What to know about NPB's Tomoyuki Sugano

January 7th, 2021

With Thursday's 5 p.m. ET posting deadline now passed and no deal agreed upon, Nippon Professional Baseball pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano will not be joining an MLB team for the 2021 season.

However, the Yomiuri Giants -- the team Sugano appears to be going back to -- have reportedly offered him a four-year contract that includes opt-out clauses after each season, which means he could still be coming to the United States to play as soon as next offseason.

Here's what you need to know about the right-hander should he decide to move to the Majors in the future.

What does he throw?

Sugano relies primarily on four pitch types -- a fastball, slider, splitter and curveball -- while throwing two variations of his fastball and slider.

• Fastball -- Sugano throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball. His fastball velocity averages a little under 93 mph. According to scouting reports, he sits in the 91-93 mph range and tops out at 95, using his fastball to attack the outside corner against both righties and lefties.
• Slider/Cutter -- Sugano's slider is his best secondary pitch. He throws two versions, a more typical down-breaking slider in the mid-80s, and a harder slider that could even be classified as a cutter. He'll throw his slider away against right-handed hitters and inside to lefties.
• Splitter/Forkball -- Sugano's main offspeed pitch is a high-80s splitter (or forkball, depending on which scouting report you read), which he uses mainly to attack left-handed hitters down and away.
• Curveball -- Sugano also mixes in a slower, high-70s curveball to keep hitters off-balance.

According to the Japanese stats site Deltagraphs, this was Sugano's pitch usage in 2020:
Four-seam fastball -- 34%
Two-seam fastball -- 9%
Slider -- 27%
Cutter -- 9%
Splitter -- 15%
Curveball -- 6%

Sugano is also known for his excellent command and poise on the mound.

What are his stats?

In 2020, Sugano pitched 20 games for Yomiuri and went 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA, plus 131 strikeouts to 25 walks in 137 1/3 innings. He held hitters to a .196 batting average.

Sugano had a 24.6% strikeout rate compared to a 4.7% walk rate. According to Deltagraphs, he got hitters to chase 34.7% of pitches outside the strike zone and induced a swing and miss on 12.3% of the pitches he threw.

Over his eight-year NPB career, Sugano is 101-49 with a 2.32 ERA in 196 games for the Giants, with 1,214 strikeouts in 1,360 innings. He has a 22.4% strikeout rate and 4.9% walk rate.

Sugano's best seasons came in 2017 and '18. In 2017, he went 17-5 with a career-low 1.59 ERA in 25 games, with 171 strikeouts in 187 1/3 innings. In 2018, he went 15-8 with a 2.14 ERA in 28 games and set career highs with 10 complete games, eight shutouts, 200 strikeouts and 202 innings pitched.

What awards has he won?

Sugano won the Sawamura Award, Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young Award, in back-to-back seasons in 2017 and '18. He's also a two-time Central League MVP, winning the award in 2020 and in 2014. Sugano is a six-time NPB All-Star and three-time Golden Glove Award winner.

Sugano won a Triple Crown in the second of his Sawamura Award-winning seasons in 2018. He has led the Central League in wins three times, ERA four times and strikeouts twice.

He's also had playoff success, being named the Central League's Climax Series MVP in 2013 (similar to MLB's League Championship Series MVP), and he pitched a postseason no-hitter on Oct. 14, 2018.


Where does he fit in an MLB rotation?

There's a lot of variation in where evaluators see Sugano in a big league rotation.

MLB.com executive reporter Mark Feinsand provided the most favorable outlook for Sugano, reporting just before Christmas that Sugano is considered to be "a No. 1-2 starter for a contender."

MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi reported earlier in December that executives and evaluators see Sugano as belonging in the second tier of free-agent starting pitchers below Trevor Bauer. That would put him in the category of countryman Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton, as in, a No. 3-type starter with No. 2 starter upside.

Other scouting reports from Sports Info Solutions also see Sugano as a No. 2 or 3 starter, comparing him to Johnny Cueto.

The Athletic's Eno Sarris notes that the big question for Sugano (subscription required) is whether he's a mid-rotation or frontline starter, citing NPB media members who predict Sugano's range to be either a No. 2-3 starter or No. 2-4 starter in MLB. Sarris also points out that Sugano's strikeout, walk and ERA numbers in Japan compare favorably to other star NPB-to-MLB pitchers like Yu Darvish, Tanaka, Kenta Maeda and Yusei Kikuchi. Darvish and Tanaka had slightly better strikeout rates and ERAs in NPB, but Sugano has the lowest walk rate of the group.

ESPN's Kiley McDaniel evaluates Sugano as "a reliable fourth (give or take) starter, so think bulk innings with an ERA around 4.00," while placing him just below Tanaka but above Paxton and Charlie Morton in his ranking of free agents entering the offseason (subscription required).

Have we seen him against Major Leaguers?

Yes, in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Sugano pitched against Team USA in the semifinals at Dodger Stadium and was lights-out for six innings, allowing just one unearned run on three hits. He struck out six in that game -- Nolan Arenado three times and Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Adam Jones once each.

We also got some early Statcast data on Sugano from that game, since it was in an MLB stadium. Sugano flashed very high spin rate on both his fastball and curveball, averaging 2,513 rpm on his fastball and 2,859 rpm on his curve with a max of 3,079 rpm.

For comparison, in 2020, the Major League average four-seam fastball spin rate was 2,306 rpm, and the average curveball spin rate was 2,533 rpm. High fastball and curveball spin tend to be good signs for a pitcher.