Masataka Yoshida evokes superstar comparisons, but reservations remain
New to Japan a few years ago, Adam Jones asked his interpreter, “Who are the guys?”
The former big-league outfielder, a five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove Award winner, wanted to know who the best players were on his new team in order to better understand the league and acclimate himself to a new environment.
The interpreter pointed to the player wearing No. 34. By then, in 2020, those much more informed than Jones had taken to calling this player “Harper.” The nickname was in reference to Bryce Harper. Like Harper, he had a sweet lefty swing, played the outfield and had a reputation for tormenting pitchers. Also, he idolized Harper. The fact that this player wore 34, Harper’s old number with the Nationals, only made sense.
The player was Masataka Yoshida.
The Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball will reportedly soon post Yoshida, making him eligible to explore opportunities with MLB clubs. With the free-agent market for outfielders hardly overflowing with quantity, Yoshida, 29, stands out as an intriguing option. Teams looking for a corner outfielder or DH-type are asking themselves how much of Yoshida’s .960 career OPS over seven seasons with Orix will translate to the majors. Essentially, they are exploring the same thought Jones had a few years ago and using a bit of scouting parlance to ask: Is he a guy?
Orix Buffaloes To Post Masataka Yoshida https://t.co/H6RHhghDqb pic.twitter.com/HkABQqeVah
— MLB Trade Rumors (@mlbtraderumors) November 16, 2022
So how long did it take Jones to understand why the interpreter pointed Yoshida out?
Said Jones, “It was Day 1.”
In no time, Yoshida reminded Jones of another MVP-caliber player.
“I say he’s like the Japanese Juan Soto,” Jones said.
Jones — who was teammates with Yoshida in 2020 and 2021 — didn’t mean Yoshida was going to become Soto in the United States. It was just that, in Japan, Yoshida’s style and method for mashing resembled Soto’s approach.
“He can hit the ball to all fields, all speeds,” Jones said. “Like Juan Soto, he hits everything — and walks; he doesn’t swing out of the zone.”
The high praise is warranted, according to others who have seen Yoshida play, such as former Orix outfielder Stefen Romero.
“That’s very spot on,” said Romero, a current MLB free agent who had a .828 OPS over five seasons in NPB. “Especially with strike zone awareness, plate discipline, knowing the strike zone, knowing what pitches he personally can do damage with. I can see the comparison of that being very true.
“From a left-handed perspective, his swing is probably by far the prettiest swing I’ve ever seen.”
Yoshida made his NPB debut with the Buffaloes in 2016 and immediately produced. Over the last five years, he has never finished a season with an OPS below .950. In 2022, he played in 119 games, hit 21 home runs and slashed .335/.447/.561.
“His consistency was just unreal,” Romero said. He’s a contact hitter first and foremost. He puts the ball in play. He’s very, very clutch. When you need a hit or you need to drive somebody in, he comes up in those situations. He doesn’t apply pressure to himself. Pitchers felt that presence and made mistakes. And he rarely misses a mistake. In a very crucial situation in front of 30,000 and 40,000 fans in Japan, he would always come through and I feel like that will transition very well here in the United States.”
In conversations with players and scouts about how Yoshida will fare, the expectations varied.
“He was without a doubt in my mind the best hitter I played against over there,” said Brian O’Grady, a former Padres outfielder who spent 2022 playing for the Saitama Seibu Lions. “I’m just more wary of hitters making the transition from Japan to MLB as opposed to pitchers.”
That was the consensus: Yoshida was the best hitter any of them watched in Japan yet variables make it hard to say he’s a lock to produce at a high level. Just consider the recent examples. Shohei Ohtani is a superstar while Yoshi Tsutsugo and Shogo Akiyama have never come close to replicating what they showed in Japan.
Despite being listed at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, Yoshida has power. And his great discipline and pitch recognition should help with the transition, one scout said. Still, the scout cautioned that the style of pitching is so different in MLB. There are going to be things Yoshida has never seen before, such as lefties consistently throwing 95 mph with sink down and in to him while locating the pitch for a strike. Or a team deploying five straight right-handers hitting 99 mph during the same game.
In Japan, a few of the best pitchers actually played on Yoshida’s team, and he typically saw 85-90 mph with a lot of breaking pitches and four-seam fastballs as opposed to high-velocity two-seamers with sharp movement. For context, the Pacific League (where Yoshida played and highly coveted free-agent Koudai Senga pitched) is considered to be a tougher league to hit in than the Central (where Suzuki and Tsutsugo played). That makes some of Yoshida’s numbers more impressive when compared to some other Japanese players. Another scout wondered if Yoshida received superstar treatment on close pitches that may not go his way as frequently in the US Yoshida’s defense and running didn’t impress, a scout said, so his value solely depends on whether he can hit.
“No matter what, there’s going to be an adjustment period,” one scout said. The sooner he makes it, the better. He doesn’t have a big leg kick, he’s smart at the plate and he doesn’t chase. So that all helps. I could see him being similar to Seiya Suzuki.”
Suzuki signed with the Cubs before the 2022 season for five years and $85 million. He is two years younger than Yoshida. It’s hard to pin down a projected salary for Yoshida, but getting less of a guarantee than Suzuki, considering their ages, seems like a reasonable guess. The Mariners, Blue Jays and Yankees have been mentioned in the Japanese press as teams that would potentially be interested in Yoshida.
Jones refers to Yoshida as a “question-asking guy,” and the way the former Orioles star sees it, that curiosity and hunger to learn should also help Yoshida’s transition.
“He wasn’t too concerned about how the beaches were in San Diego,” Jones said. He was concerned about what it’s like facing Josh Hader. Or how it’s like facing Aroldis Chapman. He asked a lot of questions about Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole. He asked a lot about these guys that throw hard, and I tried to give him the best answers I could. He just always wanted to know.”
One question he’d often ask teammates is, “Do you think I could play in the United States?” They’d tell him yes, that he’s a superstar in Japan and he has skills that will translate. But it’s up to him to prove it.
“He’s ready for it,” Jones said. “I don’t think Japan is a challenge for him anymore. He’s hitting .350. It’s like a guy in Triple A hitting .350 and he gets called up. It’s not a challenge for him anymore. So I think it’s time for him to take on a new challenge. And Major League Baseball sure as hell is the greatest challenge.”
(Photo: Yukihito Taguchi / USA Today)