So much of the focus for Japan coming into the tournament was on their phenom pitcher/DH, Shohei Ohtani. And for good reason, as Ohtani seems set on a path towards stardom both in NPB and in the big leagues. Meanwhile, star pitcher Takahiro Norimoto has found himself in Ohtani’s shadow for much of his career, but now he has an opportunity to step out into the light. So let’s take at Norimoto and what he brings to a stacked Japanese team.
It is difficult to tell the story of Takahiro Norimoto without making reference to Japan’s golden boy, Shohei Ohtani. Both were drafted in the 2012 NPB amateur player draft, with Ohtani going #1 overall while Norimoto was the 2nd round selection of the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Both play in NPB’s Pacific league. Both debuted in 2013, but this time, Norimoto, a full 4 years older and far more of a polished pitcher due to his experience pitching in college, outshined Ohtani, going 15-4 with a 3.34 ERA and a 1.135 WHIP and striking out 134 batters over 170 innings. He ran away with the rookie of the year award.
Norimoto followed up his rookie of the year campaign with a sophomore season which saw him improve across the board. He lowered his ERA from 3.34 to 3.02, lowered his WHIP to 1.115, and led the league in games started, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, and strikeouts. That sophomore season in 2014 would be the first of three consecutive seasons in which Norimoto lead NPB in starts, innings and strikeouts. But for all of Norimoto’s success, he rapidly found himself losing press to Otani, who eclipsed Norimoto in ERA by his second season, and who possessed both a more explosive fastball, as well as one heck of a bat, as he went on to show, whereas Norimoto has no hits in 23 career PA’s.
Norimoto got a chance to shine in 2014, however, when a visiting team of MLB players traveled to Japan to play against team Japan. Getting the start in the third game, Norimoto overwhelmed the MLB lineup. He pitched 5 perfect innings, showing his powerful fastball and good split in striking out 6 big league batters (Robinson Canó, Evan Longoria 2x, Justin Morneau, Lucas Duda, and Dexter Fowler). Backed by Norimoto’s dominating pitching, Japan took the game 4-0 and in so doing won the best of 5 series.
Despite his small frame, standing just 5’10’’ and weighing 178 pounds, Norimoto hardly fits the typical profile of a power pitcher. Nevertheless, he possesses one of the best fastballs in Japan, regularly sitting in the mid to low nineties and revving it up to 97 on numerous occasions (check out his first punch out against Longoria in the video above). Norimoto couples that fastball with a slider and change, as well as a splitter/forkball which serves as his go-to out pitch. Norimoto’s delivery is somewhat evocative of Kenta Maeda’s, featuring both a deliberate overhead handup featuring a pronounced pause and a pronounced tuck of the glove once the stride leg is kicked, though Norimoto clearly generates more power from his wiry frame than does Maeda.
Sadly for MLB fans, we still have to wait a while to see Norimoto come stateside, as he signed an extension with the Golden Eagles, and requested to be posted following the expiration of that contract in 2019, again, the same time when Shohei Ohtani is expected to be posted. It seems to two hurlers are always linked at the hip, but this WBC, with Ohtani out with injury, presents another opportunity for Norimoto to write a little more of his own story out of Ohtani’s shadow. For Japan, he figures to slot in a their #2 starter, and with manager Hiroki Kokubo announcing already that top starter Tomoyuki Sugano (stay tuned to this series for more on him) will face off against Australia, Norimoto may find himself the starter against Japan’s longtime rival Cuba. A win against the beleaguered Cubans would all but guarantee a spot in the finals for Samurai Japan, so Norimoto will have the chance to show what he’s made of on the international stage and maybe get himself something else his nemesis Ohtani doesn’t have: WBC gold.