If anyone knows a thing or two about Major League-quality pitching, it's Jim Leyland, the Team USA manager who has spent more than five decades around the game.
So when he says you're Major League quality, you're Major League quality. Which is exactly what Japanese starter Tomoyuki Sugano looked on Tuesday night.
:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
Sugano showed he has Major League-caliber stuff, tossing six innings of one-run ball against the United States in Japan's 2-1 loss in the World Baseball Classic semifinal game at Dodger Stadium.
"Tonight, the starting pitcher for Japan, he's a big league pitcher," Leyland said. "He's good. I mean, I was really impressed with him."
The United States inched ahead for good in the eighth inning to earn a chance to play Puerto Rico in Wednesday's championship game at 9 p.m. ET from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Fans can watch on MLB Network and MLB.TV.
But that the game was that close, that late, was in large part because of Sugano, a star in Japan who kept his country very much alive in the winner-take-all matchup.
Using a four-pitch repertoire, Sugano needed 81 pitches to complete six innings, striking out six and walking one along the way. The only run Sugano allowed was unearned, after Christian Yelich reached on an error by Japan second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi with one out in the fourth. Yelich scored on Andrew McCutchen's RBI single three batters later.
"He pitched with a lot of control," McCutchen said. "[He] did a good job of locating his pitches, didn't give you much to hit."
Sugano finished strong, retiring six of his last seven hitters and facing the minimum through his final two innings. Thus concluded an up-and-down tournament for the righty in which he finished with a 3.14 ERA over 14 1/3 innings.
"I can't tell you, for me, tonight, how impressed I was with their pitcher," Leyland said. "I mean, I thought he was really good. Located on the ball on the outside corners, fastball. Threw 3-0 sliders. That's pretty impressive."
Much of Sugano's success Tuesday could be attributed to the elite spin he generated on his pitches. If you took the average spin rates of Sugano's four-seam fastball and curveball, he would rank among the 2016 MLB leaders in both, according to Statcast™. The righty's four-seam fastball measured in a 2,513 revolutions per minute, similar to Cody Allen and Yu Darvish's from a year ago. Fastballs with high spin rates tend to result in more strikeouts and playable fly balls.
Statcast™ measured Sugano curve at an average of 2,859 rpm and a high of 3,079 rpm. In 2016, only five pitchers who threw at least 200 tracked curveballs had a higher average spin rate.
A 27-year-old star with the Yomiuri Giants, Sugano is one of the top pitchers in Japan. He was the Most Valuable Player of Nippon Professional Baseball's Central League in 2014 and led that league in strikeouts and ERA in '16. He has a 44-28 career record with a 2.34 ERA in 101 career games (100 starts), 592 strikeouts and a 1.07 WHIP in 697 career innings.
Those numbers have put Sugano on the radar of Major League scouts, though it is unclear whether he will be posted in the near future. Players typically do not get posted until they near free agency, which takes nine years of service time to reach in the NPB. Sugano is entering his fifth professional season in Japan.
The World Baseball Classic runs through Wednesday. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.