Ohtani says he's not the best on Team Japan. So ... who is?

February 23rd, 2023

Mike Trout started talking to about the World Baseball Classic in the middle of last season. And Ohtani, playing for Japan, told his Angels teammate, the Team USA captain, something that left Trout in disbelief.

"Talking to Shohei about that team, he tried to tell me that he doesn't think he's the best player on the team," Trout said in January. "And I -- there's no way that there's somebody better than Shohei."

A player on Japan better than Ohtani? The guy who can hit 40 homers and rack up 200 strikeouts? Who in the world could Ohtani have been talking about?

Well … here's who.

Here are the five players on Samurai Japan who could steal the show -- even from Ohtani -- in the World Baseball Classic.

1) Munetaka Murakami -- 3B, Tokyo Yakult Swallows

It took a historic home run season from Judge to keep Ohtani from a second straight MVP Award in 2022. Well, Murakami is the Japanese Aaron Judge.

While Judge was busy hitting 62 homers to break Roger Maris' longstanding American League record of 61 in MLB, Murakami was breaking an equally historic home run record in Japan. Murakami hit 56 home runs in 2022, surpassing NPB home run king Sadaharu Oh's single-season record of 55 for a Japanese-born player, which had stood since 1964.

Murakami just turned 23 years old, and he's the best hitter in Japan. He might be one of the best hitters in the world. The lefty-slugging third baseman didn't just make home run history last season, he also became NPB's youngest Triple Crown winner, leading the Central League with a .318 batting average, 56 homers and 134 RBIs on his way to unanimous MVP honors.

The World Baseball Classic will be a showcase of how Murakami stacks up to the elite hitters from the Major Leagues … and a preview of what's coming, because he's slated to be posted to MLB after the 2025 season.

2) Roki Sasaki -- RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines

If Murakami is one of the few hitters who could outslug Ohtani, Sasaki is one of the only pitchers with the talent to outpitch him. The 21-year-old phenom throws 102 mph with a splitter as nasty as Ohtani's. And he just turned in one of the most dominant pitching performances in history.

Sasaki pitched a 19-strikeout perfect game against the Orix Buffaloes on April 10 of last season. No one has ever struck out so many hitters in a perfect game in NPB or MLB. It was arguably one of the greatest games ever pitched. Sasaki was 20 years old at the time. And in his first full season in NPB.

Oh, and he followed it up with eight more perfect innings in his next start. By the end of the season, Sasaki had a 2.02 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 129 1/3 innings. Now the electric young right-hander heads to a World Baseball Classic that has more big league star power in lineups across the tournament than ever before. When he takes the mound against the best hitters in the world, the "Monster of the Reiwa" will be must-see TV.

3) Yoshinobu Yamamoto -- RHP, Orix Buffaloes

Sasaki might be the most electric pitcher in Japan, but Yamamoto is the best. His last two seasons have been Jacob deGrom-level dominant. The Orix ace won back-to-back Sawamura Awards, NPB's version of the Cy Young. He won back-to-back pitching Triple Crowns, leading the Pacific League in wins, ERA and strikeouts in both seasons. And he won back-to-back Pacific League MVP Awards.

The numbers were nearly identical. Yamamoto went 18-5 with a 1.39 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 193 2/3 innings in 2021. Then he went 15-5 with a 1.68 ERA and 205 strikeouts in 193 innings in 2022.

It doesn't matter that Yamamoto stands on the shorter side for a pitcher at 5-foot-10 (Sasaki is 6-foot-2). He's still got powerful stuff. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and can reach 97-99 mph, and some scouts think his splitter is even better than Kodai Senga's "ghost fork." He also has a plus curveball.

Yamamoto's only 24, too. And guess what? He could be coming to the Major Leagues as soon as next year. According to a new report, MLB teams think Yamamoto will be posted to MLB after the 2023 season, and he hopes to use the World Baseball Classic as a launching pad for his future big league career.

4) Masataka Yoshida -- OF, Red Sox (via Orix Buffaloes)

The WBC will be the first look a lot of MLB fans get at Yoshida before Japan's contact king joins the Red Sox for the 2023 season. Yoshida is a two-time batting champion in NPB's Pacific League, but he's not just a slap hitter. He drives the ball.

The 29-year-old lefty swinger is one of the hardest hitters in Japan after Murakami. Not only did he bat .335 for Orix in 2022, he also slugged 21 homers and posted a 1.008 OPS. Yoshida hit over .320, slugged over .500 and had an OPS over .950 in each of his last five seasons in NPB. He averaged 22 home runs a year over that time.

Yoshida's plate discipline is also extraordinary. In 2022, he walked nearly twice as often as he struck out: 80 walks to only 41 strikeouts. And that's his worst ratio in the last three years, because in 2020 and '21, he had more than twice as many walks as K's (72 walks to 29 strikeouts in '20, 58 walks to 26 strikeouts in '21). That's 210 walks and only 96 strikeouts in the three seasons combined. Juan Soto-type numbers.

5) Hiroto Takahashi -- RHP, Chunichi Dragons

The 20-year-old Takahashi is the youngest pitcher selected to Samurai Japan for the WBC, and he could be a breakout star of the 2023 tournament.

Last season, at only 19 years old and in his first full season, he broke out as one of the top strikeout pitchers in Japan. Takahashi posted a 2.47 ERA for the Dragons and struck out 134 batters -- sixth-most in NPB -- in just 116 2/3 innings. That's a 10.3 K/9. His strikeout rate and swing-and-miss rate were the second-best in the league behind Sasaki.

Takahashi has a high ceiling, with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and touches 97 mph, and a swing-and-miss splitter and slider that both come in in the mid-to-upper 80s. He's also been working on his mechanics with Yamamoto leading up to the WBC. Maybe he'll unveil some new secret weapons.