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Mudville: June 18, 2024 8:37 pm PDT

Hello, Moto.

Who is Yoshinobu Yamamoto?

The best pitcher in the world who is not yet employed by one of MLB’s 30 teams, and that’s going to change in the coming days.

BY ED ODEVEN

Over the past three Nippon Professional Baseball seasons, Yoshinobu Yamamoto was the undisputed best starting pitcher in his homeland.

The pride of Okayama Prefecture tossed two no-hitters and helped lead the Orix Buffaloes to three consecutive Japan Series appearances, including a title in 2022.

What’s more, his overall jaw-dropping statistics in that span are comparable to the best multi-season stretches in MLB history.

Consider: Yamamoto, 25, owned a 49-16 win-loss record from 2021-23. In 75 mound appearances in that three-year stretch, the 5-foot-10 right-hander demonstrated a complete command of his four primary pitches: four-seam fastball, curveball, splitter and slider.

Yamamoto, aiming to make his Major League Baseball debut in 2024 after signing with one of 30 big-league clubs via the posting system, is at the top of many front-office executives’ off-season signing wish list. Indeed, he’ll be recognized as a big Christmas present for one MLB team and its fanbase.

And Yamamoto is expected to command upwards of a $200 million contract before ever appearing in an MLB game.

What else stands out about Yamamoto’s body of work in his aforementioned three outstanding seasons?

In 550⅔ innings pitched, he fanned 580 batters and issued 110 walks. He allowed 378 hits, including only 15 regular-season home runs, in that span.

To marinate a bit more on that last statistic for a moment, Yamamoto gave up seven home runs in 2021, six in 2022 and two in ’23. Clearly, this is one of the most impressive pro baseball statistics of the 21st century.

In the broader picture, here’s what Yamamoto accomplished as Orix’s ace: He was 18-5 with a 1.39 ERA in 2021, followed by a 15-5 record and a 1.68 ERA the next season and 16-6 mark with a 1.21 ERA this past season.

Yamamoto received the Eiji Sawamura Award in each of the past three seasons. It is awarded to NPB’s top starting pitcher each season and is the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award. (The only other pitcher to claim three consecutive Sawamura Awards was Masaichi Kaneda of the Kokutetsu Swallows from 1956-58.)

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In November, Masslive.com published an article about Yamamoto that showcased the viewpoints of a veteran MLB scout.

“I really like him,” the scout was quoted as saying in reporter Sean McAdam’s article. “If you’re going to break down the arsenal in terms of pitches and compare him to some other Japanese pitchers, the power of (Kodai) Senga’s fastball and his split, are really good. They’re devastating. But Yamamoto has a more complete arsenal in that Yamamoto is the type of guy who, if on a given day he’s got a pitch that’s not effective, he’s got more weapons to get you out. And he can throw strikes with all of them.”

The scout’s thorough analysis continued: “He’s able to spin the ball in different ways. His slider and curveball are both effective. His fastball, he’ll split it, he’ll cut it, he’ll sink it. If he’s down 3-and-0, he can throw any one of them for a strike. So in terms of hitters going in there and thinking, ‘OK, here’s what I have to prepare for,’ it’s much harder against Yamamoto, because he’s got so many he can beat you with.”

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Orix Buffaloes pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto (L) and Hanshin Tigers pitcher Shoki Murakami pose after winning Japanese pro baseball's MVP awards in Tokyo on Nov. 28, 2023. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

In following Yamamoto’s career over the past several years in Japan, one thing that stood out to me is the combined strength of his mental and physical fortitude.

Case in point: Yamamoto was shelled in Game 1 of the 2023 Japan Series, yielding a season-worst seven runs in 5⅔ innings to the Hanshin Tigers in an 8-0 defeat.Yamamoto then returned to action in Game 6. Entering the game, Hanshin held a 3-2 series lead. Therefore, as the starting pitcher, he faced the biggest pressure of anyone in the Buffaloes starting lineup. Orix, after all, faced a must-win scenario to force a decisive Game 7.

