The man who refused to strike out
I have a lot of respect for guys who don’t conform to the masses, whether in society or baseball. Maybe it’s because I see myself in them, but looking at someone going his way about it whereas all others drift apart in a sole big conflux makes me proud.
In the Three True Outcomes era of baseball no batter is more interesting than the one who doesn’t walk, doesn’t strike out and can’t, for his life, hit that damn ball out of the park.
The poster boy in 2021’s MLB is Nick Madrigal: Nicky Two Strikes is grit personified, a scrawny second baseman who’ll fight ABs to his death, make absurd amounts of contact with pitches in and out of the zone, put the ball in play and use his wheels to run out infield singles. That’s all 1980s, yet he is incredibly valuable in today’s game too: thanks to his slash, dash and defense he’s being a worthy member of the White Sox lineup, a 1.5 WAR player that projects to be worth 3.5, not exactly a chunk of change.
That said I’m also a dreamer and more than once I desired a simple thing: what if the baseball Gods looked down to Nick and gave him an eagle eye? Or else, what about keeping his epicurean contact and adding 25+ HR power?
In mere numbers: Nicky is running an almost 5% BB rate, a K% less than 8 and has hit, somehow someway, two bombs already. Can you imagine if he had a 15% walk rate? Even better, walk just a tad more and end up hitting 20 homers? That would be videogame-type stuff, a Juan Soto who strikes out much less, unfair even in this talent-loaded league.
Now scratch that and listen: what if there was such a player? Not as egregious but still, a guy who can walk at least at a league-average rate (8–10%), hit up to 20 homers AND strike out under 10% of his PA?
And what if I told you that he exists, plays in Japan and his nickname is none other than “Macho Man”?
Let’s get to know Masataka Yoshida!
If I ask what is the first Japanese batter that comes to mind, most of you will go straight to Ichiro, arguably the best pure hitter of a generation, a Hall of Famer in the waiting, hopefully gaining a 100% induction rate a la Mariano Rivera.
You’ll be pleased to know that, as Ichiro did, Yoshida is an Orix player too: mind you, not the Blue Waves as in the late 1990s but the “new” edition of the Osaka franchise, the Buffaloes.
That’s not a lot of good news though because, simply put, the Buffaloes are bad, and they are being so for a while. They never went close to winning the Japan Series in the last few years, their postseason resume is a lot Minnesota Twins and their regular seasons are a thing of…well, not beauty.
As of 2021, they are sitting at 25–27, still on the mix at 5.5 games behind the leading Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, the Masahiro Tanaka-leaded team, but that is not something to be proud of. They are under .500 although having the best hitter in the Pacific League in Yoshida and the two, not one, best PL pitchers in MLB prospect Yoshinobu Yamamoto (5–5, 2.29 ERA) and rookie Hiroya Miyagi (5–1, 2.43 ERA).
There’s not much more Yoshida can do to help his team: he’s hitting almost .340, has already 12 HR and walks are more than double his strikeouts…he’s simply alone in an island, with him and breakout slugger Sugimoto as the only reliable bats in the Orix lineup.
To understand Yoshida’s rare feat of patience and his stingy approach at the plate we have to go back a step or two:
That’s good but not entertaining per se: in his first four seasons Yoshida was your casual slugging left fielder, breaking the 25 HR barrier in 2018 and 2019, his first full couple of seasons after a “platoon” role in 2016–17, and walking at a good 12% clip. If anything stands out that is his burgeoning hatred for Ks, yet his 12% career average after 2019 is not Madrigal but more Yuli Gurriel, far below league average but not the outlier I get all excited about.
There’s also another small issue: the bat is the only carrying tool for Masa
Long story short: Yoshida can hit the ball as good as anyone in Japan, but that’s all he can do. Defensively he’s not even sniffing Gold Gloves, a Stantonian fit on the outfield due to middling range and instincts, not to mention an arm that is not a Khris Davis noodle, but close to that. Strangely enough, at a generous 173 cm (5.7 ft) you’d expect some speed, but that’s also a no-go due to his stocky build so baserunning is another detriment.
There are a lot of DH flags, yet there’s no denying Yoshida’s superior bat: his oWAR in the last two seasons gets hurt a bit from the other missing aspects on his game, but we are talking about a 5–6 WAR player in NPB, better than what both Shogo Akiyama and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo did in their last season in Japan before coming to the States.
