'It's as if he's throwing his soul': Get to know Japanese ace Roki Sasaki

March 20th, 2023

Every baseball fan should know the name Roki Sasaki.

He's the 21-year-old sensation from Japan who's already the most electric pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball. He's a once-in-a-generation talent in the class of Shohei Ohtani.

He's finally on the global stage at the World Baseball Classic, where he'll start Japan's semifinal showdown with Mexico. And in a few years, Sasaki could be the next big thing in Major League Baseball.

If you saw his dazzling WBC debut against the Czech Republic, you probably want to know about one of the most exciting young baseball players in the world.

"It's hard to explain," Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said after Sasaki's start, "but to me, it's as if he is throwing his soul, not the baseball."

Here's a primer on Roki Sasaki.

He's one of the big three NPB rising stars

Japan has three young superstars who are taking the baseball world by storm: Munetaka Murakami, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Sasaki. All three are on Samurai Japan for WBC '23. 

The 23-year-old slugger Murakami hit 56 home runs in 2022 to break Sadaharu Oh's NPB single-season record of 55 by a Japanese-born player.

The 24-year-old ace Yamamoto won his second straight pitching Triple Crown, Sawamura Award and Pacific League MVP Award.

And then there's the 21-year-old Sasaki, born on Nov. 3, 2001 -- the youngest of the trio, and maybe the most game-breaking talent. Sasaki went 9-4 with a 2.02 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 129 1/3 innings (12.0 K/9) for the Chiba Lotte Marines in his first full season in NPB.

He throws as hard as Shohei Ohtani ...

Here's what we mean when we say Sasaki is electric.

Start with the triple-digit fastball. The 6-foot-2, 187-pound right-hander might be the hardest thrower Japan has ever seen -- and yes, that includes Ohtani.

  • Sasaki reached 102.5 mph with his fastball in one of Japan's exhibition games leading up to the World Baseball Classic -- tying Ohtani's mark for the fastest pitch ever recorded by an NPB pitcher. (Ohtani's max velo in the Major Leagues currently stands at 101.4 mph.)
  • In his first start of WBC '23 against the Czech Republic, Sasaki came out firing triple-digit heat. In the first inning, he threw 10 fastballs. All of them were tracked at over 100 mph. He topped out at 101.9 mph.
  • Sasaki had an average fastball velocity of 98.4 mph for the 2022 NPB season, the fastest in Japan. That would have ranked second among MLB starters, behind only Reds rookie flamethrower Hunter Greene (98.9 mph).
  • Sasaki's fastball first put him on the map as a 17-year-old high schooler, when he broke the Japanese high school record with a fastball recorded at 163 kilometers per hour. That's 101 mph.

Oh, and that's just his fastball. Sasaki's splitter can be as devastating as Ohtani's, or Kodai Senga's ghost fork. It might be his best pitch. It comes in at over 90 mph (so does his slider), and falls off the table. Check out the one he threw to Eric Sogard in his first WBC start, and how it works as a pitch tunneling combo with his four-seamer.

... And he's an Ohtani-level phenom

Sasaki has been compared to Ohtani since high school. And for good reason.

Guess whose high school velocity record Sasaki broke? It was Ohtani's, of course. An 18-year-old Ohtani had hit 160 kph -- over 99 mph -- for Hanamaki Higashi High School at Japan's famous Summer Koshien tournament in 2012.

When Sasaki hit 163 kph for Ofunato High School, the "next Shohei Ohtani" comparisons started.

"Not even this much was made of Ohtani at the start of the tournament," longtime Japanese high school baseball radio broadcaster Hisatoshi Kato told the Los Angeles Times in 2019, as Sasaki pitched in the Iwate prefectural tournament his senior year. Ofunato was eliminated in the championship game, just short of the national tournament at Koshien, by Ohtani's alma mater Hanamaki Higashi.

"Yusei Kikuchi emerged from this area 10 years ago. Shohei Ohtani emerged a few years later. Now people are saying this kid might be better than those two," Kato said.

