PNC Park is Yoshi’s island

It’s the end of September and I already start to miss baseball if that makes sense. Sure, there’s all of a Postseason to look for to, still when the weather gets chillier and as much as I like winter, sub-zero temperatures and the rare snow I can’t help but to be reminded that the game I love is going to rest for a while.

Thankfully enough I’m an Astros fan, so there’ll be a lot of games to be played hoping to end up in the depths of October, but for others, supporters of teams well out of the race for a playoff spot, there’s not much to be enthusiast. Is it though?

There’s no more trades, the Verlander to Houston special, but players can still be plucked from waivers for free and even called up from the Minors when in need, Tampa can sure do with a Shane Baz, or when they are old enough to not have to go through the Kris Bryant service time manipulation, quad A veterans that are finally given a shot.

These are some of the best stories in all of baseball, stemming from basement dwellers no less, so as bad as the Cubs have been I’m overjoyed by the Troutian numbers Frank “the Tank” Schwindel is putting up and even if the DBacks are awful, old Houston prospect Seth Beer confirmed why it hurt so much when he was traded for Zack Greinke.

A latter category also shows up quite often come late into the season: change-of-scenery projects. For some reason there are players who ought to be good, decent at least, that have bombed with their previous organization(s) to then be released for everyone to have. That’s how Marwin Gonzalez came back home in HOU, Vince Velasquez is now in San Diego and a potent bat is rocking the world in Pittsburgh:

Look, when both the Dodgers and Tampa are not able to extrapolate value out of you then there’s a close to zero chance that you’ll be enlightened in a Pirates uniform but here we are, with a dreadfull hitter that has become Kyle Tucker since he raises the Jolly Roger.

Life is weird ain’t it, Yoshi Tsutsugo?

As an NPB enthusiast, I couldn’t have been happier when Yoshi signed a MLB contract, and with an analytical minded contender in TB no less, because frankly, the man deserved every bit of the spot he was given to be a part of the Show:

Simply put, Yoshi was a house of pain for Central League pitchers: a protoptical power hitter, he proceeded to mash over 200 HRs in his NPB career, all while keeping a high AVG and OBP with a good amount of Ks. Notably, he did all that while keeping a .320 career BABIP thanks to the Japanese trait of slashing the casual oppo hit, or bomb in his case, when in need.

Tsutsugo’s bat was ML ready for a while, but also his only calling card: a positionless defender, he’s a rare futility infielder/outfielder, covering corners in the diamond and on the warning track with equal, horrible, results, a -4 OAA that is about slow reactions and sloppy sprint speed, not exactly a treat to steal either.

A left handed stick with no particular splits, he was poised to be a platoon bat in Tampa, if not the regular 1B/LF, but it all came down crashing as soon as he landed to the States due to well…the pandemic, but moreso his real weakness as a player: Yoshi can’t catch up to the high heat.

Consider that the avg FB in Japan comes in around 90–91 mph, much slower than in the US: fireballers are a rare breed, usually foreign relievers with scarce starters breaking the 95 mph barrier. Tsutsugo saw few and scattered heat, mostly Rafael Dolis sinkers, as the cream of the crop in hard-throwing SP resides on the opposite side, the Pacific League, with aces such as Kodai Senga, younger Takahiro Norimoto and now aces Roki Sasaki and Yoshinobu Yamamoto dealing consistent gas.

Breaking balls were never a problem for Yoshi: he had his game in sitting soft, adjusting to high 80s heaters and demolish all kinds of sliders, curves and forks thrown near the zone, but as he got to MLB he struggled mightily with this approach, posting putrid statlines for both TB and LA driven by awful figures in the Fastball category, low contact and sky-high Whiff%, a gigantic hole in his swing that pitchers acknowledged and exploited.

This season, even with his late resurgence, is more of the same:

Throw him everything but changeups and you are set: Yoshi has some of the worst numbers in all of baseball against fastballs and he’s even worse against breaking balls because as it turns out, he was getting angry with himself for his inability at making contact:

Swinging more seems to be a no-go, particularly for a guy who’s getting severe negative Run Value per swing, but it makes sense when thinking about his state of mind: historically Japanese players don’t like to go out the way of the K, albeit Shohei here and phenoms Munetaka Murakami and Teruaki Sato in their home country are going against the current, so that they try to hit the ball any way they can, see Shogo Akiyama and his oppo rates.

Tsutsugo must have felt ashamed by his performance and pressed to at least deliver a blow to some baseballs, to that followed more swings but not a ton of extra contact, just more Chases and anger.

