5 Japanese starters who could be the next MLB ace

March 2nd, 2024

In recent years, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) has enjoyed immense pitching talent.

This offseason, former Japanese baseball players have made up a large part of the headlines. In addition to former NPB star Shohei Ohtani signing a record-breaking contract with the Dodgers, MLB newcomer Yoshinobu Yamamoto signed what’s tied for the fourth-most lucrative contract in MLB history. Together, Ohtani and Yamamoto could be two-fifths of the Dodgers’ starting rotation for the better part of a decade -- at least when Ohtani is ready to pitch again in 2025 after undergoing arm surgery.

Others such as the Cubs' Shota Imanaga and the Padres' Yuki Matsui have also received lucrative contracts to pitch in the Majors.

In recent years, Yu Darvish has been a five-time All-Star who has finished in the top 10 of Cy Young voting four times; Kodai Senga was the Mets’ best starting pitcher in his rookie season last year (2.98 ERA in 29 starts); and Ohtani has been a top pitcher in the sport for years (including his second-place finish in 2022 AL Cy Young Award voting).

As a result, teams have become more comfortable signing Japanese pitchers to larger contracts because they have had success in the Majors and they have lived up to the deals (and, in some cases, surpassed them).

So who could be next?

Rōki Sasaki

Sasaki, the Chiba Lotte Marines ace, is very young, having just turned 22 in November, but he has been the most dominant pitcher in his three seasons in NPB. And he’s the best known.

In 2023, Sasaki averaged 13.4 strikeouts and just 1.7 walks per nine innings with a sparkling 0.747 WHIP and 1.78 ERA in 15 games (91 innings). And his stats were nearly identical the year before.

Sasaki's fastball averages more than 98 mph but has reached 102, as we saw from him in the World Baseball Classic against Team Mexico outfielder Randy Arozarena of the Rays.

And even more astoundingly, Sasaki's fastball isn’t his best pitch. He also features a devastating splitter/forkball in the low 90s with nearly 30 inches of movement.

As recently as January, Sasaki expressed a desire to come to MLB in the near future. It’s rumored that he has a provision in his contract that would force Chiba Lotte to post him whenever he asks, so he could come to the Majors as soon as next offseason.

Shunpeita Yamashita

Yamashita is on the Orix Buffaloes (Yamamoto's former team) and has displayed electric stuff on the mound.

Yamashita's fastball sits in the 94-97 mph range but tops out at 99, which is in the 98th percentile of NPB.

In the 2023 season, Yamashita appeared in 16 games and averaged just under six innings per appearance; he averaged 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings compared to just 2.8 walks with a WHIP of 1.063. He showed his dominance with a 1.61 ERA and his whiff rate on pitches outside of the zone (O-swg%), was in the 88th percentile.

The thing that might be the most intriguing, though, is his age. Yamashita won't turn 22 until July, so he has a lot of time to develop into an even more dominating pitcher.

Kona Takahashi

Unlike the first two pitchers on our list, Kona Takahashi is a bit older (he turned 27 in February) and has a longer track record in NPB going back to 2015. He has improved greatly in the past two seasons, though.

Since the 2022 season, Takahashi has had ERAs of 2.20 and 2.21 in 26 and 23 starts, more than a run lower than his career average, partially due to an increase in his fastball velocity. This offseason and in previous years, Takahashi worked with Driveline in the Seattle area on his velocity.

However, his fastball still averages around the mid- to upper-90s (compared to the low-90s previously). He does offer a splitter, slider and change that have improved as well.

Takahashi has expressed a desire to come to the Majors recently, partially due to his former teammate, Yusei Kikuchi, coming stateside and his experience attending Game 4 of the 2022 World Series in Philadelphia. Thus far, he has yet to be posted by his team, the Saitama Seibu Lions.

Kaima Taira

The Seibu Lions also have another potential MLB target.

Taira is likely to be posted in the near future because of his age (he turned 24 in November) and he has consistently been excellent since starting his tenure with the Lions in 2018. In 150 innings in '23, he had a 2.40 ERA, a 1.133 WHIP, and an average of 3.3 walks and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

However, 2023 was his first season as a starting pitcher. As a reliever, he was even more dominant, never posting an ERA north of 1.87 in the previous three seasons. His strikeout rate was higher (between 10.5 and 12.2 K/9) and his walk rate was lower.

As a starter, he saw his fastball velocity dip slightly -- from around 96 to 94 mph -- but considering the innings increase (nearly triple the total from year to year), most MLB teams would be more than willing to take that tradeoff.

Hiroto Takahashi

Takahashi, who turns 22 in August, has been dominant the past two seasons despite a lack of run support (he has a 13-18 record in NPB despite an ERA of 2.50).

In 2023, Takahashi made 25 starts (146 innings pitched) and averaged 8.9 strikeouts and 3.1 walks per nine innings with a WHIP of 1.233. All of these numbers are slightly worse than they were in 2022, when he was even more dominant.

Part of that has been because Takahashi's fastball -- which sits 93-95 mph generally, but has topped out at 98 -- has been hit hard with nearly a .300 average against. However, batters hit just .133 against his forkball, which he throws in the high 80s to low 90s.

In the WBC Final against the United States, he struck out Mike Trout with the forkball and followed up by striking out Paul Goldschmidt.

If Takahashi can lower the hit rate on his fastball, he could become even more dominant -- as in one of the top pitching talents in Japan and, perhaps soon, the Majors.

Honorable mentions: RHP Shosei Togo, LHP Hiroya Miyagi, LHP Shinnosuke Ogasawara