He already pitched one of the greatest games in baseball history

When you're the next Shohei Ohtani, the expectations are going to be sky high. So they were for Sasaki as he entered NPB. He has only exceeded them.

Sasaki was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NPB Draft, bid on by four teams -- the Marines, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Saitama Seibu Lions -- before Chiba Lotte won the lottery to select him first overall.

He made his NPB debut at just 19 years old on May 16, 2021, and went 3-2 with a 2.27 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 11 games as a rookie. He threw a six-inning, 10-strikeout gem in his first postseason game. But that's not the game we're talking about.

That game is April 10, 2022. That game is a 19-strikeout perfect game.

There have only been 23 perfect games in MLB history. There have only been 16 perfect games in NPB history.

There hasn't been an MLB perfect game since Félix Hernández's for the Mariners in 2012. There hadn't been one in NPB since Hiromi Makihara's for the Yomiuri Giants in 1994.

Sasaki's -- against the eventual NPB champion Orix Buffaloes in front of 22,431 fans at Zozo Marine Stadium -- is the only perfect game with 19 strikeouts.

Those 19 K's tied the NPB single-game record. Sasaki struck out 13 of those batters in a row, also a record (the record in MLB is 10). He struck out Masataka Yoshida -- then Orix's best hitter, now the Red Sox's new outfielder -- three times … and Yoshida struck out just 41 times all year. He reached 102 mph with his fastball.

He was 20 years old.

"This is the greatest," Sasaki said after the game, and: "I feel on top of the world."

"I got beaten completely," Yoshida said. "There was no point of contact."

A perfect game wasn't enough for Sasaki. In his next start, he pitched eight more perfect innings before exiting the game in the ninth. That's an unprecedented 17 perfect innings streak.

An autographed game ball from Sasaki's perfecto now resides in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

He's the 'Monster of the Reiwa'

Sasaki has one of the coolest nicknames in baseball: the Monster of the Reiwa Era.

The Reiwa Era is the current era of Japan's calendar, which started in 2019, two years before Sasaki threw his first pitch in NPB.

Sasaki's nickname is an homage to one of the great Japanese pitchers who came before him: Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was known as the Monster of the Heisei -- the previous era before the Reiwa.

And Sasaki wants to live up to the moniker.

"I want to become a No. 1 pitcher," he told the Japan Times after the 2022 NPB season. "I want to be the player whose name fans say when they are asked who is No. 1."

He overcame personal tragedy to get here

Sasaki's first start of the World Baseball Classic on March 11 was an emotional day. 

It came on the anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Sasaki lost his father and grandparents in the tsunami, and his family's house in Rikuzentakata was swept away. 

A year later, Sasaki moved to Ofunato and began playing baseball there. The bond he made with his teammates is one of the reasons he stayed to pitch for Ofunato High School even when he was recruited by Japan's powerhouse programs. 

"I was happiest playing baseball," Sasaki told Sports Hochi in 2021. "Because I could lose myself for stretches of time, I felt I was able to give my best even through hard times and heartbreaking times."

The day after the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami, Sasaki made his professional debut. On the 12-year anniversary, he earned the win for Samurai Japan in his WBC start. 

"I've been able to dedicate myself to baseball thanks to the support I've had," Sasaki told the Kyodo News last year. "I only have the sense of gratitude to those who supported me."

And he wants to be a Major Leaguer

Before the World Baseball Classic, Sasaki was asked by the Associated Press about playing in Major League Baseball someday.

His response: "That is my dream."

But when will the Monster of the Reiwa make the jump from NPB to MLB? There's no timeline … yet … and it might not be for several seasons.

If Sasaki waits for the international bonus pool restrictions for MLB teams under the Japanese posting system to lift, when he's 25 years old, he wouldn't arrive in the Major Leagues until the 2027 season.

Of course, he could always make the jump earlier -- just like Ohtani did when he signed with the Angels at age 23. Ohtani and Sasaki have talked about what playing for a Major League team, in a Major League environment, is like. Sasaki will come when the time is right.

"For the Major Leagues," Sasaki said at the World Baseball Classic, "rather than the timing, I think I will play in Japan, and then I think something will become clear when I'm going to shift over."