A jolt to Yoshinobu Yamamoto as MLB teams vie for him

Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto

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At a time when reports suggest Yoshinobu Yamamoto is likely to get an MLB contract in the range of $200 million, his performance in Japan has nosedived. The Orix Buffaloes ace suffered the worst start of his career, surrendering 7 earned runs for the first time in regular season or playoff action.

Yamamoto, who is widely expected to move to MLB this offseason, allowed the Hanshin Tigers to inflict all their damage in just two innings. His 7 runs allowed them to cruise to an 8-0 Game 1 victory. Koji Chikamoto’s two-run triple highlighted a four-run fifth, exceeding the most runs he ever allowed in a regular season start. Then in the sixth, Seishiro Sakamoto knocked Yamamoto out with an RBI double.

After Game 1 of the Japan Series, Yamamoto emerged from the Orix Buffaloes’ clubhouse over an hour later, striding through a pack of reporters tracking his every move. The star pitcher briefly greeted a friend with a smile before he drove away.

Yamamoto admits his worst failure

The Japanese pitcher briefly addressed reporters immediately afterward before retreating into the clubhouse. Yamamoto said that he had started well but then allowed some runs in the middle of the game and acknowledged that it was a significant loss due to the game’s importance.

Yamamoto became the second pitcher in Japan Series history to give up seven runs, following Shoichi Ino of the DeNA BayStars in 2017. His record in Japan Series starts dropped to 0-2 with a 4.74 ERA.

Japanese athlete Yoshinobu Yamamoto
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Satoshi Nakajima, the manager of Orix, mentioned that it was the end of the year, and there were multiple factors contributing to fatigue. He acknowledged that sometimes hits were allowed in such situations. Despite Yamamoto’s impressive regular season record of 16-6 with a 1.21 ERA, his recent postseason performance has been quite the opposite.

Yamamoto had a challenging outing, surrendering five runs in his sole start during the Pacific League Climax Series against the Chiba Lotte Marines on October 18. In the previous season’s Japan Series against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, he conceded four runs in four-plus innings in his solitary start.

Yamamoto’s future prospects largely depend on the performance and determination of the Buffaloes’ players, followed by decisions from the team’s front office. If the Buffaloes can maintain their edge over the Tigers on the field, there may be another opportunity for Yamamoto to take the mound in the series.

The Japanese ace expressed his desire to help the team achieve its goal of becoming the top team in Japan. Yamamoto mentioned his intention to prepare for that purpose. However, the final decision regarding his availability to MLB teams through the posting system rests with the front office. This decision comes one year after they allowed outfielder Masataka Yoshida to do the same.

Is Yamamoto under pressure due to increasing media focus?

In August, ESPN MLB Insider Kiley McDaniel positioned Yamamoto as the fourth potential MLB free agent in his rankings. According to him, Yamamoto’s contract should surpass Kodai Senga‘s deal from the previous winter, which was for five years and worth $75 million plus the posting fee. McDaniel believed this was achievable because Yamamoto is five years younger and possesses similar talent, but with better command.

Even with his recent postseason setbacks, there’s no doubt about Yamamoto’s skill and ability. Since transitioning to a full-time starter in 2019, he has maintained an impressive 1.65 ERA over 820⅓ innings of regular-season play.

According to Buffaloes infielder Marwin Gonzalez, who is an 11-year MLB veteran and a World Series champion with the Houston Astros in 2017, Yamamoto’s pitching repertoire is impressive. Gonzalez noted that the pitcher throws high 90s and possesses excellent secondary pitches, including a great curveball, a reliable split, and the ability to throw cutters as well.

He has already achieved nearly every accolade possible in Japan. Hailing from Okayama Prefecture, he holds the prestigious titles of two-time reigning Pacific League MVP and Sawamura Award winner, with strong prospects of clinching both awards for a third consecutive year. In 2021, he played a pivotal role in Japan’s gold medal victory at the Tokyo Olympics. In 2022, he led the Buffaloes to a Japan Series championship, and earlier this spring, he was part of the triumphant Samurai Japan squad that secured the World Baseball Classic title.

Yoshinobu-Yamamoto
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MLB executives and scouts from around the league have made the journey to Japan to witness his skills firsthand. Notably, New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman was in attendance when Yamamoto achieved a no-hitter, the second of his career, against the Marines in Chiba on September 9. Furthermore, Farhan Zaidi, the President of Baseball Operations for the San Francisco Giants, was present at Yamamoto’s performance during the Climax Series.

Marwin Gonzalez pointed out that what sets Yamamoto apart from other pitchers is his ability to command his pitches effectively. According to Gonzalez, the starter not only possesses quality pitches but can also place them precisely where he wants. This precision makes it challenging for hitters to make contact with his pitches, even if they are thrown in the middle of the strike zone. When Yamamoto paints the corners of the strike zone with his pitches, it becomes even more difficult for batters to hit effectively.

Gonzalez emphasized that one of Yamamoto’s standout qualities is his command of the ball. He suggested that people in the United States might be curious if his success is solely due to his pitches, but Gonzalez believes that his exceptional command is his most valuable attribute. If Orix decides to make him available, it is expected that there will be strong competition among MLB teams to acquire him.

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