Yoshinobu Yamamoto might be the best pitcher in the world most Americans have never seen. The Japanese ace has posted preposterous numbers in Nippon Professional Baseball since going pro as a teenager, and now the 25-year-old is expected to become one of the most highly coveted arms on the market when he makes the jump to MLB this coming offseason.
One person who knows Yamamoto’s talents better than almost anyone, however, is Masataka Yoshida. The Red Sox outfielder played with Yamamoto for most of his career and is relishing the prospect of seeing his old teammate again.
“It’s going to be a great experience if we can face each other in the United States,” Yoshida said this week via translator Keiichiro Wakabayashi.
Yoshida and Yamamoto were teammates for six seasons with the Orix Buffaloes, leading the club to back-to-back pennants and the 2022 Japan Series championship, Orix’s first in 26 years. The two also helped lead Samurai Japan to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics as well as this past spring’s World Baseball Classic championship.
Yoshida said he and Yamamoto have stayed in touch since he signed with Boston and that the two have a good relationship.
“We’re close to each other,” Yoshida said. “We’ve played (together) for a long time.”
In terms of his abilities, few doubt Yamamoto’s ability to succeed at the major league level. The right-hander has dominated the Japanese baseball scene since going pro at age 18, and in seven seasons he’s posted a 1.74 career ERA over 946.2 innings.
This season Yamamoto has posted his best numbers yet, going 14-5 with a 1.26 ERA and 145 strikeouts against just 24 walks in 143 innings. He even threw his second career no-hitter on Saturday with numerous MLB scouts in attendance, and at his current pace he will be a strong contender to win his third straight Sawamura Award — the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young — as well as a third straight Pacific League MVP.
Wakabayashi, who previously served as an interpreter for Orix before coming with Yoshida to Boston, said Yamamoto is a great guy who goes about his business the right way.
“He’s really professional, prepares well and on the mound every single time he can get a good result for the team,” Wakabayashi said. “Bottom line he’s a great baseball player.”
Yamamoto’s fastball sits in the mid-90s and can touch 99 mph, and he also boasts a devastating slider that scouts believe could be a legitimate out pitch in MLB. What really sets him apart is his command, having averaged only two walks per nine innings his entire career.
Yoshida is confident that Yamamoto will enjoy success once he makes the jump to MLB. The bigger adjustments, he said, will probably have more to do with adapting to the new environment, the increased travel, the different ball and not speaking the language.
“I think he’ll need to focus on himself rather than the hitters,” Yoshida said.
Between their time pursuing Yoshida and reported trips to Orix this summer, the Red Sox are known to have scouted Yamamoto heavily over the past few years. Given the club’s need for starting pitching, it seems likely Yamamoto will be among Boston’s top offseason targets and potentially among the most impactful arms the Red Sox could bring in.
But whether Yamamoto comes to Boston or signs with another club, Yoshida said he’s excited by the prospect of his countryman becoming the latest to make his mark in MLB.
“If it happens that would be cool, that’s his baseball life, so I hope he’ll be well in any team he goes,” Yoshida said. “I’m so excited to see him again.”
Casas on historic pace
Early on Triston Casas looked lost at the plate, and for two months the rookie struggled to find his footing at the major league level.
But once he did, he never looked back. Now Casas has emerged as one of the most impactful hitters in all of baseball.
Casas is putting together a monster second half, and at this point the sample size is getting large enough that his success can’t be dismissed as a fluke. Since the All-Star break the 23-year-old first baseman ranks third among qualifying players with a 1.070 OPS, batting .329 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI over 48 games during that span.
The only position players with higher OPS marks during that span are Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, Corey Seager and Matt Olson, and at the rate he’s going Casas is on pace to finish his rookie season among some impressive company.
Right now Casas is one of just 11 rookies in MLB history to record 20+ home runs, 20+ doubles, 60+ RBI and 60+ walks at age 23 or younger, and the other 10 are a who’s who of elite sluggers. If Casas can reach 70 RBI and 70 walks by season’s end that list would drop to five: Kris Bryant, Chipper Jones, Mark McGwire, Alvin Davis and Ted Williams.
