Pick any year from 2013 to 2020. Now open up any site that has Nippon Professional Baseball statistics. If you’re looking at the pitching leaderboard for any of the suggested years there is no question that you will find Tomoyuki Sugano’s name on said leaderboard. From the moment Sugano entered the league in 2013 to the final pitch he threw in 2020 he has dominated NPB like very few have before him. It’s expected that his NPB team, the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, will announce his posting sometime in the next few days. That means that Major League Baseball teams will have the ability to bring the Japanese ace to their starting rotation.
Most people associate Sugano with his performance during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Specifically, his performance for Japan against the United States in the semifinals caused plenty of MLB scouts and fans to take notice of the righthanded starter. He threw six innings of one-run ball, walking only one and striking out 6. The lone run he surrendered was courtesy of an error and for the entirety of his appearance, he baffled American hitters with the same stuff he had been using in NPB for 4 years at that point.
Fast forward a few years and Sugano is finally being posted. The buzz has worn off somewhat and it seems that most fans have developed reservations about his ace status carrying over into MLB. Here’s the thing about Tomoyuki Sugano, he never backs down from a challenge. He’s maintained his status as a top of the leaderboard pitcher in Japan because he isn’t content with just being good. He wants to be the best and his training regimen is built entirely on reaching that goal. Based on character and work ethic alone, there should be little doubt that the Kanagawa native will excel in the big leagues.
If one wants to look more deeply at his stuff they may come away less than impressed. That is the beauty of Sugano, he’s not a pitcher who looks like he should dominate. He regularly sits in the low 90s with his fourseam fastball, though he can get it to the mid-90s when needed. His offspeed offerings don’t look like they are particularly nasty. That’s where one important aspect of Sugano’s make-up comes into play. He is first and foremost, a control machine. He doesn’t walk all that many and he has mastered tunneling and making his various pitches look as similar as possible. Sugano is an old-school pitcher in that he understands how to work over hitters, not just in terms of their weak areas but also in his ability to create new weak areas on the fly based on what he sees happening pitch-by-pitch.
Sugano is a workhorse. Outside of the last two seasons he started 23+ games every year and toed the rubber for 150+ innings each of those years. He’s also thrown 37 complete games in his career, in an era where the complete game has gone out of vogue, even in Japan. This is in an NPB that routinely plays 143 games and uses a rotation style that ensures Sugano only pitched once a week most weeks. Year in and year out Sugano has been a pitcher that his team could count on to go out and eat up innings while still being productive.
The only real question about Sugano is that he’s already an 8-year pro and will be 32 come MLB Opening Day 2021. While there’s little doubt he should shoulder his usual load for the next few seasons he has put a lot of mileage on his arm already and teams could be wary of offering the sort of commitment he will be looking for in his first MLB contract. Those teams will be silly for passing on a top-of-the-rotation starter, but MLB teams are routinely silly. Time will display their silliness for all to see. One team will be smart enough to sign Sugano and he will have plenty of innings left to make the rest of MLB realize the mistake they made in letting him slide through their grasp.