Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Japan’s professional baseball league, has featured three no-hitters and one perfect game so far in the 2022 season.
What fascinated me about these is the uniqueness and similarities of each of these three starts, as well as how the quest for perfection or hitless ball by a pitcher can be achieved by three completely different approaches to pitching.
I’m going to review those four games, one in this article and the other three in the near future.
Rōki Sasaki’s Perfect Game
On April 10, arguably the best pitcher in Japan and one of the best on the planet right now, dazzled.
Twenty-year-old Rōki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines tossed the first perfect game in 28 years, striking out 19 Orix Buffaloes during the game.
Sasaki masterfully filled the strike zone with 82 strikes and just 23 balls.
Sasaki pounded the zone with a first-pitch exploding fastball in 21 of the 27 at-bats. It averaged 99 MPH and touched 102 that day.
Sasaki’s fastball displays late life and pops through the zone, and when he is dialed in he commands the inner and outer thirds of the plate and loves to work down in the zone.
The fastball, especially knee-high, sets up his go-to pitch: a nasty splitter that batters constantly swing over the top of.
This dive-bomb splitter comes in at around 91 mph and masquerades as his four-seam fastball for 50 feet before darting down into the ground.
Roki Sasaki's Wicked Splitters. 🤢 [20 years old] pic.twitter.com/ZxCinCnZAz
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) February 27, 2022
Sasaki displays the unique ability to manipulate the pitch and cut the splitter too, creating movement more like a slider when thrown to right-handers. When this happens, the pitch takes off and darts away from righties.
In the picture below, Sasaki fades this splitter away, applying even pressure on the ball, where he’s more worried about the pronation or the turning of his arm over, and letting the pitch run away from a left-handed batter.
This pitch variation allows Sasaki to be a dominant two-pitch pitcher, as he threw only three curveballs and three sliders during the perfect outing – two pitches behind his stellar fastball and splitter. And that he has great feel for the splitter at this stage of his career – that’s highly impressive.
The slider is getting better, but he lacks the excellent command of his splitter and currently the curveball is a get-me-over change-of-speed in the upper 70s. Oftentimes, both breaking pitches were used early in counts to keep hitters honest. The four-pitch mix is still crazy impressive from the young Sasaki, but the split remains his go-to weapon as was the case in his perfect outing.
With the ability to control the strike zone and attack the lower third, Sasaki’s splitter and fastball cause serious problems for hitters. He struck out 15 Buffaloes with the split and the other four with fastballs that were on the black and in the middle of the zone.
The attacking of the zone down with an elite fastball causes hitters to commit early on his nasty splitter that can drop out of the zone in the blink of an eye.
This approach is a stark contrast to most other starters in the league and most of baseball.
Sasaki is a true unicorn on the mound and creates a completely different pitching profile than what hitters see on a daily basis.