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Get to know Yoshinobu Yamamoto

by Mat Lee
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Get to know Yoshinobu Yamamoto

November 2nd, 2023

Yoshinobu Yamamoto is the best pitcher in Japan — and next season, he could be the next great Japanese pitcher in the Major Leagues.

The 25-year-old Orix Buffaloes ace is expected to be posted by his Nippon Professional Baseball club this offseason, which would allow him to sign with an MLB team. Yamamoto would instantly become one of the top pitchers on the free-agent market — arguably the top pitcher, considering how much younger he is than fellow free-agent aces Blake Snell and Aaron Nola (both 30).

Yamamoto could join the long line of dominant NPB pitchers to jump to the Majors, following the likes of Kodai Senga, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and, of course, Shohei Ohtani.

But MLB fans might not be as familiar with Yamamoto as they are with Snell and Nola. So here’s a guide to the Japanese right-hander.

First, here are some Yamamoto fast facts:

Ht/Wt: 5-foot-10, 176 pounds

2023 stats: 23 games, 16-6, 1.21 ERA, 169 K, 164 IP

And here are seven things to know about Yamamoto.

1) He has won three straight Triple Crowns

Only three Major League pitchers have won three Triple Crowns: Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. But over in Japan, Yamamoto has won three in a row.

Pitching in NPB’s Pacific League, Yamamoto has led the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts in each of the last three seasons:

Yamamoto’s Triple Crown run

  • 2021: 18-5, 1.39 ERA, 206 K
  • 2022: 15-5, 1.68 ERA, 205 K
  • 2023: 16-6, 1.21 ERA, 169 K

Just totaling that up, that’s a 49-16 record, 1.44 ERA and 580 strikeouts for Yamamoto over the last three seasons. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dominant run in professional baseball today.

2) … And three straight Sawamura Awards

Given his now-perennial Triple Crown numbers, it’s no surprise that Yamamoto has won the Eiji Sawamura Award — NPB’s equivalent to the Cy Young Award, except only one starter wins for all of NPB — three years running.

Many Japanese aces who jumped to MLB have won Sawamura Awards. Tanaka and Kenta Maeda, for example, won two each; Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideo Nomo each won one. None of them won the award as many times as Yamamoto before they came to the Major Leagues, let alone three times in a row.

Only one other pitcher in NPB history has won three straight Sawamura Awards: the legendary Masaichi Kaneda, Japan’s all-time wins and strikeouts leader, who did it from 1956-58.

3) He just threw a no-hitter with MLB execs watching

With Yamamoto anticipated to be coming to the big leagues, multiple MLB executives turned out to watch his start on Sept. 9 against the Chiba Lotte Marines — including Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who had a front-row seat at ZOZO Marine Stadium.

Yamamoto rewarded them by throwing a no-hitter.

And that was actually his second career no-hitter in NPB. Yamamoto pitched his first no-hitter against the Saitama Seibu Lions on June 18, 2022.

4) He dominated in the World Baseball Classic

MLB fans got a good look at Yamamoto during the 2023 World Baseball Classic, when he helped lead Samurai Japan to victory.

Yamamoto started Japan’s Pool B game against Australia and pitched four scoreless innings of one-hit, eight-strikeout baseball.

Then he pitched in tandem with Roki Sasaki — if Yamamoto is the best pitcher in Japan, Sasaki is the most electric — during Japan’s dramatic comeback win over Mexico in the semifinals. Yamamoto kept Japan in the game after Mexico got to Sasaki early, with strikeouts of Alek Thomas, Rowdy Tellez and Austin Barnes during his 3 1/3 innings pitched.

5) Yamamoto vs. Sasaki was one of the best baseball games of the year

Less than a month after they were teammates in the WBC, Yamamoto and Sasaki faced off for the first time in an NPB game on April 14.

It was the marquee pitching matchup of the year — a showdown between the two biggest star pitchers in Japan — and it lived up to the hype.

The game was a true pitchers’ duel. Yamamoto went six innings, allowed just one run and struck out nine. Sasaki was even better — he pitched seven scoreless innings, allowed just one hit and struck out 11.

Imagine Yamamoto going head to head against MLB’s best pitchers. Something to look forward to.

6) He’s a WBC champion, Olympic champion and NPB champion

Everywhere he’s pitched, Yamamoto has won.

In NPB, his Orix Buffaloes won the 2022 Japan Series, defeating the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in a clash of Triple Crown winners and reigning MVPs: Yamamoto on the pitching side for Orix, Munetaka Murakami on the hitting side for the Swallows.

And internationally, Yamamoto has won two gold medals. There was Japan’s gold in this year’s WBC, and Yamamoto also won gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He was even named to the All-Olympic Team.

7) He has the Kershaw curveball of Japan

Yamamoto has the stuff, command and poise on the mound of an MLB ace. 

His fastball sits in the mid-to-upper 90s, frequently reaching 98 or 99 mph, and he has multiple wipeout secondary pitches. 

One of those is the splitter that many Japanese pitchers use as their No. 1 strikeout pitch — though Yamamoto will use his high-80s splitter both as a chase pitch below the zone, like Ohtani and Senga do, and also to get strikes inside the zone. He also throws a hard slider/cutter in the high-80s to low-90s.

But Yamamoto’s signature pitch — and most beautiful pitch — is his rainbow curveball. It’s a curveball that looks like Clayton Kershaw’s, but from the right side. Yamamoto’s curveball is the pitch that might be the most fun to watch when he arrives in the Majors.

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Mat Lee
Author: Mat Lee

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