Top Japanese prospect Rintaro Sasaki to make stateside debut in MLB Draft League

June 10th, 2024

Known for massive blasts and a patient batting eye, Rintaro Sasaki made major news when the then-high schooler opted out of the NPB Draft where he was expected to go first overall to instead enroll at Stanford University. Set to be a freshman in the fall, the 6-foot, 250-pound Sasaki spent the past spring working out and taking classes at Stanford even though he was ineligible to play in games. Instead, he had to save the swing that bashed a Japanese-record 140 high school home runs -- obliterating the previous record of 111 held by Kotaro Kiyomiya, who went first overall in the 2017 NPB Draft -- for practice and simulation games.

Even with those limitations, Sasaki impressed.

"We still can’t believe he’s here,” Stanford infielder Jimmy Nati told The Athletic's Andrew Baggarly last month. “We’re all fanboying him, for sure.”

Sasaki is now finally set to show off that power in competitive action here in the United States. On Tuesday night, Sasaki will man first base for the Trenton Thunder in the MLB Draft League as they take on the Frederick Keys.

"Knowing that college baseball is oftentimes really challenging for these kids and as freshmen -- like, you've got to step foot on campus and be in a position ready to compete," Sean Campbell, the Draft League's Executive Director, told "If we could give him that opportunity and environment to come to us, continue to get work defensively, continue to get at-bats, face higher-level pitching, swing a wood bat, it would all be beneficial to the kid. I think like that was the more immediate approach, it was just, what's in the best interest of Rintaro's development."

It's an exciting moment for prospect hounds, who have long been curious about Sasaki's massive power potential. With a thick and powerful frame -- one scout noted he has more natural power than Shohei Ohtani or Hideki Matsui when they came over -- many will be looking to see how the high school phenom does against elite velocity and advanced breaking balls before he becomes an MLB Draft-eligible sophomore in 2026.

He'll have his work cut out for him, too: The bat is definitely Sasaki's calling card, as his defense and work around the bag will need some improvement to keep him from becoming a career DH. Of course, if the bat is as explosive as advertised, no one will really care what he does in the field.

The connection with Ohtani doesn't stop with a comparison to the Dodgers superstar, either: Sasaki attended the same high school -- Hanamaki Higashi High School -- that Ohtani and Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi attended. Not only that, but Rintaro's father, Hiroshi, coached them all.

Photo via Stanford University

The move represents more evidence that the Draft League has become a welcome home to many international prospects. Last year, Ugandan catcher Dennis Kasumba and Czech Republic national team pitcher and World Baseball Classic veteran Daniel Padysak were among the global stars to play in the league.

"For me, it's really about growth of the game," Campbell said. It's a world that he knows very well: Campbell had previously worked for USA Baseball and was the signing scout when the Pirates inked the two Indian pitchers who eventually inspired the film, "Million Dollar Arm." "If we bring in somebody like, Dennis [Kasumba] from Uganda, does that create some hope and some interest and drive a little bit of groundswell passion for the game of baseball in Uganda? I think there's that chance."

Kasumba is returning this year, with top Canadian high school prospects Brendan Lawson and Josiah Romeo, Pakistan national team pitcher Amaan Khan and Amsterdam-born reliever Chris Stuart among the players looking to impress against elite competition this summer.

Not only will the players be going up against some of the best amateur ballplayers in the world, but they'll be doing it in an environment that has plenty of scouting attention and Statcast data in every ballpark. As college coaches and pro teams continue to rely on analytics more each year, the league provides an opportunity for these players to stand out in a way that may not have been possible before.

"I think it depends on the player. Like, if you told Dennis last year, 'You've got the second best miles-per-hour as a catcher in the league on the throw to second base, he would have been like, 'Oh, that's cool.' It wouldn't have necessarily resonated," Campbell joked. "But I think it also helped the teams have a little bit more comfort in the decision-making process. I don't know that it's the be all, end all, but I definitely know that the data really helps in that decision-making process."

In the end, the goal is the same, whether you're a superstar-already-in-the-making like Sasaki or a ballplayer hoping to improve their Draft stock:

"It's really about creating that kind of positive culture in each of these teams that we have: Be welcoming, be good teammates, be supportive regardless of where they come from domestically or internationally," Campbell said. "The goal and ambition is to just continue to get better."

The league's season runs through Sept. 4 and every game is free to stream on MLB.TV or on