How good is Yoshinobu Yamamoto?

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For an uninterrupted four-year span, Gerrit Cole, the ace of the Yankees, held the record for the most significant pitcher’s contract in MLB history, standing at a staggering $324 million. However, that reign concluded on a Thursday night when an MLB debutant pitcher terminated his record.

The Dodgers sealed a groundbreaking 12-year, $325 million deal with Japanese standout Yoshinobu Yamamoto, expanding their already prolific off-season moves alongside two-time MVP Shohei Ohtani.

Yamamoto joins a lineage of Japanese free agents who have drawn substantial attention from MLB teams, positioning himself as one of the most promising talents making the transition from Japan to the Major Leagues. Understanding what Yamamoto brings to the table for the Dodgers is crucial.

 

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Who is Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and how does he measure up?

While the translation of Yamamoto’s talent to the American scene remains uncertain, his potential as a top-tier pitcher is evident.

Yamamoto boasts an impressive three consecutive Sawamura Awards, akin to the Cy Young Award in Japan, maintaining an ERA below 1.70 across those triumphant three seasons. Despite lacking the imposing physique typical of many starting pitchers, Yamamoto’s track record shows minimal injury concerns.

His pitching arsenal centers around three primary pitches, featuring a fastball averaging just under 95 MPH, complemented by a cutter as his fourth pitch. Although velocity plays a role in Yamamoto’s approach, his strength lies in an exceptional splitter and impeccable command, giving the 25-year-old a competitive edge.

Nevertheless, the transition from Japan’s premier league, Nippon Professional Baseball, to MLB presents differences. As highlighted by The Athletic, MLB differs in terms of power hitters, nuances in the baseball itself, and the frequency of pitcher starts (once per week in Japan versus every five days in MLB). Consequently, there’s inherent risk when acclimatizing a player to an entirely new baseball environment.

Yet, the shift for highly regarded Japanese pitchers to the American league has generally been smooth. Pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish have accumulated a combined total of seven All-Star selections. Shohei Ohtani has also exhibited impressive pitching prowess when healthy.

Despite securing the largest pitcher’s contract in MLB history, Yamamoto’s compensation doesn’t position him as the highest-paid pitcher in baseball. His annual salary of just over $27 million merely exceeds Tanaka’s earnings from a decade ago by $5 million, ranking ninth among all pitchers in average value.

The exorbitant total value of Yamamoto’s contract stems partly from his youthfulness at 25, as the Dodgers committed to him through 2035, reflecting confidence in his long-term potential.

 

Yoshinobu Yamamoto stats

Season Record IP ERA WHIP K BB
2017 3-1 57.1 2.35 1.06 48 9
2018 6-2 77.0 2.10 0.95 69 23
2019 8-7 149.0 1.99 0.95 133 37
2020 8-4 126.2 2.20 0.94 149 37
2021 18-5 193.2 1.39 0.85 206 40
2022 15-5 193.0 1.68 0.93 205 42
2023 17-6 171.0 1.16 0.86 176 28
Total 75-30 967.2 1.72 0.92 986 216

 

Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s Pitch Repertoire:

Fastball: Yamamoto heavily relies on his fastball, using it approximately 48 percent of the time in Japan, where it averaged close to 95 MPH. Notably, his lower release point, influenced by his mechanics and stature, sets his delivery apart from most pitchers.

While a 95 MPH fastball may not be mind-blowing on its own, only a fraction of MLB pitchers—specifically 35 out of 141 who threw at least 1,500 pitches in 2023—averaged 95 MPH or higher, indicating that Yamamoto is poised to commence his career above the league average in fastball velocity.

Splitter: Utilized around 26 percent of the time, particularly on two-strike counts, Yamamoto’s splitter yielded outstanding results in Japan. Against right-handed hitters, it led to a mere .324 OPS, while left-handed batters struggled with a .424 OPS when facing this pitch.

Curveball: Although he employs his curveball only about 16 percent of the time, it proves to be an exceptionally potent pitch. With an average speed of 77 MPH, ranking around the middle among MLB starters, its movement has consistently deceived hitters in Japan.

Cutter: Yamamoto infrequently features his cutter, using it roughly 8 percent of the time. Averaging 92 MPH, this pitch wasn’t as successful in Japan. Despite this, there’s potential for the Dodgers to refine his cutter, potentially transforming it into a deadly fourth pitch. However, with three dependable pitches in his arsenal, Yamamoto already boasts an exciting repertoire.

Comparisons in the MLB: Finding direct comparisons for Yamamoto in MLB is challenging due to his comparatively smaller frame. However, pitchers like Giants’ ace Logan Webb and new Cardinals starter Sonny Gray offer intriguing parallels.

Webb, standing at 6-1, three inches taller than Yamamoto, shares similarities in not relying on high velocity, with an average fastball speed of 92.6 MPH. His exceptional control—evidenced by a mere 1.3 BB/9 in 2023—is a trait Yamamoto also aims to possess. While Yamamoto throws harder, the expectation is that he’ll be a more prolific strikeout pitcher, with the hope of matching Webb’s durability.

Yamamoto could potentially resemble a harder-throwing Sonny Gray, who, despite averaging only 92.9 MPH on his fastball, has found success by minimizing walks and home runs. Gray has maintained a strikeout rate of nearly 10 K/9 over the past five seasons without heavily relying on power. Their similar stature—Gray at 5-10 and Yamamoto even slighter at 176 lbs—further aligns their profiles.