That’s pretty good, but will it be enough for Casas to win American League Rookie of the Year? It’s possible, though Baltimore shortstop and third baseman Gunnar Henderson remains a heavy favorite thanks in large part to his superior defense at a premium position (+12 vs. -4 defensive runs saved) and his greater wins above replacement mark (5.0 vs. 2.0). Those factors, plus his similarly impressive offensive production, will be a lot for Casas to overcome.
Regardless of where Casas lands in the Rookie of the Year vote, he’s becoming exactly the kind of middle of the order anchor the Red Sox always hoped he could be.
And the best part is, he’s only just getting started.
Trouble in Texas
When the Red Sox were swept at Fenway Park by the Houston Astros last week it felt like their goose was cooked. The club had squandered numerous chances to climb back into the playoff race, and after falling 6.5 games back of the final AL Wild Card spot it felt like the Red Sox would need a miracle if they hoped for any chance of playing in October.
It still isn’t looking good, but the Red Sox actually are getting the help they needed to keep a flicker of hope alive.
Entering the weekend the Red Sox still stand six games back in the Wild Card, a number that would probably be a lot worse if not for the cratering Texas Rangers. Once solidly in position to win the AL West and earn a bye to the divisional round, Texas has gone 4-16 over its last 20 games dating back to Aug. 16.
They’ve been overtaken within their division by both Houston and the Seattle Mariners, and now they even trail the Toronto Blue Jays by 1.5 games for the last playoff spot. Three weeks ago they were 7.5 games clear of the playoff cutline and boasted playoff odds well over 90%, so this has truly been a remarkable collapse.
So, what gives? Texas got off to an incredible start but has actually been pretty average for a while now, barely playing .500 ball since the start of June. The Rangers have also absorbed some significant injuries, losing ace Jacob deGrom to Tommy John surgery in early June and then-Cy Young contender Nathan Eovaldi for seven weeks after the All-Star break due to a right forearm strain.
Eovaldi was just activated on Tuesday and got blown out by Houston in that night’s 14-1 debacle, allowing four runs in 1.1 innings in his first start back.
All-Stars Corey Seager, Jonah Heim and rookie standout Josh Jung have all missed time as well, and even after adding starters Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery the Rangers still find themselves in a perilous place.
Suddenly Boston’s upcoming road trip to Toronto and Texas looks a lot more meaningful than it did this time last week.
Quote of the season
As a sportswriter, most quotes we get from athletes are pretty mundane. Some offer fascinating insight, others deal in cliches, but most of the time you don’t hear anything that would cause a casual reader to do a double take or spit out their coffee.
But every now and then you’ll hear something truly wild, and following Tuesday night’s extra-innings thriller between Boston and Tampa Bay, Rays starter Zach Eflin delivered an interesting assessment of his outing.
“I think the best way to describe it would be I felt like butt naked stranded on an island somewhere in the middle of the ocean,” Eflin told reporters following the Rays’ 8-6 win in 11 innings. “I didn’t really know what I was doing tonight.”
Eflin explained that he couldn’t figure out his mechanics, couldn’t get ahead in the count, hit Connor Wong with the first pitch of the at-bat and nearly drilled Justin Turner in the face. Put it all together and he felt like he was flailing the entire time.
“I had no idea where I was out there,” he continued. “But ultimately I threw enough strikes and got enough weak contact to get through five and kind of let the bullpen take over.”
White makes Single-A debut
Former Phillips Academy star Thomas White was recently called up to the Miami Marlins’ Low-A affiliate, and over the past week and a half has made two starts for the Jupiter Hammerheads.
The 18-year-old Rowley native, who was selected No. 35 overall by Miami in this past July’s MLB Draft, struck out three over 1.2 innings of work in his debut on Aug. 31, allowing three runs on a hit and two walks while throwing 40 pitches. He followed that up with two scoreless innings in his latest start on Thursday, striking out two while allowing two hits and two walks on 42 pitches.
White already ranks as the No. 2 prospect in Miami’s system according to MLB Pipeline and should become one of the most intriguing arms in the sport next spring once he begins his first full season of professional baseball.