“I say he’s (Masataka Yoshida) like the Japanese Juan Soto. He can hit the ball to all fields, all speeds. Like Juan Soto, he hits everything — and walks. He doesn’t swing out of the zone.”
-Former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, on Masataka Yoshida
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It’s now been written to death that industry perception is the Boston Red Sox overpaid for outfielder Masataka Yoshida when they signed him to a five-year, $90 million contract in the offseason.
But are these just anonymous sources from other clubs who are salty they didn’t get him?
Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic, for example, detailed the lengthy process the Red Sox undertook to scout Yoshida for years while he played in the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league. Boston believed Yoshida has more raw power than other teams give him credit for, and internal scout Brett Ward comped him to Ichiro, calling him the “best pure hitter” in the Nippon league since Suzuki made his debut in 2001.
Rather than open negotiations between interested teams and Yoshida, agent Scott Boras decided to collect the best offers and decide from there. The Red Sox, according to Boras, were one of only three teams who met the valuation requirements to negotiate. Yoshida’s team chose Boston because they liked how he could hit in Fenway and other AL East ballparks.
“His bat-to-ball skills. His eyes. His ability, his walk-to-strikeout ratio is way different than many of the really good Japanese players that we’ve seen,” Boras said in December.
Boston Scouts Are Right About The Yoshida Comparison to Ichiro
Below is every significant Nippon League signing since Ichiro along with their NPB average, slugging and plate discipline metrics (in the year prior to their MLB signing).
Yoshida is the first Japanese player since Ichiro to enter the United States coming off a season in which he struck out less than 10% of the time and slugged over .500 in Japan.
Major Nippon League MLB Signings Since Ichiro
|Year||Player||Signing MLB Team||Prev Year NBL Avg.||Prev Year NBL Slug.||Prev Year Nippon BB%||Prev Year Nippon K%|
Yoshida is coming off the highest walk-to-strikeout ratio of all major Nippon signings this century at nearly 2-to-1, double that of Cubs’ signee Seiya Suzuki and far better than the plate discipline Shohei Ohtani demonstrated before singing with the Angels.
Eno Sarris found in 2017 that baseball in Japan is surprisingly similar to the U.S., though a 2021 study found pitchers in the MLB threw almost 2 mph faster than their Nippon counterparts.
It’s possible that higher velocity explains why some Japanese players see their strikeout rates rise when entering MLB, like Seiya Suzuki did in 2022, for example. Suzuki struck out 16.5% of the time during his final season in Japan and saw that number rise to 24.7% last year (though Suzuki did primarily struggled with sliders in his debut season per Baseball Savant).
Yoshi Tsutsugo was expected to be a power hitter when he signed with Tampa Bay in 2020 but made far too little contact, striking out 27% of the time with a slugging percentage under .400.
Does Masataka Yoshida Have Power?
The Adam Jones quote above — comparing Yoshida to Juan Soto — seems to come out of left field until you watch Yoshida play.
Statcast was not installed at any Spring Training parks he played at this year, but he did just hit a home run to the deepest part of the ballpark off Atlanta Braves pitcher Charlie Morton earlier this week.
Masataka Yoshida showing off that power. 👀 pic.twitter.com/TGmHWWcph9
— MLB (@MLB) March 28, 2023
He also set a Team Japan World Baseball Classic record with 13 RBI (and two home runs) in just 22 at bats.
MASATAKA YOSHIDA TIES IT UP WITH A 3 RUN HOME RUN!!! 🇯🇵🇯🇵🇯🇵
— Ben Verlander (@BenVerlander) March 21, 2023
And therein lies the uniqueness of Yoshida — he has demonstrated power but also, even if he were to double his Nippon strikeout rate in the MLB, he would still register a K-rate in the top quartile of all MLB hitters (per last year’s aggregate data).
ZiPS Projects Yoshida to Lead the American League in Batting Average
ZiPS, a projection system built by FanGraph’s Dan Szymborski using player comparisons and growth/decline curves, believes Yoshida will perform far better than that.
ZiPS 50th Percentile Projection for Masataka Yoshida
It assumes Yoshida will play 135 games, accumulate 565 plate appearances (63 more than is needed to qualify for the batting title), and strike out just 11% of the time with a 9% walk rate. ZiPS then assumes a .314 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) due to what is assumed to be similar player comps (though this information is not public), spitting out an expected batting average of .305.
ZiPS also expects Yoshida to leave the yard 20 times and put up close to 4 WAR, numbers that all around would likely make him an All-Star with Rookie of the Year (and possibly down-ballot MVP) votes.
ZiPS Projected 2023 AL Batting Average Leaders
|Projected Rank in AL||Name||Team||Projected AVG|
|9||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||TOR||0.284|
It’s important to note these are mid-point expectations, as Szymborski notes: the system stores first through 99th percentile projections, though these are not provided publicly. A back of the envelope calculation expects Yoshida to put up something like .320/.400/.520 with 25 home runs and 170 runs plus RBI if he performs in the upper quartile of his projections, while something akin to Alex Verdugo’s 2022 season is reasonable if Yoshida underperforms expectations. Still not a bad floor.
MLB.com writes that ZiPS is widely regarded as one of the most accurate projection systems in the industry.
What Could Projection Systems Be Missing About Masataka Yoshida?
The most obvious thing we need to watch in the early Statcast data is how Yoshida is handling MLB-grade breaking pitches and off-speed, as well as velocity up in the zone. As Seiya Suzuki showed, there may be certain pitch shapes or sequences Yoshida is not used to seeing, and that can only be revealed in time.
It’s worth noting that in a tiny sample size of 13 Spring Training at-bats, Yoshida struck out four times, so it will be important to monitor just how much his Nippon K-rate increases in the MLB (if it does).
Fenway is also the third-best park by Savant park factor ratings for left-handed hitters, specifically boosting lefties’ doubles and triples compared to other ballparks, though it is 20th for home runs for left-handed hitters.
We don’t quite understand Boras’ argument that Yoshida is well-served by other AL East parks, as the Rays (27th), Yankees (25th), Blue Jays (18th) and Orioles (17th) all have a below-average park factor for left-handed hitters over the last three years.
Hopefully for dynasty owners, Yoshida’s bat-to-ball skills not seen since Ichiro and his “intangibles” (see below) can help him reach the ridiculously lofty expectations seen even at his 50th percentile projection from ZiPS.
Masataka Yoshida on his first team trip to Fenway Park, “I’ll bring the beer” he says. pic.twitter.com/rhkORynK4J
— Boston Strong (@BostonStrong_34) March 28, 2023