The WBC has reached its climax, with only three games of the semi-finals and finals left to be played. Japan — along with the mighty Puerto Rico — remains one of the only two undefeated countries in the tournament, despite the absence of their best player and most interesting man.
While some of them have made highlight reels, the majority of the players on Team Japan remain unfamiliar to the fans in the states. But no worries — I got you covered. Below are brief introductions to Japan's five best hitters whom you’ll want to pay close attention to in the match against Team USA Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, OF, Yokohama DeNA BayStars
Days before his squad’s first warm-up game for the WBC, Team Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo made it clear that Tsutsugo will bat cleanup during the tournament, regardless of the circumstance. Kokubo is known for his wrongdoings from the dugout, but his plan of sticking with Tsutsugo appears to be one of — if not the only — right decisions he's made, with his intimidating ball-masher having unleashed three home runs in the team's first six games.
Tsutsugo, who knocked 69 home runs during his tenure at Yokohama High School, one of the powerhouses in Japanese high school baseball, was selected by the BayStars in the first round of the 2009 draft. After fighting through a series of injuries in the first few years of his career, he started to live up to the hype in 2014, posting a .300/.373/.529 slash line with 22 round-trippers in 461 plate appearances.
Last year, the 25-year-old blossomed into one the country’s best hitters, putting together a fabulous .322/.430/.680 slash line to go with 44 long balls, which led the entire NPB. Advanced stats further prove his dominance at the plate, as his .460 wOBA and 198 wRC+ ranked atop among all qualified hitters by a fair margin. Even after accounting for the hitter-friendliness of Yokohama Stadium, where the BayStars call home, Tsutsugo’s offensive production was twice that of the league-average hitter.
On top of the prodigious power, he shows a willingness to spray the ball to all fields. In 2016, he pulled 35.5 percent of his batted balls, while squaring up 35.8 percent to center and 28.7 percent to left field (where he hit 12 of his 44 home runs). In other words, he has become a complete package as a hitter.
While he isn’t very valuable on the basepaths and in left field, it’s easy to see a potential move to first base. But his bat will play wherever he winds up on the field. And the bat will eventually carry him to the major leagues.
Tetsuto Yamada, 2B, Tokyo Yakult Swallows
Dubbed “the Mike Trout of Japan” by our friends at NEIFI, the 24-year-old has been the most valuable player in NPB over the last three seasons, with contributions in every aspect of the game. Here’s how exceptional Yamada is: The 2016 season, in which he slashed .304/.425/.607 while leaving the yard 38 times, to the tune of 8.8 WAR, was suboptimal by his standards, a four-win downgrade from his MVP-winning 2015.
Yamada, the product of Riseisha, another powerhouse in Japanese high school baseball, has improved his ability to control the zone. Last year, he offered at only 36.2 percent of the pitches he saw, and exactly 20 percent of pitches outside the strike zone; those marks ranked the lowest and third-lowest among qualified hitters, respectively.
On the basepaths and at second base, he was more or less average, whereas he excelled a year before. It was presumably due to the leg soreness he played through, and a bruised rib sustained via a hit-by-pitch that caused him to miss 10 games in August. Still, he successfully stole 30 bases in 32 attempts.
Hayato Sakamoto, SS, Yomiuri Giants
One may consider Sakamoto “the Derek Jeter of Japan”, as he fields shortstop and bats the top of the order of the nation’s most popular team. He is one of only a handful of repeating members from the previous WBC, in which he went 6-for-25 with a home runs and a pair of sacrifice bunts.
Last year, at the dish, Sakamoto slashed .344/.433/.555, all of these figures being career-highs by at least 30 points, while drawing more walks (81, previous high was 65) and cutting down strikeouts (67, previous low was 79) in 576 trips to the plate. He didn’t sacrifice his power for his contact, as he unleashed 23 home runs, the second-highest single-season mark in his career. Overall, he hit his way to a 181 wRC+, behind only Tsutsugo and Seiya Suzuki, whom I’ll get to later in this article, among qualified hitters.
Oh, remember did I call him “Derek Jeter of Japan”? Well, this comparison doesn’t fit really well, since Sakamoto flashes plus defense at the six, unlike his stateside counterpart. He has a better arm than the majority of his fellow countrymen, which allows him to get more runners down the line. By UZR, he ranked second among shortstops, with a 15.1 mark.
Combining his excellence at the plate and the keystone, Sakamoto posted an NPB-leading 9.6 WAR in 2016.
Ryosuke Kikuchi, 2B, Hiroshima Toyo Carp
The aforementioned Mike Trout of Japan doesn’t even get to play his own position on the national team because Kikuchi stands on his way.
As he has shown in the first two rounds of the WBC, Kikuchi blows away the rest of the league with his otherworldly defensive skills. The short-framed second baseman has won a Gold Glove in each of his four full seasons. His accomplishments are numbers-certified, as his 17.3 UZR, which led all NPB second basemen, was more than double that of Hideto Asamura, his closest competition.
At the plate, he’s more of a slap hitter than a power threat, building the offensive game around his plus-plus speed. Last year, nearly half of his batted balls in play were grounders, on which he recorded a .313 average. But he does show occasional pop, mostly to the pull side. In fact, 10 of his 13 home runs in 2016 were to left field.
Seiya Suzuki, OF, Hiroshima Toyo Carp
The past calendar year has been a blast for Suzuki, who enjoyed a breakout 2016 campaign en route to becoming the youngest member on the Japanese national team in this WBC. During the aforementioned 2016 season, he slashed a staggering .335/.404/.612, to go with 29 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 528 plate appearances, good for a 186 wRC+.
Despite being a full-time outfielder for only two years, he handled right field, where he performed to 10.3 UZR, better than anyone in the country last year. The former high school pitcher is equipped with more than sufficient athleticism and arm, with which he recorded 92 mph off the mound.
Plus, given the catchy first name, Michael Kay would love calling his home runs if he makes his way across the ocean and dons pinstripes in the future.
Advanced stats courtesy of 1point02.com