With the NPB season just one week away, the excitement and antecipitation for baseball is at an all-time high, as Japan’s biggest stars showed out in the World Baseball Classic, what will they have in store once they come back home?
With new foreigners on the block, darkhorses you should lookout for, a reawakened “Evil Empire” and a showdown to see who is the Ace of Japan!
Whether you are an avid NPB fan, want to learn more about the league or are just eager to see who may head to MLB next I’ve got you covered, here are six NPB storylines heading into the 2023 NPB season.
Can Roki Sasaki surpass Yoshinobu Yamamoto as Japan’s Ace?
These two are without a doubt the best pitchers that do not play in the MLB today.
I’ve talked about them in depth on my Best Young Starters list, where Sasaki was #2 and Yamamoto was #1.
Catching up to Yamamoto might just be an impossible task for any pitcher, the 24-year old ace has racked up as much hardware as possible, winning back-to-back MVP’s, Triple Crowns and Sawamura Awards (given to the best pitcher in the entire NPB).
Just in 2022, Yamamoto tossed 193IP with 205K, a 1.68ERA and he pitched a no-hitter on June 18th vs the Seibu Lions.
You get it, Yamamoto is incredible but what if i told you Sasaki has a legitimate chance to be better?
Nicknamed “Monster of the Reiwa era“, I consider Sasaki to be one of the most electric pitchers in the planet, his arsenal mainly consists of a fastball that sits in the triple digits coupled with a mid 90’s splitter that leaves hitters lost like a 6-year old in a mall without their parents.
The 2023 season will be Sasaki’s third year as an active player, but he already has Yamamoto beat in strikeout proficiency (12.0K/9 > 9.6K/9) and FIP- thought Sasaki actually pitched better than Yamamoto in 2022, as Sasaki had an historic 48 FIP-, the best mark by a starter with 100IP in NPB history, only tied by Yu Darvish in 2011.
A big reason Sasaki hasn’t fully surpassed Yamamoto yet is how careful the Marines brass has managed him, prioritizing his long-term health over short-term results, which was made evident when they pulled Sasaki after 8 perfect innings vs. the Fighters, as Sasaki had twirled a 19K perfect game in his previous start.
Once the leash is off, I have a feeling we will be crowning Roki Sasaki as the ace of Japan.
Are the Dragons finally ready to make some noise?
The team with the longest playoff drought in the league, Dragons fans have endured some lean years in recent history.
The Dragons have been plagued by consistently ranking among the worst hitting teams in the league, some of it is due to the cavernous Nagoya Dome, but most of it due to their inability to develop quality hitters.
This might be about to change though.
In the offseason the Dragons signed OF Aristides Aquino, lauded by his raw power and cannon of an arm, Aquino can bring in some much needed thump to a usually light-hitting lineup.
The team made other moves like bringing back OF Zoilo Almonte and trading for veteran SP Hideaki Wakui, but their success will once again come down to how well their young hitters will perform.
Former first round picks like 3B Takaya Ishikawa and OF Kenta Bright have to start producing if this team wants to go anywhere.
Chunichi projects to have one of the best pitching staffs in the league, with two Sawamura Award winners in Yudai Ohno and Wakui, two above average to great starters in Yuya Yanagi and Shinnosuke Ogasawara and the youngest player on the Samurai Japan roster in SP Hiroto Takahashi.
Couple that with the cuban duo of Raidel Martinez and Yariel Rodriguez, I project the Dragons pitching to be elite.
Overall, i am optimistic on the Dragons breaking their 10-year playoff drought, the proven commodities on the pitching side and the infusion of young talent in the lineup makes this a sneaky team to surprise in the Central League.
Will Trevor Bauer’s antics fly in Yokohama?
Love him or hate him, Trevor Bauer’s presence on the NPB landscape will be hard to ignore.
I actually previously broke down his chances of joining an NPB roster, in which i cited many reasons why it would make sense but wouldn’t happen, mostly because of Bauer himself.
And then on March 13th, the Baystars signed Bauer for $4M plus incentives.
On the field this is a terrific fit, before his suspension Bauer was seen as one of the best pitchers in the world, earning a $34M per year deal with the Dodgers and posting a 2.59ERA in 17 starts with LA.
The Baystars are always on the lookout for more pitching, as they play in a hitters ballpark and have sometimes struggled to field a respectable 6-man rotation outside of their homegrown ace Shota Imanaga.
That’s not the problem though, the problem is that Bauer is the antithesis of the values of japanese baseball.
Baseball in Japan relies on teamwork, self-sacrifice and order, aspects which Bauer has actively defied throughout his baseball career.