Then there’s Yoshida’s 2020 season, and a fun thing happened: he decided to stop striking out
I’ll do the math for you: he surely lost some pop, a steep decline in HR% from 4.8 to 2.9%, he also went to steal some bases but focus on his walk to strikeout numbers…what is that abomination?!
Macho Man may have gone down on bombs, but he was dialed in at the dish: his 15% walk rate is by far a career best, heights that pertain to the elite plate discipline savants in MLB, the Carlos Santanas and Joey Vottos. What is even more amazing is the way he didn’t strike out: his 5.9 K% would now be the lowest strikeout rate in the Majors, even better than Kevin Newman, leading at 6.3%, and much better than Madrigal and Gurriel.
Just for fun: as of now Yandy Diaz is top in the league at BB/K at 1.26. Yoshida ended his 2020 season at 2.48, not a typo…that is almost three times more walks than strikeouts!
How in the world did Yoshida do it? There are three factors working together: one obviously is the reluctancy to which pitchers are throwing balls in the strike zone at him. I’d love to have more in depth stats but watching a ton of NPB I can assure you that there’s no hitter avoided more than Masa, not even perennial MVP Yuki Yanagita.
That is because of him being the only bat to be scared about for the Buffaloes, so that you can gladly walk him to battle with Sugimoto, giant switch hitter Steven Moya or what is left of WBC Team USA legend Adam Jones; but moreso because of his second trait: a swing that is pure helium.
A little but fit LHB, Yoshida has a swing that someone compared to that of none other than Ken Griffey Jr, the most aesthetically pleasing piece of hitting in baseball lore. That is a stretch, although they share some things: elite bat speed, hand-eye coordination to be envious of and a bat path that looks like a ferris wheel rotating at blazing rpms.
There’s no making Yoshida swing and miss: he is not susceptible to the high heat, getting to it the other way, fouling it off if not clobbering to the pull side on fastballs inside, and be wary of missing a breaking pitch over the heart of the plate, as he tends to let the ball travel before uncorking his hack so that he has all the time to rythm a cement mixer and shoot it to the moon.
Lastly, a third point to remember: Japanese baseball is far more 1990s MLB than modern ballgame. That applies to lineup construction too: there are no George Springers leading off, rather your speedy outfielder bunting for hits and running his way on base, while 4–6 is where you find hulking sluggers and power bats. For some reason, in 2020 Orix’s kantoku decided to bat Yoshida mostly second, even leading off, and give the 4 spot to Moya, Jones or others.
His approach followed suit, as in by the book standards: less swinging with HR intent and more patience, discipline, aiming to get on base for your bashing brothers to carry you home.
Fortunately, Yoshida is back as fixtured third batter in the Buffaloes lineup, and all is well with the world.
Power numbers are up, with his HR% back at pre-2020 4.8%, walks are less but still bountiful at a 11.5 BB%, strikeouts are nowhere to be seen, only 12 in 253 PAs, a 4.7 K% that would qualify as the lowest strikeout rate in MLB since 2007 Placido Polanco, and some Juan Pierre seasons before that.
Masataka Yoshida is a name to note: if I had to project his possible future in the Majors I wouldn’t be so discouraged by Akiyama and Tsutsugo’s misfortunes so far. Both of them are not comparable to Yoshida: the Cincinnati CF was more of a slap hitter, his power came on breaking balls and his eye, high contact and (diminishing) defense were his calling cards. The now Dodger feasted on “slow” fastballs, and his hardships where predictable to those who saw him play against the likes of Rafael Dolis and other rare fireballers in Japan.
Masa doesn’t have a glaring hole in his swing, his power won’t translate into 25 HR in the Majors but he could hit 15 while maintaining a high AVG, walks aplenty as pitchers won’t get him to bite, and low strikeouts with maybe more opposite field hits than you want.
The player he reminds me more of is Michael Brantley, as they are both professional hitters with middle of the road power, gaudy contact rates, lefty bats with almost no position outside LF/DH that won’t bring much more than an above average bat to the table.
Yoshida is still young, his bat has enough speed to catch up to the heat and his eye can withstand the filth of MLB caliber non-fastballs. Orix is not Yomiuri or Fukuoka, so if he wants he’ll get a chance in the US sooner rather than later.
And he deserves one, at least to see something different than a guy swinging, and missing, out of his shoes each and every time.
Spin the wheel and don’t strike out, Masa!
Stats are from NPB Stats and the official website of Nippon Professional Baseball, updated to June 7th.