Every now and then I will randomly think of a player and wonder why they aren’t in Major League Baseball. More often than not it’s because they’ve retired, or haven’t made their way through the minor league system yet. Occasionally I realize it’s because the player took a turn for the worse and simply isn’t MLB caliber anymore. Sometimes it’s because that player is still playing in a foreign league. With foreign leaguers, the thought really sneaks up on me, because I so closely associate them with the league they are presently playing in. There are exceptions, those rare players who are so uniquely talented and gifted that a few times a season I inevitably wonder why in the heck an MLB team hasn’t snatched them up yet.
The other day I found myself watching a First Stage Climax Series game from Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League, as I am wont to do around this time of year, and immediately wondered why two players, in particular, hadn’t found their way to the big leagues yet. I was prepared to write about both of them today, but then a pitcher dazzled as he so often does and all of my focus turned to him. No doubt Tetsuto Yamada, the all-world second baseman for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, will be written about in the future. But, on this day all my attention and praise is being saved for the ace of the Yomiuri Giants staff, and the ace of the NPB, Tomoyuki Sugano.
Most of you probably remember Sugano from his performance for Japan in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Specifically most probably remember him from his semi-final start against the United States of America, wherein he faced a star-studded line-up of major leaguers and held them to just three hits over six innings while walking only one, striking out six, and allowing one unearned and one earned run. That line doesn’t do Sugano’s performance justice, but it encapsulates why Sugano’s brilliant dominance over the years manages to mostly fly under the radar.
You’re not going to get flashy or overpowering from a Sugano start. What you will get are a variety of pitches thrown with deception and purpose. He has a vast arsenal of pitches, and every single one of them is top notch. This is because more than anything Sugano knows how to pitch. He understands sequencing, tunneling, taking a little off of a pitch, putting a little more onto a pitch, wasting a pitch, where to throw the ball, and where not to throw the ball. When one watches Sugano pitch they get to see a man who is one step ahead of every hitter who steps into the batter’s box to face him.
Watching him no-hit the Swallows was like watching a master at work. If a Swallows hitter thought a fastball was coming then he would throw a splitter. If they happened to be sitting on his curve then they would get a high fourseam fastball, and so the dance went over and over again. The thing with Sugano is that this isn’t outside of the norm, this is how most of his starts go. He’s human, so he isn’t perfect every time out. But, he limits his mistakes and works around them because he knows how to pitch.
Just looking at the raw numbers it’s easy to see why Sugano is a top 20 pitcher in the world, not just NPB. In 2018 he started 28 games and managed to throw 8 shutouts and 10 complete games. His ERA of 2.14 was actually his highest since 2014. His WHIP of 1.005 was his highest since 2015. He sported a K/9 of 8.9 and a W/9 of 1.7 for a SO/W ratio of 5.11. If you’re thinking all of these numbers are fantastic, you would be correct in that assumption.
In the advanced stats I was able to find Sugano is just as impressive. His FIP for 2018 was a great 3.02. The stat that blew me away the most was his LOB% of 82.6. Some of that may be owed to the style of play in the NPB, but when you add in a K% of 25.0 and a soft contact rate of 26.6 one can see how he is able to strand so many baserunners. The right-hander posted a WAR of 7.6 in 2018. That was a full two points ahead of the second best pitcher in the NPB. That is a staggering amount of separation between Sugano and the rest of the league.
The question that is undoubtedly going to be asked of the Kanagawa native is how will he fare against the higher level of competition found in MLB? My answer to that is to watch him face USA in the 2017 WBC semi-final and you will have your answer. Sugano is a special pitcher, a rare talent who will excel no matter the skill level of the league he belongs to. I love watching him compete in the NPB, though I hate seeing him in a Giants uniform (I hate, hate, hate the Yomiuri Giants for the record). I will love watching him compete in an MLB uniform as soon as he is able to make the jump.
That last sentence is a bit of a heartbreaker for those wanting to see Sugano make said jump. Sugano is a member of the Yomiuri Giants after all, and the Giants are notorious for not playing well with others. This includes the MLB/NPB posting system, of which they rarely if ever, take part. With that being the case it means that Sugano will continue to dominate in the NPB until at least 2021 when he will be able to declare himself a free agent and sign wherever he wants. The Giants hurler has been open about his desire to play in the big leagues when the time comes. The only concern is that by 2021 Sugano will be 32 and the general school of thought is that he may not be the impact player he is today.
I know 2021 is a ways off but I would still keep your eyes on Sugano when you can. Although he may not be in the major leagues yet, he is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. His style of pitching means that those who think he won’t be an impact starter when he does make the jump at the age of 32 will be wrong. He’s not a flamethrower beholden to the fountain of youth. Sugano is a pitcher, a nasty pitcher who will carve you up with his arsenal of deadly accurate pitches. I have no doubt that Sugano at 32 and for at least a few years after that will remain just as deadly. For now, watch him carve up the competition in the NPB, you’ll be happy you did. You’ll also be getting to watch greatness in action, and isn’t that something we all want to see?Just Nipped by History
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