Sunday Notes: Masataka Yoshida Knows NPB’s Top Pitchers
Masataka Yoshida is MLB’s latest NPB import, having been inked to a five-year, $90M contract by the Boston Red Sox earlier this week. A 29-year-old, left-handed-hitting outfielder, Yoshida is coming off of a season where he slashed .335/.447/.561 with 21 home runs for the Orix Buffaloes… and it wasn’t a breakout season. He’s been one of the best hitters in Japan’s top league in each of the last five years.
Who is the best pitcher in NPB? I asked Yoshida that question on Thursday following his introductory press conference at Fenway Park.
“Probably Kodai Senga,” replied Yoshida, citing the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks right-hander who recently signed a 5-year, $75M deal with the New York Mets. “I think he was the best pitcher in Japan.”
Intrigued by that answer, I followed up by asking, via interpreter Keiichiro Wakabayashi, if he feels that Senga is actually better than his former Orix teammate, 24-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
“Maybe Yamamoto is a little bit better than Senga, because his results are better,” Boston’s new outfielder responded. “He is a great pitcher for us. Every single time, he’s winning for the team.”
The numbers support Yamamoto. Two years ago, the right-hander went 18-5 with a 1.39 ERA, and this past season he went 15-5 with a 1.68 ERA. He’s been honored with the Sawamura Award as Japan’s top pitcher in each of the past two seasons. Along with 21-year-old Roki Sasaki, Yamamoto is the NPB pitcher who would be coveted the most by MLB clubs if he were to become available.
Would Yamamoto like to follow in Senga’s footsteps and sign stateside?
“I think he would,” Yoshida said in response to that question. “I feel that he wants to come to the United States, but it depends on the posting. He has to discuss that with Orix.”
I had one more question for Yoshida: How does Sasaki compare to Senga and Yamamoto?
“Talent-wise, he’s maybe best-best,” said Yoshida. “His [velocity] is really good, and his splitter is also very good, but as a pitcher, I think Yamamoto and Senga are better. They are all very good.”
Gus Quattlebaum played a key role bringing Yoshida to Boston. As Boston’s VP of Scouting, he both oversaw the scouting process and traveled to Japan for several looks of his own. A matchup Yoshida had with a same-sided reliever stands out in Quattlebaum’s mind.
“I didn’t see a [Yoshida-Sasaki] at-bat in person — I did see Sasaki, but not against Orix — although I did see Yoshida face one of the tougher lefties in Japan,” Quattlebaum explained. “Liván Moinelo came in to close a game, and ‘Masa’ grinded out the at-bat and drove a ball over the shortstop’s head. That’s one very tiny sample, but it was encouraging to see against the guy like that.”
Moinelo, a 27-year-old closer for Fukuoka, has been dominant in recent seasons. This past year, he logged 24 saves and a 1.03 ERA while fanning 87 batters in 52-and-two-thirds innings. Yoshida complimented Moinelo’s plus curveball when I asked about him, while Quattlebaum added that the southpaw throws in the mid-to-upper 90s.
I asked Quattlebaum about Moinelo’s status. Is he hoping to come to MLB?
“He wouldn’t have to be posted, but he would have to defect from Cuba,” Quattlebaum told me. “He’s still a Cuban citizen. I also think he’s pretty comfortable out there, in Japan. One of our scouts is a former translator for SoftBank, so he knows when Monielo well. There is zero indication that he’s coming over.”
As for other NPB pitchers who could be coming to MLB in the not-too-distant future, Quattlebaum feels there “will likely be a number of them.” Based on what he and other international scouts have observed, “There is more power over there than we’ve seen in the past.”
One other note from my conversation with Quattlebaum. He brought up that one of the biggest adjustments Senga will need to make, coming to MLB, is adapting to the pitch clock. Much like newly-signed Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen, he’s typically worked at a very slow pace.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Horace Clarke went 16 for 34 against John Hiller.
Gene Michael went 15 for 29 against Denny McLain.
Tom Tresh went 15 for 63 against Mickey Lolich.
Bobby Murcer went 12 for 26 against Fred Scherman.
Danny Cater went 12 for 28 against Joe Sparma.
Justyn-Henry Malloy — a guest on FanGraphs Audio this past October — was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Detroit Tigers last week. The 22-year-old prospect was subsequently introduced to the media via Zoom, which gave me an opportunity to ask him about his positional future. When I talked to “J-Hen” during the Arizona Fall League, and then for the podcast, he spoke of how Atlanta had converted him from a third baseman to an outfielder earlier this summer. Where does his new organization plan to play him?