Something has changed lately though:

Since Yoshi wears black and yellow he’s enjoying the best stretch of his burgeoning career in MLB, a PA sample that has enough observations not to be dismissed as a stand-alone case or an outlier. As a matter of fact his last 100 PA, almost all with Pittsburgh, are giving back interesting results: an xwOBA over .360, great if not elite, just under the Harper/Soto Valhalla; a K% that has slightly gone down while his BB% went the opposite direction, fueled by fewer swings, chases and a whole new hitting strategy:

Note any difference? Tsutsugo is abandoning the ground in favor of more flyballs without resorting completely to the pull side, still displaying the rare oppo power that made him an impossible at bat in Japan. While he’s barreling less and getting under more, those tendencies are diverging rapidly since his residence near the Alleghenny, with a Barrel% north of 11 in his new home.

With a MaxEV in the 75th percentile, Yoshi is a hard hitter indeed and always has been, yet he had a tough time putting balls in play and when he did so, HardHits ensued in the form of grounders and line drives, with the latter productive but not as a Barrel.

Fast forward to the August-September renaissance:

Consider that Sweet Spot is defined by Savant as the % of balls hit between 8° and 32°, a range of LA that is conductive to damage and production: lately Tsutsugo is hitting half of his BIP in that cluster of Launch Angle, add that is HardHit% and avgEV are on the rise and you have the perfect recipe for an improving batter.

How much has he changed his hitting approach? Have a look at it:

Yoshi’s last 20 BIP were sent flying at a 20+° avgLA, an air strike in full effect that, employed in the friendly confines of PNC Park, suits him to bits: in his short span as a Pirate Yoshi has already ammassed 8 HRs, doubles aplenty and 13 walks against 19 Ks, a good ratio that has helped him become the cleanup hitter against RHP, not a small feat for a lost cause seemingly on his way back to Yokohama.

While it’s not one of his most appreciated traits, Tsutsugo’s plate discipline is nothing to scoff at: his Swing% per zone are optimal, as displayed by negligible negative Take Runs in both the Heart and Shadow zone of the plate. What’s missing is damage on pitches he should destroy, middle-middle offerings he’s only now starting to crush as they ought to be and all those pesky balls up in the zone where he has his hardest challenge in either laying off or putting good wood.

A side note: the middle-in spot may look like a weakness but recently he enjoyed a couple of bombs on fastballs in. Yoshi is adapting to how pitchers are dealing with him, without forgetting his strength as a low-ball hitter. He’ll flail at the low and away slider in the LHP matchup as almost every other lefty hitter does and high heat is still an issue, but now he’s much more of a viable MLB player than he’s ever been.

September may not be a fun month for fans of teams out of Playoffs races, questioning whether or not to spend three hours watching a meaningless game or doing anything else. Some “bad” teams still provide good entertainment thanks to their franchise players rewriting history books, as Salvy did in KC shattering the HR mark for a catcher, not to mention whatever the hell Juan Soto became after the ASG, an on-base machine on a Bonds/Williams run that could earn him the MVP.

Sadly there’s nothing like that in Pittsburgh: with what is more akin to a set of revolving doors, players in and out of the 40 man roster and no milestone in sight, the Pirates are trudging to the finish line in yet another disappointing season, one that saw the last old sailor being thrown out of the ship in the DFA of Gregory Polanco and very few bright spots outside of a majestic Bryan Reynolds.

Don’t tell it to the players though: many of them, the Wilmer Difos and Ben Gamels of the world, are still fighting each of their ABs to death, hoping to clinch a spot in an MLB roster, either in Pitt or elsewhere. Baseball is a team sport, but in these cases it becomes more of a “me first”, statline padding exercise.

Among the many auditioning in a Pirates uniform Yoshi Tsutsugo is making the best impression, a power hitter with solid plate discipline, albeit one that has defensive flexibility in the sense of being able to cover a position, not doing it well.

That said, even as a 1B/DH, Yoshi is raising from his ashes, another failed import in the footsteps of Nishioka and Shinjo that is now finding his stroke far from where he started, in his DeNa Baystar glorious past, and from where he was brought upon in the US, a Trop that has caused many hitters to fail, ask Willy Adames.

As the season comes to an end there’s still a reason to watch a Pirates game: a 30 y.o. Japanese slugger is fighting for a place in the Majors, and as one who watched him dishelve the Central League for years I can only root for him to succeed.

Go, Go, Tsutsugo!

All stats and graphs from Baseball Savant, data updated to September 21st.

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.