The Toronto Blue Jays signed P, Shun Yamaguchi, which could prove to be a rather nice addition to their roster
When I heard the news, I struggled to remember if I had heard Yamaguchi discussed among other Asian-based players seeking MLB contracts this off-season — namely NPB position players Shogo Akiyama and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and KBO pitchers Kwang-Hyun Kim and Josh Lindblom. I don’t believe I had and I don’t believe I’m the only one, as Yamaguchi was posted a bit later than the others and is not listed in this summary of NPB/KBO players looking for MLB contracts. My guess is that if he had been posted earlier, he would’ve been discussed alongside the others.
In his mid-twenties, he was among the NPB Central League’s top relievers, producing 21 runs above replacement (seventh-best) in 2010, 20 RAR (ninth-best) in 2011 and 22 RAR (eighth-best) in 2012 (when he gave up a single home run over 62 innings pitched). He split 2014 between the bullpen and rotation, pitching 124 innings overall and producing 39 RAR, the 15th-highest mark among all NPB-CL pitchers. In 2015, as a full-time starter, he produced 24 RAR (36th-best) over 114.1 IP.
Davenport’s site is missing Yamaguchi’s data for 2016, but Baseball Reference confirms that Yamaguchi posted a 2.86 ERA over 138.2 IP, sixth-best among starting pitchers. 2017 was a lost year for him, after a suspension for disorderly behaviour, but over the last two years, his age-30 and -31 seasons, he cemented his place among the NPB-CL’s best pitchers, producing 44 RAR (eighth-best) in 2018 and 58 RAR (fourth-best) this year.
In 2019, Yamaguchi was very effective at generating strikeouts and limiting homers, producing the second-highest K/9 (10.3) and the lowest HR/9 (0.4) among the highest-workload pitchers (26 SP with at least 80 IP) in the NPB-CL. While his BB/9 was only league-average (3.2), it was good enough for him to post a 6.8 (K-BB)/9, second-best among the league’s primary starting pitchers. He also generated a high rate of grounders (53%, fifth-best).
Overall, Yamaguchi posted a 2.91 ERA (third-best) that was well-supported by his 3.41 LFRA (luck free runs average, Davenport’s version of FIP), which also ranked third.
While there have been a few starting pitchers moving from the NPB to the MLB in recent years — including Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Kenta Maeda, Yusei Kikuchi and Miles Mikolas — none are particularly clear comps for Yamaguchi. Age is one difference, with each making their MLB debuts (or, in Mikolas’ case, return) between their age-25 and -29 seasons (Yamaguchi will be in his age-32 season). Moreover, each had achieved higher peaks in the NPB than Yamaguchi has. Each produced a sub-2.00 ERA and at least 78 RAR over a full season as a starter — Yamaguchi’s 2019 (2.91 ERA, 58 RAR) was his best as a starter.
However, given his contract, those guys aren’t his peers and he does not need to generate their value in order to be a great signing by the Blue Jays. As has been discussed by others, his history as a starter and a reliever gives him some useful versatility. That said, his recent seasons as one of Japan’s top starters means that the Jays will give him a shot to crack the Opening Day rotation.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.