“I was told, ‘Hey, we want you back in the dirt,” said Malloy, who put up a 136 wRC+ across three levels this year, his final eight games coming in Triple-A. “I was like, ‘OK,’ and funny enough, today was my first day fielding ground balls in about six months. It felt like riding a bike. It didn’t feel like I had skipped a beat. Left field is still an option, but I was told that third base is now back in play.”
With Jeimer Candelario now a Washington National, and an unproven Ryan Kreidler currently penciled in at the hot corner, it makes sense that the Tigers want to see if their new edition can adequately handle that position. As for the fallback option, Malloy recently heard from one of the best left fielders in franchise history.
“Willie Horton gave me a call to congratulate me on coming into the organization,” said Malloy. “I thought that was awesome. My dad is an older guy — he was born in 1947 — and when I said ‘Willie Horton: I just talked to him.’ He was like, ‘What?!’ He was pumped. He obviously knows a lot about Mr. Horton.”
Horton, now 80 years old and serving as a special assistant to the general manager, spent 15 of his 18 big-league seasons in Detroit, and played a huge role in the Tigers’ 1968 World Series championship campaign. The powerfully-built slugger clubbed 36 home runs while logging a 167 wRC+, then proceeded to star in the Fall Classic, supplying timely hits and throwing out St. Louis’s Lou Brock at home plate in one of the Series’ most-pivotal plays. An icon in the city where he grew up, Horton — in full uniform, no less — had earlier tried to serve as a peacemaker during the 1967 Detroit race riots.
Which pitcher holds the MLB record for most wins by a reliever?
The answer can be found below.
Gary LaRocque is the recipient of this year’s Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award, which is presented annually to “an individual with distinguished service who has been instrumental in player development.” LaRocque has worked in professional baseball for 43 years and is currently an Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Development for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Baltimore Orioles have hired Devan Fink as their Coordinator of Baseball Operations. Fink was a frequent contributor here at FanGraphs from 2019-2021 while attending Dartmouth College.
Curt Simmons, a left-hander who spent the bulk of his 20 big-league seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals, died this week at age 93. A native of Egypt, Pennsylvania, he was credited with 193 wins and 54.5 WAR.
Tom Flanigan, a left-handed pitcher who appeared in two games for the Chicago White Sox in 1954, and in one game for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1958, died earlier this month at age 88. The lone run Flanigan allowed in his brief big-league career came via a solo home run by Chicago Cubs catcher Cal Neeman.
The answer to the quiz is Lindy McDaniel, who was credited with 120 relief wins from 1955-1975 (he also had 21 wins as a starter). Hoyt Wilhelm had 116 wins as a reliever (and 27 as a starter).
Which of Mark Buehrle and Andy Pettitte has a better Hall of Fame case? I asked that question in a Twitter poll earlier this week, and the result was razor thin. Of the 1,321 votes cast, 51.3% went to Pettitte, while Buehrle garnered 48.7%.
Their WAR totals differ markedly between here and Baseball-Reference. The latter has Buehrle at 60.0, and Pettitte at 60.7, while our own calculations are Buehrle 52.3, Pettitte 68.2. FIP is, of course, the primary separator. Buehrle had a 3.81 ERA and a 4.11 FIP. Pettitte had a 3.85 ERA and a 3.74 FIP.
Through little fault of his own, Buehrle finished with fewer wins, and far fewer postseason opportunities. How much those things should impact the left-hander’s respective Cooperstown credentials is a matter of opinion. The nearly 50/50 ballot breakdown seems right.
Kensuke Kondoh, who spent his first 11 NPB seasons with the Nippon-Ham Fighters, has signed a six-year contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The 29-year-old, left-handed-hitting outfielder (he’s also caught and played on the infield corners) is a career .307/.413/.434 hitter.
Carter Hope has made 12 appearances and allowed just three earned runs in 17 innings with the Australian Baseball League’s Brisbane Bandits. A former Kansas City Royals prospect, the 27-year-old left-hander spent this summer with the independent American Association’s Lincoln Saltdogs.
James Meeker has thrown 14-and-a-third scoreless innings over 12 appearances, and leads all ABL pitchers with seven saves. The 27-year-old Perth Heat right-hander pitched in the Milwaukee Brewers system this year, logging 17 saves and a 2.94 ERA between High-A Wisconsin and Double-A Biloxi.
Domingo Robles has allowed three earned runs in 33-and-a-third innings with Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican Winter League. The 24-year-old southpaw in the St. Louis Cardinals system had a 6.14 ERA in 110 innings with Double-A Springfield this year.