So how did Yamamoto pitch in Orix’s then-biggest game of the season?

He fanned 14 batters, a Japan Series record. For his 13th strikeout of the night at Kyocera Dome, Yamamoto threw a 98 mph heater in the ninth inning.

Making 138 pitches and scattering nine hits, he earned a complete-game win. He walked zero batters in the Buffaloes’ 5-1 triumph.

After the game, Yamamoto paid tribute to Orix’s fans.

“Thanks to all the support of the fans, I was able to go all the way,” Yamamoto said. “I’m sorry I caused a lot of worry after the first game.”

With splendid synergy, he worked effectively with catcher Kenya Wakatsuki.

“Wakatsuki called a great game behind the plate,” Yamamoto insisted after the game. “I wasn’t thinking about the record. I was just trying to focus on each batter.”

Hanshin won Game 7 to capture its first Japan Series title since 1985, but Yamamoto had given his team a title shot with a banner performance in an important Game 6 test.

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Yoshinobu Yamamoto (R) and Kenya Wakatsuki (L) of the Orix Buffaloes celebrate the team's 5-1 victory in the Japan Series Game Six at Kyocera Dome Osaka on November 4, 2023 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

When Yamamoto tossed his second career no-hitter on September 9, 2023, longtime New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman attended Orix’s game against the Chiba Lotte Marines at Zozo Marine Stadium. And with Cashman sitting in the front row, it certainly delivered a strong message about the seriousness of MLB clubs’ interest in pursuing Yamamoto this offseason.

Yamamoto, who had eight strikeouts, improved to 14-5 on the season by recording the 100th regular-season no-no in NPB history. In doing so, he also extended his scoreless innings streak to 42.

When the game was over, he relaxed.

“I was nervous right up until the last batter, so now I’m relieved,” Yamamoto was quoted as saying by Kyodo News afterward.

Yamamoto then said, “From the time I stepped on the mound in the ninth inning, there was a lot of cheering, so it felt good pitching.”

On June 18, 2022, Yamamoto twirled the first no-hitter of his career against the Saitama Seibu Lions. He also put an end to the Buffaloes’ six-game losing streak, fanning nine in a polished 102-pitch outing.

How did Yamamoto react after the final out was recorded?

“I had this amazing concentration all the way to the ninth inning, but I was pumped up as I pitched so I’m just overjoyed,” Yamamoto told reporters at Belluna Dome.

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Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes reacts in the 8th inning against Hanshin Tigers during the Japan Series Game Six at Kyocera Dome Osaka on November 4, 2023 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Although players are not considered to be in peak performance in the spring, Yamamoto made a favorable impression during Japan’s championship run at the World Baseball Classic in March as a key pitcher.

In one WBC start and one appearance as a reliever, Yamamoto worked 7⅓ innings and struck out 12 of 27 batters he encountered in the tournament. He was 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA.

It was one revealing snapshot of his career to date.

Before the WBC commenced, one baseball scout highlighted Yamamoto’s chief attributes as a star pitching, telling the New York Post, “I don’t think he has anything left to prove [in Japan]. This guy is ultra-, ultra-competitive. The arm action and the delivery are good. He repeats it. He can run it up there 97 [mph] to 99 when he wants to.”

The scout went on: “The split finger is a plus, plus pitch. He moves the fastball East and West really well. He’s a pitch maker. I think he is a full grade better than [Kodai] Senga.”

As an MLB rookie, the 30-year-old Senga proved to be one of the National League’s most dependable starters in the latter half of the 2023 season, finishing the season with a 12-7 record and a 2.93 ERA with 202 strikeouts in 166⅓ innings.

Based on what he’s already accomplished and his fierce competitive fire, Yoshinobu Yamamoto should be expected to match or top Senga’s numbers in 2024.

And remember this: He’s still only 25 years old.

Ed Odeven is a veteran American sports journalist based in Tokyo. He is sports editor for the website JAPAN Forward and its related site SportsLook. Ed is the author of "Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg." Find him on Twitter: @ed_odeven

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