Meet the 20-year-old NPB star on a perfect stretch

April 23rd, 2022

The year’s most dominant pitcher takes the mound again Sunday.

With all proper respect to 40-year-old marvel Adam Wainwright and the resurgent Madison Bumgarner, both scheduled to start that day, we’re referring to Japanese pitching sensation Rōki Sasaki.

Sasaki, a 20-year-old right-hander, brings a streak of 17 perfect innings into Sunday’s start for the Chiba Lotte Marines of the NPB Pacific League. First pitch against the Orix Buffaloes is set for midnight ET from Kyocera Dome Osaka.

Sasaki’s last two starts have created an international phenomenon. He threw a perfect game against Orix on April 10, in which he struck out 13 consecutive batters (a new NPB record) and finished with 19 strikeouts overall (which tied the NPB record).

One week later, the opponent changed, but the results did not. Sasaki struck out 14 batters against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters before exiting after eight perfect innings. The Marines lost, 1-0, in 10 innings.

While unprecedented, the streak is within character for one of the most talented pitchers in NPB history. Sasaki is 2-0 with a 1.16 ERA over four starts this season, with an extraordinary 56 strikeouts (and only two walks) in 31 innings.

Sasaki’s fastball ranges from 95-100 mph, with precise location. He throws a devastating splitter that keeps hitters from keying on his fastball, and his slider continues to improve.

Enny Romero, the former Major League reliever and current Marines teammate, considers Sasaki the best pitcher in NPB right now.

“Tremendous pitcher,” Romero said in Spanish, via direct message. “He has a great future in the Big Leagues. ... He has such a great [repertoire]. When I see him pitch, I’m really excited, because he’s so young but already knows how to pitch -- and without pressure.”

Amid the excitement, there’s good news and bad news for Major League Baseball fans.

The good: We’re likely to enjoy a sustained look at Sasaki during next year’s World Baseball Classic, when he’s poised to be a key starting pitcher for Samurai Japan. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, a 23-year-old right-hander with the Orix Buffaloes, is another leading candidate to be Japan’s top starting pitcher.

The Classic has been a showcase for top Japanese pitching talent over the years, with Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda all pitching for the Japanese national team prior to making the move to MLB.

Now, the disappointing part: Your favorite MLB team probably won’t have the chance to sign Sasaki anytime soon.

Japanese baseball sources indicate Sasaki is unlikely to be posted for Major League clubs after either of the next two seasons, and he may not come to North America for several more years.

In fact, some observers believe that unlike Shohei Ohtani, Sasaki may wait until after he turns 25 years old, when he’ll be considered a professional under existing MLB transfer rules. If Sasaki waits until then (during the 2026-27 offseason), he won’t be subject to amateur signing bonus restrictions.

(Of note, the recently enacted Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the ’26 season, so it’s impossible to predict what the player transfer rules will be at that time.)

Romero said Sasaki is already learning English, and the right-hander has plenty of people around him with MLB experience. In addition to teammates Romero, Leonys Martin, Adeiny Hechavarria, Brandon Laird and Tayron Guerrero, the Marines are managed by Tadahito Iguchi, who won a World Series ring with the 2005 Chicago White Sox.

If a big-name Japanese pitcher moves to MLB after the 2022 season, it most likely will be Koudai Senga, who has dazzled with his forkball during a decorated career with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Senga won’t need to go through the posting system to join an MLB club, because he’s accrued sufficient service time in NPB to be an international free agent. If Senga elects to remain with his new MLB club through Spring Training next year rather than pitch in the Classic, Sasaki’s role with Samurai Japan will become even more prominent.

For now, most American fans must be content to follow Sasaki from afar. The consistency of the NPB schedule should help: As the Marines’ ace, he’ll likely continue pitching on Sundays, with start times around midnight ET -- just as the Saturday evening Major League slate wraps up.

Eventually, Sasaki’s streak will end. But the pitcher himself is worthy of sacrificing sleep in order to appreciate the global fascination he’s become.