Two days after signing, Bauer posted a Youtube video on his personal channel, in which he admitted he “needed to grow as a person” and wanted to “prove who i am as a human being” so it is clear he wants to change the public perspective around him.
The question is, are you buying it?
Who’s stopping the renewed juggernaut that is the Softbank Hawks?
If you have followed the NPB for a while or are aware of it’s recent history, you know that the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks assembled one of the greatest dynasties in recent baseball history.
The Hawks won 7 Japan Series out of a possible 10 from 2011 to 2020, it is a run that is only rivaled by the Yomiuri Giants 9 consecutive titles from 1965 to 1973.
The Hawks were able to do this due to being both the richest team in the league and the smartest one as well, the club is owned by the Softbank Group, whose founder Masayashi Son was ranked by Forbes as the 6th richest owner in sports, ahead of the likes of Mets owner Steve Cohen.
On the development side, the Hawks resemble an MLB organization, as in 2023 they will have three farm teams compared to most of the league having just one (the Giants are the only with 2) in the effort of maximizing playing time and allowing them to roster more young talent.
And yet it has been an unremarkable two years (by their standards) in Fukuoka.
In 2021 they finished 4th in the Pacific League, missing the playoffs and in 2022 they lost in the Final Stage to the eventual champion Orix Buffaloes.
Losing Kodai Senga to free agency doesn’t help as well, and still the Hawks might have assembled a roster that could be their best yet.
In the offseason they signed star closer Roberto Osuna, superstar OF Kensuke Kondoh, anti-strikeout king Willians Astudillo, Courtney Hawkins (48 homers in Indy Ball) and two proven NPB starters in Joe Gunkel and Kohei Arihara.
Oh and they also have Yuki Yanagita (sometimes nicknamed the Mike Trout of Japan) and my darkhorse MVP candidate Ryoya Kurihara on the roster.
Safe to say they are pretty stacked, but can they be as dominant on the field as they are on paper?
The only team i can see put up a fight with them is the Buffaloes, but after losing Masataka Yoshida to the Red Sox, they are on their backfoot against the team some may call “The Evil Empire”.
Are pitchers going to keep dominating the Pacific League?
It should be no secret how much the Pacific League struggles at hitting.
Despite the PL employing the DH rule unlike the Central League, they have been outhit in nearly every stat for the past couple of years by their “pitchers who rake” counterparts.
Over the past three years the CL has had a higher .OPS, .AVG, RBI, and HR. How is this happening? I have a few hunches:
- The pitching talent in the PL is superior to the CL.
I find this to be true, but only in a meaningful way when talking about the top-end of the pitching talent pool, as stars like Yamamoto and Sasaki have risen, guys like 2x CL MVP SP Tomoyuki Sugano have fallen.
- The CL employs Munetaka Murakami.
Murakami had one of the best seasons in NPB history for the Swallows, hitting .318/.458/.710 with 56HR on just 141 games, the type of dominance that can be compared to Barry Bonds with the SF Giants. The difference? The NL never outhit the AL in that time.
- The ball is dead.
Now i have no definitive data on this since i don’t have access to game used balls, but i have seen considerable online chatter about this being the case.
What i do have is data on the interleague games between CL and PL teams, specifically how many HR/per game were hit on each ballpark.
Interleague games on CL ballparks averaged 1.43HR/per game compared to the PL averaging 1.35HR/per game.
Keep in mind that games in CL ballparks have no DH unlike the PL so altough it’s not a huge sample size (100+ games), it does reinforce my suspicion.
After years of mediocrity, will we finally see a foreign superstar?
The days of subpar major leaguers coming to Japan and dominating are basically over.
It has been ten years since Wladimir Balentien hit 60 homers, since then only Neftalí Soto has been able to crack the 40HR mark, and only 10% of foreign hitters put up a 30HR season, which hasn’t happened since 2019.
But i got to say, something feels different this year.
I believe the foreign talent (mainly hitters) NPB teams acquired have a shot to make a lot of noise, Aristides Aquino, Frank Schwindel, Lewis Brinson and Maikel Franco all had bursts of MLB success in the past.
Let’s not forget about Tyler Austin as well, if not for injuries he would be regarded as a true gaijin star.
Austin has raked in Yokohama, posting a .973 OPS and a 165 WRC+. The problem has been staying on the field, as Austin has played just 70 games per season over three years with the Baystars.
If he stays healthy, the combo of him, Neftalí Soto and Shugo Maki will be fearsome.
Up Next: NPB Guide!