I have never claimed to be an expert on Nippon Professional Baseball. I watch a decent amount, but the knowledge I have of the league is usually limited to insights I gain from others that are able to watch far more than me. One thing that has become patently obvious in my seven years of following the organization is that come rain or shine the Orix Buffaloes will be ridiculed to no end. They deserve that ridicule, and as Tom Mussa (one of my favorite NPB follows) is apt to point out, Orix gonna Orix. For as hilariously inept as they often are and for as much as it seems the fates are always aligned against the Pacific League cellar-dwellers they do have Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
Outside of a few shaky appearances in 2017, Yamamoto has been a force on the mound since he first threw a pitch in the JPPL. This has all culminated in 2021, where the twenty-two-year-old seems to have matured to the point where it is now a fair argument to state he’s no longer just a force but is in the running for best pitcher in all of NPB. There’s not much he’s doing now that he wasn’t doing in 2019 or 2020, but he’s doing more of it now and in a more consistent fashion. It feels odd to say that someone who posted ERAs of 1.95 and 2.20 in the past two seasons has gotten better, but he has.
The best place to start with Yamamoto is his ability to adapt. Now, there isn’t a stat for this and I understand some people may be leery of my argument because it’s based more on what I’ve seen versus what the numbers say. Still, it’s been clear in the starts I have seen this year that the biggest change in the Buffaloes’ ace has been that he no longer hits a rough spot and pays for hitting said rough spot. When you have stuff as good as Yamamoto’s those rough spots are few and far between. But, in years past when he would get into trouble he would usually either not recover or only recover after the damage had been done. This year he has shown an increased ability to navigate himself out of trouble and allow himself to stay in games he probably otherwise would have exited.
The stuff is still the same. His fourseam fastball sits at 96 miles per hour and his out pitchers are a big dropping curveball and a disappearing forkball. He commands all three pitches well and he has such good control of his fastball and understands how to sequence hitters to the point that he is able to mainly live off of that pitch. His forkball comes from a very similar release point to his fastball and follows a trajectory that masks its intent until it suddenly drops out of the zone after the hitter has committed to swinging. The curve is devastating, but it’s his third-best pitch, at least from what I have seen.
On the year Yamamoto has a 2.37 ERA in 64.2 innings pitched. He’s struck out 60 hitters to only 12 walks. His 2.71 FIP is right in line with his ERA and his SwStr% is best in the league at 14.7. Put simply, his regular stats are great and his advanced stats show that he is great at missing bats with his pitches. Everything added up shows that Yamamoto is leading NPB with a 2.3 dWAR. Orix is going to keep Orixing, but that’s not about to stop Yamamoto’s steady progression as one of the consistently best pitchers on the planet.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Japan Forward