Tag Archive > Yusei Kikuchi

Who’s Next?

» 15 February 2014 » In mlb prospects, nichibei » 15 Comments

Within minutes of Masahiro Tanaka signing with the Yankees, I started getting questions on Twitter about the next star out of Japan.

The short answer is that there’s no one of Tanaka’s caliber that we’ll see in MLB in the next few years.The longer answer is that there are a number of interesting pitchers currently active in Japan who could eventually wind up in North America. Here are the ones I’m watching most closely.

Kenta Maeda RHP starter, Hiroshima Carp: Maeda is Tanaka’s heir apparent as Japan’s best pitcher, but he grades well below Ma-Kun as an MLB prospect, both on pure stuff and statistical dominance. On this list, he compares most closely to Kenshin Kawakami, but with the advantages of youth and health. A reasonable expectation is that he’ll be a viable mid/back rotation starter for someone. Maeda is expected to be posted following the 2014 season, so we should see him in MLB in 2015.

Chihiro Kaneko RHP starter, Orix Buffaloes: Kaneko is pretty good, but for whatever reason, frequently overlooked in discussions about Japan’s best pitchers. He’s a bit less consistent than Maeda, but has more breaking stuff and generates a few more whiffs. Kaneko is eligible for domestic, NPB-only free agency after the 2014 season, and there are already rumors that Yomiuri is going to go after him. If he wants to play in MLB it likely wouldn’t be until 2016 at the soonest.

Seung-Hwan Oh RHP closer, Hanshin Tigers: 2014 will be Oh’s first year in NPB, having spent his career to this point in Korea. He was expected to move to MLB this past offseason, but wound up signing a two-year deal with Hanshin instead. The thought is that he could move on to MLB at the conclusion of his contract, so that would be 2016. I haven’t seen Oh yet so I haven’t formed an opinion of him as a prospect.

Hideaki Wakui, RHP starter, Chiba Lotte Marines: A few years ago, Wakui would have ranked among Japan’s better MLB prospects, but now he’s a bit of a question mark. He hit his peak in 2009, winning the Sawamura Award, but overuse, a contentious relationship with his team, girl trouble, and possible conditioning problems has resulted in several steps backward. I’ve been hearing for years that Wakui wants to move to MLB; he signed a two-year contract with Lotte this offseason where he could rebuild value.

Takuya Asao, RHP reliever, Chunichi Dragons: Asao was so dominant in 2011 that won the 2011 Central League MVP Award, despite pitching in middle relief. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been the same since, suffering from shoulder discomfort and pitching 30 and 30.2 in 2012 and 2013 respectively. If he’s healthy, there’s no doubt his stuff — mid-90s fastball, hard splitter, funky palmball — is good enough for MLB. He’s a few years away from free agency so we’ll see what happens.

Yusei Kikuchi, LHP starter, Seibu Lions: Kikuchi made waves in 2009 for considering forgoing NPB to sign with an MLB club. He ultimately remained in Japan, and was drafted by Seibu. In 2013, Kikuchi was in the midst of making good on the potential that made him such a hot commodity as a high school prospect when he was stricken with shoulder inflammation and lost for the season. It obviously remains to be seen how he’ll fare when he returns, but so far he’s at least show that he can turn his ability in to results. Kikuchi is at least six years away from free agency.

Shohei Ohtani RHP starter/OF, Nippon Ham Fighters: Here’s where it gets interesting. Like Kikuchi, Ohtani also showed an interest in jumping right to MLB out of high school. Unlike Kikuchi, he seemed intent on actually doing it, but Nippon Ham drafted him anyway and eventually convinced him to sign. Despite flashing 100mph heat in high school, Ohtani opened the 2013 season as Nippon Ham’s starting right fielder. A few months later, he made his ichi-gun debut on the mound, and pitched 61.2 innings, becoming the first nitouryu (double-bladed) player since Yozo Nagabuchi in 1968. Ohtani’s offseason training centered on pitching, but he’ll reportedly continue to play both positions this season. Nippon Ham has been publicly supportive of sending Ohtani to MLB after a few years of seasoning, but of course that was before this posting system nonsense took place.