Bladimir Restituyo is slashing .343/.351/.466 in 74 plate appearances with the Puerto Rican Winter League’s RA12. The 21-year-old outfielder in the Colorado Rockies system had eight home runs and a .708 OPS with High-A Spokane this year.
Jerry Dipoto was a guest on Friday’s episode of FanGraphs Audio, and among the many subjects addressed by Seattle’s President of Baseball Operations was a 2018 33rd-round draft pick who excelled for the Mariners in his rookie season. In 64 appearances, all but one out of the bullpen, Penn Murfee logged a 2.99 ERA and a 3.10 FIP over 69-and-a-third innings. I asked Dipoto when Murfee emerged as more than just a name on the organizational depth chart.
“Alon Leichman [was] in our organization from 2016 through just a couple of weeks ago, when he left to become the assistant pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds,” Dipoto said on the pod. “We were in spring training 2021, sitting around in the coach’s room in Peoria… having some conversation about what we saw that day. I vividly recall this was the first time that we ever really brought up Penn as a potential addition to our major-league club… Everybody was talking about George Kirby or Logan Gilbert — some of the really-grab-your-attention arms that were in camp with us at the time — and Alon raised his hand. He said, ‘You know who was my takeaway today? Don’t sleep on Penn Murfee. I’m telling you, that cutter he’s come up with is changing his his whole game. He’s going to be a guy.”
Others discussed on this week’s episode include Marco Gonzales, Emerson Hancock, Andrés Muñoz, and former FanGraphs managing editor Dave Cameron, who now works in the Mariners front office. The wide-ranging conversation also includes this week’s free-agent spending spree, Dipoto’s own career as a big-league pitcher, and the careers of Rip Sewell and Hippo Vaughn.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
The end of an era looms when it comes to large-scale, industry-wide Minor League Baseball gatherings. Kevin Reichard has the story at Ballpark Digest.
Mark Simon interviewed erstwhile infielder Adam Everett for Sports Info Solutions.
KBO champions SSG Landers are caught up in a front office controversy. Yoo Jee-ho has the story at Yonhap News Agency.
At Nature.com, Takeshi Yamaguchi, Daiki Nasu, and Kei Masani explored the effect of grip-enhancing agents on sliding friction between a fingertip and a baseball.
Twinkie Town’s John Foley compared and contrasted the prospect breakouts of José Miranda and Edouard Julien.
MLB researcher supreme Sarah Langs is soldiering along despite an ALS diagnosis. Zach Buchanan wrote about Lang’s ordeal, and her love for the game, at The Athletic (subscription required).
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Yadier Molina had a .327 OBP, 176 home runs, and 1,577 singles.
Joey Gallo has a .325 OBP, 177 home runs, and 198 singles.
Paul Molitor had 3,319 hits and 504 stolen bases.
Omar Moreno had 1,257 hits and 487 stolen bases.
Tommy Harper had 408 stolen bases in 524 attempts.
Chuck Knoblauch had 407 stolen bases in 524 attempts.
Roberto Clemente and Joe DiMaggio combined to steal 113 bases. Babe Ruth stole 123 bases.
A.J. Burnett went 164-157 with a 104 ERA+ and 2,513 strikeouts.
Javier Vazquez went 165-160 with a 105 ERA+ and 2,536 strikeouts.
Red Lucas threw 204 complete games, including 37 in which he didn’t record a strikeout, in a career that spanned the 1923-1938 seasons. A good-hitting pitcher who played primarily for the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, Lucas logged a .281/.340/.347 slash line, with 478 of his 1,608 plate appearances coming as a pinch hitter.
On today’s date in 1997, the Boston Red Sox acquired Pedro Martinez from the Montreal Expos in exchange for Carl Pavano and a PTBNL (Tony Armas Jr.). Martinez had 117 wins and 51.9 WAR in seven seasons with the Red Sox. Pavano and Armas combined for 108 wins and 24.2 WAR over their careers.
On today’s date in 1985, the Milwaukee Brewers acquired Rob Deer from the San Francisco Giants in exchange for two prospects, neither of which reached the big leagues. Deer hit 137 home runs in his five seasons with Milwaukee. He also struck out 823 times, the most in the majors over that span.
Players born on today’s date include Steve Hovley, an outfielder who played the first of his five big-league seasons with the Seattle Pilots in 1969. Drafted out of Stanford University, Hovley reportedly read Nietzsche and Dostoevsky in the clubhouse.
Also born on today’s date was Coaker Triplett, an outfielder who played for three teams, most prominently the Pittsburgh Pirates, from 1938-1945. Triplett won the International League batting title with the Buffalo Bisons in 1948, hitting .353 for the then Detroit Tigers affiliate.