The WBC has served as the launching point for a number of talented NPB pitchers to make their way into the big leagues. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Koji Uehara helped power Japan to WBC gold in 2006 before both cashing in with lucrative MLB contracts. Hisashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish followed suit in 2009. 2013 saw Masahiro Tanaka display his talent for Samurai Japan and then promptly join the New York Yankees. In 2017, no hurler on the Japanese club is more poised to follow that same path than Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano.
Tomoyuki Sugano has known almost nothing but success as a pitcher. The native of Sagamihara in Kanagawa prefecture was dominating in college ball, sporting a videogame-esque 37-4 record and 0.57 ERA. Performances like that were certainly enough to get the attention of NPB professional baseball, and the Hokkaido Fighters were more than happy to take Sugano with their 1st round pick in the 2011 NPB player draft. Those feelings were not exactly mutual, however. Before the draft, Sugano had made his wishes clear to play for the Yomiuri Giants, managed by his uncle Tatsunori Hara. After some deliberation, Sugano decided to sit out the 2011 season and re-enter the amateur player draft in 2012. In the 2012 draft, with his threat to sit out no longer just a threat, the risk was too great for any other team, and the Giants were able to nab him with their 1st round selection.
And what a selection that has turned out to be. Sugano, at age 23, burst into NPB’s Central League and posted an outstanding rookie campaign. Sugano finished with a 13-6 record, boasted a 3.12 ERA and 1.153 WHIP, struck out 155 batters in 176 IP, and was named to the CL All-Star team. In the Japan Series playoffs, Sugano continued to pitch beyond his years, besting two of the top pitchers in Japanese baseball. In the semifinal series, he tossed a magnificent game, twirling a complete game 11-strikeout shutout against Kenta Maeda and the Hiroshima Carp.
In the Japan Series final, Sugano found himself matched up twice with NPB’s top ace, Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka came into the series with a spotless 24-0 record on the season, and a 1.27 ERA. Sugano matched up with Tanaka in game two, and took a hard luck loss, surrendering one earned run in 5+ innings. In game 6, the two locked horns again, but this time the youngster prevailed, tossing 7 innings and surrendering just one ER. While the Giants dropped the 7th game, Sugano had announced himself as a star in the making.
Following his stellar rookie season, Sugano has continued to excel. He has posted ERAs of 2.33, 1.91, and 2.01, and lowered his WHIP in each of those three years, culminating with a sparkling 0.993 figure in 2016. He has led the league in complete games twice, including 2016, a season that saw him lead the league in ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts.
Sugano is a solid figure on the mound, standing at 6’0’’ and weighing in at 194 pounds. At the beginning of his career, Sugano was quite the power pitcher, topping out at 97 during his pro career, and actually recording a 98 MPH heater in his college days. Ligament damage suffered in 2014, however, has sapped a fair amount of the pop from his fastball. While he’s hardly a junkballer, sitting comfortably around 91, Sugano no longer possesses the kind of explosive fastball that can get batters out on its own. Fortunately for him, he is equipped with a bevy of other pitching tools. He complements his straight 4-seam fastball with the Shuuto (a Japanese variant of the 2-seam fastball with more extreme index finger pressure), throws two breaking balls (a curve and a slider), and against lefties can go to a forkball to get swings and misses. Sugano likewise possesses good control, leading the CL in 2016 in both BB/9 and K/BB, and a solid ability to generate weak contact, holding opposing hitters to a 55% ground ball rate. To top it off, he is quite able to help himself out with the glove once the pitch is released.
Sugano looks to be Japan’s top starter in the 2017 Classic, and his performance could go a long way towards helping Japan reclaim the gold which Matsuzaka, Iwakuma, Uehara and Darvish brought to the Land of the Rising Sun. And if Sugano is able to duplicate that feat for Japan in 2017, he’s a good bet to duplicate what happened next for those players.