Shintaro Fujinami RHP starter, Hanshin Tigers: Ohtani’s 2013 rookie brethren Fujinami might not be as flashy, but he’s a lot more polished. Fujinami opened the 2013 as Hanshin’s third starter, and essentially stuck in the rotation for the duration of the season, an impressive feat for an 18 year-old. At this point, Fujinami probably has the best potential of any pitcher on this list. He already shows polish and pitchability, and he’s extremely lanky 6’7. As he fills out and adds strength, it’s reasonable to expect that he could develop a bit more fastball velocity, and handle more innings pitched. At age 19 he’s a long way away from free agency and MLB, but if 2013 is any indication fans on both sides of the Pacific have a lot to look forward to.

Tomohiro Anraku RHP starter Saibi High School: Anraku’s still a high school student, but he’s an interesting prospect. Clearly the top player in last year’s spring Koshien Sembatsu tournament, he was famously pitched into the ground by his manager. The bodily wear he sustained from the effort led to worse performances later in the year, and his stock as an NPB draft prospect has dropped. We don’t know what 2014 holds, but it’s conceivable that he could follow in Kikuchi and Ohtani’s footsteps as a player who tests the MLB waters out of high school.

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Who Is Shohei Otani?

» 18 October 2012 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb draft » 4 Comments

Okay, so the cat is out of the bag about high school pitching prospect Shohei Otani. Here’s everything I know about him.

I first found out about Otani about a year ago, when Yakyu Kozoh had a story on potential successors to Yu Darvish. Otani caught my eye because he graded a perfect 5/5 “Darvishes” and, at 17, he was the youngest pitcher profiled. Every tall, young righty elicits some kind of comparison to Darvish from the Japanese media, so Otani is not unique in that regard. What is a little more unique is that in terms of physique and ability, the comparison stands up reasonably well. At 193 cm (6’4) and 86 kg (189 lbs), Otani measures similarly to Darvish, though a little shorter and perhaps a little heavier than Darvish was at 18. Otani also has a similarly live arm, though with a little more velocity and a lot less polish than Darvish exhibited as a high schooler.

I’ve only seen one Otani pitch one full game, his appearance in this spring’s Koshien Senbatsu tournament against fellow draft phenom Shintaro Fujinami. It was a frustrating game to watch, as the raw quality of Otani’s stuff was evident, but his command was non-existent. He featured a fastball ranging from about 145-152 km/h (90-95 mph), a slider around 132-136 km/h (82-84 mph) and curve around 125 km/h (77 mph). Everything had movement, and his wildness was of the effective variety until the 6th inning, when he and his defense faltered, before melting down (video) in the 7th. For the day, Otani struck out 11, walked 11 and gave up nine runs (five earned) while taking the loss. That looks bad, but Otani was facing a quality lineup with aluminum bats on a big stage, and his manager left him out for 173 pitches. The raw talent is there, but it was clearly just that in that game – raw.

Helpfully, the Koko Yakyu site live-blogged this game in English, so it is available for your perusal.

I didn’t see the July 19 prefectural tournament game that Otani has since become known for, when he hit 160 km/h (99 mph) on the scoreboard gun, but I did Tweet about it when it happened. I’ve since found about 14 minutes worth of Otani footage from that game (skip to the 7:58 mark if you want to see the 160 km/h fastball). Obviously the 14 minutes we have are biased, but Otani appears to be a lot more confident with his stuff than he was in the Senbatsu game, and accordingly his command is much better. Grains of salt apply; he was facing weaker competition and the stadium gun was hot, as the scouts in attendance had his velocity a bit lower. Still, an even more limited set of highlights from his appearance in the IBAF 18U tournament implies that he’s capable of better command than he showed in the spring.

So Otani is a prospect, and an excellent one at that. If his command was better I might call him the best high school pitching prospect I’ve seen in the 12 years or so that I’ve been paying attention, but for now I think that distinction will remain with Hayato Terahara. My preferred print publications Shukan Baseball and Yakyu Kozoh have him at the top of this year’s draft class, and NPB Prospect Watch ranks him third, noting his command issues but also his excellent track record as a batter. Draft Reports has a long list of comments from scouts on him, too many to translate individually but unanimously in praise of his potential. A couple of notable comments were from the Dodgers’ Logan White, who said that he went to Japan just to see Otani, and the Rays’ Tim Ireland, who compared him to Felix Hernandez.

