelled him in the Nippon league. The bidding war about to begin for Yamamoto suggests most of baseball believes he will be the latest, with more and more to come.