The chances of me not liking someone with the nickname of Sushi Boy are slim. When that someone plays for my favorite Nippon Professional Baseball team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, of course, I’m going to love the guy. Those two factors came together when Brandon Laird played for the Fighters from 2015-18. Sadly, this past offseason Laird left as a free agent and signed with the Chiba Lotte Marines. Other than watching him hit the occasional home run I figured my time with Sushi Boy was pretty much over.
2019 had different ideas as Laird has turned himself into quite the hitter with the Marines. That’s not to say he wasn’t a hitter with the Fighters, he was more of a mashing type hitter though. He never hit for average, wasn’t exactly an on-base machine, but he did hit a lot of dingers. They were often majestic dingers, the sort that hangs in the air and makes you watch in amazement while you wait for it to land. With the Fighters, he hit 34, 39, 32, and 26 home runs in each of his seasons, and that made him an enjoyable throwback sort of player.
Laird is only 53 at-bats into his Marines career and already sports 8 home runs. They have again been of the long and majestic variety, Sushi Boy knows how to hit the ball out of the park after all. However, he’s now hitting in a much different way as well. Laird has a slash line of .340/.435/.811 which has landed him a wOBA of .530 and a league-leading WRC+ of 264. Perusing DeltaGraphs there’s only one other hitter with a WRC+ above 200, Tomoyo Mori of the Saitama Seibu Lions at 217. It’s early, I know, but this is simply not the type of hitter Laird has ever been at any point in his career.
Watching footage of Laird it’s tough to see where he has made changes. His swing looks the same, his mechanics are essentially untouched from a year ago. By his own admission, he feels far healthier in 2019 than he did in 2018, but that doesn’t account for his earlier years. Digging into his numbers produces some interesting results with his swing.
He has dropped his O-Swing% from 33 in 2018 to 24 in 2019, and his O-Contact% from 52 to 47. This means that he is being more selective in what outside the strike zone pitches he is swinging at and that while he is making contact with fewer pitches outside the zone he is swinging at more pitches outside the zone that he can actually handle and do something with. Inside the zone he has stayed pretty much the same in terms of what he is swinging at, his Z-Swing% dropped from 64 in 2018 to 62 in 2019. However, his Z-Contact% has jumped from 82 last year to 89 in the new season. Again, on pitches in the zone, he is being more selective and when he is swinging he is making more contact and the raw results show that he is making better contact. This all comes together in his SwStr% that is 10 this year after being 14 in 2018. Sushi Boy is overall swinging less, and he’s also missing fewer pitches when swinging.
I’m not sure if Laird can keep up his 2019 pace all year long. It’s kind of hard for me to see someone changing their hitting profile so dramatically this far into his career. Maybe Laird has unlocked something and he’ll continue to provide a quality bat in the middle of the Marines lineup that hits to all fields and is capable of more than being the guy who provides the pop? For the time being Sushi Boy has figured something out and has become one of the best hitters in not just the Pacific League but all of NPB as a result.
Lead photo courtesy of unknown – The Japan Times