What happens now? The NPB draft will take place on October 25, and Otani has declared eligible. As of September he was 50/50 on NPB vs MLB, but some Japanese media outlets seem convinced that he’s headed to MLB. I’m not sure if I find those reports credible just yet. Otani has met with the Dodgers, Red Sox and Rangers, and had a meeting with the Orioles that he couldn’t get on to his schedule. Otani will not meet with any more MLB clubs. One wrinkle that Otani will have to consider is that if he signs with an MLB club, he’ll be barred from joining an NPB team for a period of three years after he leaves MLB, under a rule enacted after Junichi Tazawa signed with Boston.

Coincidently, Otani attends Hanamaki Higashi high school in Iwate Prefecture, the school that produced lefty Yusei Kikuchi. Kikuchi was a similarly hot prospect back in 2009, and went through his own dramatic NPB/MLB decision in which he was publicly courted by all 12 NPB teams and eight MLB teams before choosing to remain in Japan. The Otani situation has not developed in to the same kind of media frenzy that the Kikuchi situation did, which is good  because the stress clearly took it’s toll on Kikuchi. Perhaps Hanamaki manager Hiroshi Sasaki is applying the experience he had with Kikuchi to this year’s edition.

We should know which way Otani is headed in the next week or so. Wherever he winds up it’ll be fun to see how he develops.

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NPB Bullet Points: Offseason Leftovers

» 09 February 2012 » In npb » 7 Comments

Please excuse the randomness of these links — I accumulated them over the offseason but never found the time to post them.

  • Yakult commemorated the retirement of Hirotoshi Ishii with this decorative mobile phone strap. Ishii was once Japan’s top power lefty, but hadn’t pitched above ni-gun for several years due to injuries.
  • In contrast, Softbank power righty (and NPB Tracker favorite) Nagisa Arakaki is on his way back. Arakaki pitched in November’s Asia Series, his first “ichi-gun level” game action in three years.
  • A number of NPB prospects participated in the Australian Baseball League this offseason, and the ABL’s official Twitter stream was kind enough to tweet me with updates on Yusei Kikuchi, Kenta Imamiya, and Takumi Akiyama.
  • I discovered a new blog recently: NPB Prospect Watch. This blog fills a much-needed niche for me and has a very good chance of making it into my regular rotation.

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Changing of the Guard

» 22 December 2011 » In npb » 18 Comments

This is a big year for NPB imports into MLB, with as many as seven front-line players poised to be wearing MLB uniforms in 2012. While all of the these players will be missed, their departures do collectively open spots for younger talent to fill. Here’s a look at who we might see stepping up in the next year and beyond.

  • Hisashi Iwakuma (Rakuten) – Masahiro Tanaka took over as Rakuten’s ace in 2011, and the presence of Satoshi Nagai and Takahiro Shiomi softens the blow of losing Iwakuma. For me, the question of who inherits the title of Japan’s best groundball pitcher remains open.
  • Wei-Yin Chen (Chunichi) – I’m not sure I see an immediate successor on Chunichi’s roster, though they do have young lefties Toshiya Okada and Yudai Ohno. And although he might be a year or two away, I’m looking to Yusei Kikuchi to emerge as Japan’s next top hard-throwing lefty starter.
  • Hiroyuki Nakajima (Seibu) – Hideto Asamura played his way on to the Lions’ opening day roster in 2011, and was a tough out all season. He should move to shortstop in 2012, though he’ll have to fend off competition from Esteban German.
  • Munenori Kawasaki (Softbank) – Softbank has young infielders Kenta Imamiya and Tu-Hsuan Lee waiting in the wings. It’s probably unrealistic to expect either to have the same kind of impact that Kawasaki did though. And it seems like the Kawasaki will be back at some point.
  • Tsuyoshi Wada (Softbank) – Tadashi Settsu established himself as Softbank’s ace in waiting with a strong 2011. The losses of Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi mean that there will be more pressure on guys like Kenji Ohtonari, Sho Iwasaki, Shota Ohba and Shingo Tatsumi to pitch quality innings at the ichi-gun level. We’ll see who steps up in 2012.
  • Norichika Aoki (Yakult) – So far, Lastings Milledge is set to replace Aoki on Yakult’s roster. Softbank’s Seiichi Uchikawa would currently get my vote as Japan’s top contact hitter, though he lacks Aoki’s plate discipline. I’m not sure I see any Aoki-type prospects on the horizon… I’ve read some good things about Orix’s Shunta, but he needs some time to put it together.
  • Yu Darvish (Nippon Ham) – In terms of public stature and marketability, Yuki Saito is certainly Darvish’s heir as the face of the Fighters. Saito is no replacement for Darvish on the mound, and I don’t think Nippon Ham will really have a true successor for him for a long time. Rakuten’s Tanaka seems poised to begin his tenure as Japan’s ace.

