The Japanese team at the WBC, and throughout the years more generally, has been known for the strength of its starting pitching. While 2017 looks to be no exception, even with the absence of Shohei Ohtani, Japan comes into this year’s Classic featuring one of the most dynamic offensive players in the tournament. So let’s take a look at what has everyone all abuzz about Tetsuto Yamada.
The young Testuto Yamada was a star at Kosei High School, accumulating a jaw dropping .435 average while playing short.Opting to pass on college ball and try his luck in the pros, Yamada declared for the 2010 NPB amateur player draft. His stellar showing had attracted the interest of a number of teams, and both the Yakult Swallows and the Orix Buffaloes submitted Yamada’s name with their 1st overall selection. Yakult won the subsequent lottery, and Yamada joined the club.
He spent the majority of the 2011 season with Yakult’s ni-gun (minor league) club, and batted a respectable .259. When Yakult found itself down a starting SS in the NPB Climax Series Playoffs, however, they called on Yamada, who became the second player to make his NPB debut in the crucible of the playoffs. The 18-year-old went 2-11 over his 3 games as Yakult dropped the series. The next season, Yamada continued to split time between the minors and the big club, appearing in 26 games with the Swallows, and batting .250/.327/.364 while playing primarily at SS. By 2013, Yamada had taken over full time at 2B, supplanting Hiroyasu Tanaka, and he established himself as a top notch second sacker, finishing up with a tidy .283/.354/.357 line with 3 HR. Yakult fans had high hopes that they had found their second baseman for the next decade.
But even the most optimistic Yakult fanatic had to be surprised by Yamada’s meteoric rise over the next few seasons. Following his successful sophomore campaign, Yamada hit the stratosphere, batting an exceptional .324/.403/.539 while belting 29 homers, driving in 89 runs, and stealing 15 bases, and setting a Central League record for base hits by a right handed batter with (193). He ran away with the Central League all star spot at 2B, and finished 2nd in the MVP voting behind Tomoyuki Sugano.
Already the top 2nd sacker, Yamada announced himself as arguably the best position player in NPB in 2015. He batted .329/.416/.610, hit 38 homers, 39 doubles, drove in 100 runs, scored 119, and stole 34 bases, becoming just the 9th 30-30 player in NPB history, and setting the record for homers by a second baseman. He led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS, runs, doubles, home runs, steals and total bases, while placing second in average, hits, and RBIs. Yamada dominated the MVP voting, accumulating 262 of the 270 first place votes. Yamada kept it up in 2016, batting .304/.425/.607 and clubbing another 38 home runs.
At the plate, Yamada hardly looks the part of a great power hitter, standing a wiry 5’10’’ 163 lbs. Like many Japanese batsmen, Yamada hold his hands high and away from his body, and starts his swing with a dramatic leg kick (a trait shared by many on the island, demonstrating the influence of the legendary Sadaharu Oh). His swing is quicker and more direct than many of his fellow countrymen, contributing both to his great power, as well as to his higher than normal strikeout rate, considering the general aversion to strikeouts which still permeates Japanese baseball. While there questions surrounding the extent to which Yamada’s power will translate from NPB to the big leagues, few doubt that he would have serious gap to gap power, and most peg his power somewhere between 15~20 homers in the big leagues (a fine total for a second baseman). Yamada will likely bat in the leadoff spot for Japan in the WBC, where he can take advantage both of his tremendous on-base skills, his great speed, as well as his ability to open games with a big-fly and given Japan’s stellar pitching staff a quick 1-0 lead. The youngster is less well known than some of Japan’s other big name talent (Ohtani), but he may prove to be the breakout star of the tournament and is, for this reporter, the most intriguing player outside of the big leagues to watch in the 2017 WBC.
Thanks to all of you who’ve followed along with our top-10. The WBC gets underway tonight/tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM EST/3:30 AM EST, as Israel looks for an upset against host nation South Korea.