Tomase: Masataka Yoshida is having a huge WBC, but does it matter? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The World Baseball Classic has unfolded as a best-case scenario for the Red Sox and Masataka Yoshida.
The outfielder has been a force for Japan, hitting .400 and leading the tournament with 10 RBIs, leading Red Sox fans to hope that he’s the steal the front office envisioned when it gave him $90 million over the next five years.
We’ve already noted the challenges of being a 5-foot-8 power hitter who bats left-handed in Fenway Park (Brock Holt holds the franchise record for home runs in a season at seven), but there’s another factor working against Yoshida as well: the transition from Japan.
Only two Japanese players have reached 20 home runs in a season — Hideki Matsui (seven times) and Shohei Ohtani (three times). Otherwise, history is littered with hitters who arrived with the promise of power, only to short circuit.
Japanese hitters often struggle with the bigger parks, longer seasons, and increased velocity of the big leagues, but the Red Sox believe the 29-year-old Yoshida will be the exception, thanks to his advanced approach, above-average bat speed, and all-fields power. Although known primarily for his plate discipline and low strikeout totals, Yoshida set a career high with 29 home runs in 2019.
There have been others like him, however. Remember Kosuke Fukudome? He signed with the Cubs for four years and $48 million in 2008 at roughly the same stage of his career with the expectation that he’d provide a thump to Chicago’s lineup.
In his final three full seasons with the Chunichi Dragons, Fukudome blasted 34, 28, and 31 homers, although he was best known for working counts and reaching base (sound familiar?). He then opened his big league career with a bang, doubling on his first pitch and blasting a game-tying three-run homer off All-Star closer Eric Gagne.
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Although he made the All-Star team, his hot start did not last. Pitchers soon learned they could wear him out with inside fastballs and he never recovered. He retired without ever hitting more than 13 home runs in a season.
Or how about catcher Kenji Johjima? He smacked at least 31 homers three times in Japan, with a high of 36 in just 116 games in 2004. The Mariners, who had already struck gold with Ichiro Suzuki, signed him for three years and $ 16.5 million at age 30 in 2006 and he played pretty well, with 18 homers as a rookie. He dipped to 14 homers a year later, and by 2010 he had chosen to opt out of his contract and return to Japan.
More recently, the Cubs won last year’s bidding for Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki with a five-year, $85 million contract, beating out the Red Sox, among others. Suzuki had also exhibited considerable power in Japan, with three 30-homer seasons, including 38 in his final year with Hiroshima.
Like Fukudome and Johjima, Suzuki delivered a torrid April, including a two-homer game just four days into the season. But injuries slowed him down afterwards, and he finished with pedestrian numbers, hitting .262 with 14 homers. He told reporters this spring that the biggest adjustment was facing consistently high velocity, a change that Yoshida must navigate as well.
Suzuki at least finished strong, hitting .282 with an .847 OPS in September. He entered spring training determined to improve, but will open the season on the injured list with a strained oblique that forced him to withdraw from the WBC. He is far from a lost cause, but he’ll need to be a lot better to justify Chicago’s investment.
Those are three examples, but they’re not alone. Tad Iguchi (White Sox), Kaz Matsui (Mets), and Akinori Iwamura (Rays) also hit at least 30 homers in Japan without ever reaching 20 in the big leagues. Matsui and Iwamura never even hit 10.
The Red Sox scouted Yoshida extensively and have reason to believe he’ll be the exception. Teammates and coaches have raved about the quality of his batting practices, and he’s putting on a show at the WBC.
It’s worth remembering, however, that history is working against him.