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2011 Breakout Candidates

» 13 April 2011 » In npb » 3 Comments

Tonight we take a look at eight guys who could take a step forward this season.

Sho Nakata (1B/LF/DH, Nippon Ham Fighters) — Nakata was on my list last year, and had an interesting season: a slow start followed by an injury, then a hot stretch immediately after the injury, and finally a slump to end the season. The important thing is that he showed he can handle ichi-gun pitching, which was a new development. If he can put together a full year he’ll likely be Ham’s best or second best home run hitter.

Shota Ohba (P, Softbank Hawks) — Like Nakata, Ohba was on my list last year, and also like Nakata he’s had stretches of success. Last year he only threw 9.1 innings at the ichi-gun level; if he were to make 20 starts this year it would be a boon to Softbank’s lefty-dominated rotation.

Naomichi Donoue (IF, Chunichi Dragons) — The Arakibata Combi can’t continue forever, and when the Hirokazu Ibata half was down with an injury last year, Doue was there to fill in. He’s been touted as a prospect for some time now, we’ll see if this is the year he breaks through.

Keijiro Matsumoto (OF, Yokohama BayStars) — Developing young talent should be a high priority for a Yokohama team that can’t realistically expect to compete this year. But ‘Hama has started the season with an outfield of Termel Sledge, Hichori Morimoto, and Yuki Yoshimura, and to get playing him he’ll have to take it from one of those guys. Matsumoto hit for average at ni-gun last year, but without many walks or home runs.

Wirfin Obispo (P, Nippon Ham Fighters) — Obispo has always had a good arm, and showed a lot of promise in 2009 with Yomiuri. In Hokkaido he’ll be a part of a deep pitching staff, but won’t have to compete for a roster spot with more established foreign veterans, so he should get a few more innings at the top level.

Takashi Ogino (SS, Chiba Lotte Marines) — Ogino’s not strictly a breakout candidate, given that he performed extremely well prior to his injury last year. But he’s new to shortstop and if he stays healthy, he should be a lot of fun to watch.

Yusei Kikuchi (P, Saitama Seibu Lions) — After a disappointing rookie season, Kikuchi had a strong spring and made Seibu’s opening day roster, in a middle relief role. I only saw him pitch one inning this spring, and while his velocity topped out around 142 kmph, his mechanics were smooth and he kept the ball down in the zone. There’s no doubt about his talent.

Hideto Asamura (IF, Saitama Seibu Lions) — I’m cheating on this one a little bit, as Asamura has started Seibu’s first two games at first base. I first saw Asamura this spring, in an exhibition game against Yomiuri, where the announcers were describing him as a potential successor to Hiroyuki Nakajima. I was impressed at how much confidence he showed at the plate against Brian Bannister. That swagger has apparently carried over to the regular season as he’s 5-9 so far.

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2011 Season Predictions: Pacific League

» 10 April 2011 » In npb » Comments Off

The Pacific League is balanced. In fact, this is probably the first time I can say that I think that every team in the league has a chance to finish first. That makes it difficult to pick winners this year, so I’m going to try something different. I’ve got the teams ranked not by where I think they’ll finish, but by how likely I think they are to finish first.

