Team Japan Position Players to Watch
Samurai Japan has been the most successful team in WBC history, winning the tournament back-to-back in 2006 and 2009, followed by third-place finishes in 2013 and 2017. The wait for the next WBC is almost over and Japan fields arguably its best team ever. You will know the names of Japanese stars who have made the jump to MLB in terms of position players, as Shohei Ohtani leads this team and others like Lars Nootbaar are there too (Nootbar is expected to start in CF for Japan). But you might have yet to learn some of the stars in NPB who will become key contributors to this team and lineup.
The power bats
I have made my thoughts well known that I believe the best power bat not playing in MLB resides in NPB and his name is Munetaka Murakami (just read this article!). The third baseman for the Yakult Swallows has become one of the most feared power bats in Japan and had a season that rivaled Aaron Judge’s stateside. Murakami slashed .318/.458/.711 leading to a 1.168 OPS as he racked up 56 HR and 134 RBIs in 141 games. He surpassed Sadaharu Oh’s 55 HR breaking the record for most HRs by a Japanese-born player in a single NPB season.
Murakami is an elite hitter with patience and power that makes him dangerous in every at-bat. As a left-handed hitter, Murakami has a similar setup and swing to Matt Olson. As a young hitter in NPB Murakami’s biggest struggle, like most young hitters, was his propensity for striking out but Murakami has cut his K% and increased his BB% in the last three seasons.
His understanding of the strike zone and willingness to look for pitches down he can do damage on has led to Murakami’s meteoric rise as one of the best power hitters in the world. He has the barrel control and strength to hit balls hard in different parts of the zone.
His exit velocities compare to that of the impressive numbers put up by some of the elites in MLB. Murakami’s WBC debut will just be a showcase of what’s to come in upcoming NPB seasons and an eventual MLB move. Here’s an opposite-field HR for the lefty off of Kodai Senga last season.
Speaking of exit velocities and hard-hit balls Hotaka Yamakawa is the only hitter in NPB who comes close to producing the hard-hit rates Murakami does (they rank 1-2 in hard-hit rate at 45% and 44%, respectively). Yamakawa is a hefty right-handed power hitter who swings with bad intentions as the DH of the Seibu Lions. The dichotomy of Yamakawa’s approach and swing can be seen in these back-to-back pitches against former New York Yankee Masahiro Tanaka.
Yamakawa uses a lot of rhythm and timing with a big leg kick that he straightens out before coming out of a powerful backside. His unique swing and sell-out for power make him fun to watch. In 8 NPB seasons, he slashed .270 /.381 / .557 with 284 HRs.
He was 2nd in NPB last season behind Murakami with 41 HRs in 129 games he was also 2nd in WAR with 6.5 behind Murakami’s gaudy 10.2. Yamakawa might get a real chance to show off his power in this tournament, as he’s slated to play 1st Base for Team Japan with Ohtani in the DH spot when he isn’t pitching.
The NPB Mainstays
Team Japan features some players who can play defense at an elite level and some you most certainly haven’t had the chance to see play. Takuya Kai was a draft mate of Kodai Senga’s in 2010 during the NPB Draft. Kai would go on to make a name for himself as a defensive catcher. He’s a career .221 hitter with an OPS of .652 in nine NPB seasons. Last year he batted .180 in 130 games for Softbank.
The reason he’s the likely starting catcher for Team Japan is because of his defense alone. He’s won six consecutive Mitsui Golden Gloves and has been the catcher for Softbank’s dynasty run where they won 6 of 7 Japan Series titles from 2014 – 2020. Kai is a decent strike-stealer and really shines calling a game behind the plate. Kai also controls the running game and has a rocket arm with reported pop times in the mid-1.8s and lower.
Here at SIS we actually track pop times for NPB games and some of the most impressive pop times from Kai came when he threw out 10 consecutive base stealers. Kai had pop times of 1.79 and 1.83 to 2nd base in the same game in late March 2019. These times would exceed and or match JT Realmuto’s times in MLB from last season. It’s safe to say he might have lost a little juice but he’s still in his prime and has one of the best pop times in the world.
Here’s an article from 2018 showing Kai with six caught stealings to win the 2018 Japan Series MVP. At some point, you have to stop running against this man but he shut down a very active Hiroshima team in that Japan Series.
This level of defensive excellence helped Kai take home the first NPB Fielding Bible Award in 2020 he can work the strike zone but needs consistency. Here’s one example: Nippon-Ham was not pleased with this strike call on a low pitch to end the game.
Tetsuto Yamada is one of the best infielders in Japan and won a 2015 Central League MVP slashing .329/.416/.610 with 38 HRs and 34 SBs. He produced 3 more 30-30 seasons and was a three-time Central League stolen base leader though his speed has diminished more recently with only 22 combined bags swiped in the last three seasons.
Yamada has cemented his status as a top-of-the-order table setter for Yakult and especially his teammate, Murakami. While his offensive production last season might not have been MVP levels, he was the MVP of the Tokyo Olympics and helped Japan win a Gold Medal in 2021, primarily as the DH. He also has WBC experience with a .296/.412/.593 slash line in the 2017 competition.
Yamada is as consistent as it gets at second base and his consistency as a defender also stands out. He’s not an elite defender but he makes solid plays and his athleticism allows him to get to groundballs that other 2B might have trouble with. He won the NPB Fielding Bible Award in 2021 at 2B because of this consistency and his athleticism.
The grounder below shows Yamada ranging to his right on a dive and is a great example of his athleticism on display.
Yamada will be a solid bat and glove for this Japan team and his level of consistency will be something Japan will appreciate having at second base.
Team Japan has the best baseball player in the world in Ohtani but there are some position players playing domestically that are worth the attention as well, even outside of these four. Team Japan might have its best WBC team ever and will look to succeed on the international stage again this March.