6. Orix Buffaloes (offseason summary)

High-risk, high-reward rotation; new suketto question marks; counting on lots of guys who had their first success in 2010; thin bullpen; Chihiro Kaneko injured

5. Chiba Lotte Marines (offseason summary)

Absence of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Hiroyuki Kobayashi; lineup is due for some regression; not quite sold on starters not named Naruse or Karakawa

4. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (offseason summary)

Strong front rotation; better lineup with the additions of Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura; lots of righty bullpen options; new manager

3. Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (offseason summary)

Yu Darvish; steady rotation; great defense; a few break-out candidates; good 2nd half in 2010; Darvish

2. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (offseason summary)

Additions of Alex Cabrera and Seiichi Uchikawa; strong lineup 1-9; good 1-2 starters; lights-out bullpen; backed into 2010 title; emerging starters; lots of injury-prone players

1. Saitama Seibu Lions (offseason summary)

Productive lineup; talented core; interesting young pitchers — Yusei Kikuchi, Tatsuya Oishi, Kazuhisa Makita; stalwart ace in Hideaki Wakui

It was tough putting Orix last, since I’m such a big fan of their approach, but everything needs to go right for them to win. Similarly it’s hard having Lotte fifth after a Nippon Series win, but I think their lineup is likely to fall back to earth in 2011. Rakuten in fourth is a bit of a leap of faith for me; last year Chunichi won with four good hitters and a good group of pitchers. Rakuten has the starters (but not the bullpen) and with their additions they might have the offense they need to contend. As for the other three… well, it came down to a toss up between Softbank and Seibu for first. I think I just have a preference for Seibu’s lineup, and more confidence in their ability to remain healthy.

The point is, any one of these teams can win in 2011. It should be a great season.

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NPB Bullet Points: Shoda, Kikuchi’s Velocity, Darvish’s One-Seam

» 10 April 2011 » In npb, NPB Tracker » 4 Comments

It’s been a while. Here is a random collection of news articles I’ve read recently and found interesting enough to share.

  • Fresh off his release from the Red Sox, Itsuki Shoda is headed to Niigata of the independent BC League.
  • Yusei Kikuchi has made Seibu’s opening day roster, and will start the year in middle relief. He’s also working on a two-seam fastball and a changeup, and hit 155 km/h on the gun in a bullpen session.
  • Hanshin’s opening day starter? Hasn’t been announced, but lefty Atsushi Nohmi is reportedly in the mix. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be Yasutomo Kubo.
  • Osamu Hamanaka is surprisingly a candidate to hit third for Yakult. Hamanka was a good hitter early in his career with Hanshin, but he’s been badly derailed by injuries. Perhaps he’ll experience a Ken Suzuki-style resurgence with Yakult; it is the time of year for optimism.
  • Yu Darvish has been experimenting again with a one-seam fastball, and broke Seiichi Uchikawa’s bat with one in a full count on the 6th. I had thought the one-seam was something new that Darvish invented, but the Nikkan Sports article I linked to says that Tim Hudson and Joel Pineiro throw it. Daigo Fujiwara posted a great summary of the pitch last August.
  • As of the 8th, the parking lot at Chiba’s newly-renamed QVC Marine Field had not been cleared for usage.
  • Seibu has announced that closer Brian Sikorski has returned to Japan after a temporary post-quake visit to the US. All five of Seibu’s players are now back in Japan. Jose Fernandezadmitted to taking it easy while he was away, and since it took a long time to get Sikorski back, the Lions had been looking at using rookie Tatsuya Oishi as their closer.
  • Yokohama’s Brent Leach has decided not to return to Japan, and the BayStars have classified him as a “restricted player” (seigen senshu). According to Nikkan Sports, the restricted player designation was established in 1998, and is intended for players who are taking a personal break from baseball activities. Leach is the first player classified as restricted since the rule’s inception.
  • Former Chiba Lotte Marines pitchers Tomohiro “Johnny” Kuroki and Satoru Komiyama will be raising a rice field with fans in Sodegaura, Chiba this year.
  • iPhone users: magazine Yakyu Kozo has released an app called Makyu Kozo, a cartoon-ish pitching simulation. It looks like it is available in the US app store as well.

And in a site announcement, I’d like to officially welcome our newest writer to NPB Tracker, Adam Burton. Adam is a translator based in the Kansai region of Japan, and has kicked off his NPB Tracker career with a couple MLB updates. Needless to say, we’re happy to have him on board.

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Post-Quake News

» 16 March 2011 » In npb » 7 Comments

With northern Japan still not out of the woods, baseball has rightfully taken a backseat in the news. But there is already news about the charitable activity of NPB players, as well as discussion about when NPB’s season should begin, and I’d like to share those items tonight. No opinion here, just news.

And finally I and my family have made small contributions to Global Giving and Save The Children, and are researching other organizations. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears.


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Preseason: Sawamura vs Ohishi, Kikuchi

» 02 March 2011 » In npb » 3 Comments

This morning, I got my first extended look at heralded Giants rookie Hirokazu Sawamura; a 55-pitch open sen appearance against Seibu. I liked what I saw. Sawamura was quick the to the plate, showed good spring time velocity, and managed to hit Shinnosuke Abe’s target with his breaking pitches a good chunk of the time.

Seibu countered with its own touted young ‘uns. 2010 top draft pick Tatsuya Ohishi got the start, 2nd year man Yusei Kikuchi followed with an inning of relief work, and 2010 2nd-rounder Kazuhisa Makita put in two innings. I was a little underwhelmed by Ohishi, but it’s still early in the spring. Kikuchi, on the other hand, was something of a pleasant surprise. He only got an inning of work but he showed a smooth delivery, worked quickly and threw right to the catcher’s target on all but one of his pitches. I had never seen Makita before at any level, and submariners are always fun. I like his 95 kmph curveball, but if this guy gets the ball up in the zone, watch out.

And on a somber note, the game opened with a moment of silence for former Yomiuri Giant, Chunichi Dragon and San Francisco 49er Wally Yonamine, who passed away earlier this week.

As you can see below I’ve embedded the video of the game, or if you prefer you can surf on over to justin.tv and watch there.

Watch live video from otintin2 on Justin.tv

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Offseason Changes: Saitama Seibu Lions

» 21 February 2011 » In npb » 2 Comments

Coming: Yataro Sakamoto

Going: Toru Hosokawa, Koji Ohnuma, Kimiyasu Kudoh, Kenta Matsuzaka, Yoshihiro Doi, Shinji Taninaka

Staying: Hiroyuki Nakajima, Jose Fernandez, Dee Brown, Brian Sikorski, Alex Graman

Summary: This series is titled “Offseason Chages”, but the Lions haven’t given me much to write about. Seibu let defensively-minded catcher Toru Hosokawa take his .191 batting average south to Fukuoka, and will let Ginjiro Sumitani and Tatsuyuki Uemoto carry the load. They also swapped righty relievers with Yokohama, picking up Yataro Sakamoto. Beyond that, the Lions replaced some bit players with 2010 draftees.

The real keys Seibu’s offseason are in the players who will be returning. Denying Hiroyuki Nakajima’s repeated posting requests is addition by not subtracting. The rest is mostly addition by health. Slugger Takeya “Okawari-kun” Nakamura was never really healthy last year, but still popped 25 home runs. #2 starter Takayuki Kishi missed all of July and August last year. The low-profile but highly-productive bat of mid-season signing Jose Fernandez will be available from opening day. 2011 Sophomore Yusei Kikuchi lost a year of development, making only two ni-gun appearances . And even Alex Graman, who was lights-out as a reliever but has been shelved for two years, is back. Obviously some of those guys are going to contribute more than others, but healthy seasons from Kishi and Okawari-kun alone would add a couple wins to the bottom line.

The underlying fact is that this is a talented group that didn’t need much tweaking to remain competitive in 2011. The Lions took a magic number of four into the last week of the 2010 season, and won more games than anyone else in the Pacific League; if they had managed just one more tie, they would have taken first place. Just three games separated the first and fourth teams in the PL last year, and I expect things to be similarly tight this season.

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