Better heat than Ohtani? DeGrom-like stuff? Japan’s next great ace pitches in an MLB stadium Monday night


Roki Sasaki is 21 years old, and in the eyes of some talent evaluators, he is already in the discussion for the title of best pitcher in the world. Yes, right there with his Samurai Japan teammate Shohei Ohtani, whose national record he broke for the fastest pitch ever thrown by a high schooler four years ago. Monday night’s start against Mexico in the World Baseball Classic semifinals marks his introduction to an American audience certain to spend the coming years frothing for his permanent arrival.

In his first appearance on an international stage the size of the WBC’s — every game this week at LoanDepot Park is sold out, and half of the TVs in Japan are tuning in to watch their team that is 5-0 in the tournament — Sasaki threw 3.2 innings, struck out eight and allowed one unearned run against the Czech Republic. Although the Czech lineup consisted of one former major leaguer (Eric Sogard), a pair of former minor leaguers (Martin Cervenka and Jakub Hajtmar) and six others with no affiliated experience, the raw excellence of Sasaki’s repertoire looked to evaluators like it would play against the world’s finest hitters just the same.

Sasaki possesses two demon pitches: the fastball that still crackles with unmatched velocity and an apparition of a split-fingered fastball that renders standard bat paths worthless. Of Sasaki’s 66 pitches against the Czech Republic, 36 were fastballs. They averaged 100.1 mph. Twenty-one of them clocked in at more than 100 mph. Since Major League Baseball began tracking pitches using Statcast in 2008, only once has a starter unleashed as many 100 mph-plus fastballs in a game with fewer pitches thrown than Sasaki: Jordan Hicks, on July 12, 2022, with 24 of his 38 pitches. Sasaki generated 22 swinging strikes against the Czech team, drawing whiffs on one-third of the pitches he threw.

Ideally proportioned (just shy of 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds) and mechanically sound (his complicated delivery belies its spot-on timing), Sasaki is everything teams look for in a pitcher. At worst, he is a Jacob deGrom starter kit, with his splitter as a stand-in for deGrom’s slider. And considering Sasaki also throws a slider and curveball — one person who has studied his Trackman data believes the two pitches, with some easy tweaks, can become dominant offerings — he could soon replicate the versatility of Ohtani’s arsenal, too.

“He has all of the ingredients to be whatever he aspires to be,” an evaluator who has seen Sasaki multiple times said. “If that’s the best in the world, he has the ability to be that.”

Sasaki became renowned around Japan in 2019 during Koshien, Japan’s national high school baseball tournament that is an amalgamation of March Madness and the Super Bowl. He threw nearly 500 pitches over eight days for Ofunato High School, including a 12-inning complete game in which he struck out 21 batters on 194 pitches.

Sasaki’s exploits earned him the title of kaibutsu, the Japanese word for monster, an honor reserved typically for Koshien standouts such as Daisuke Matsuzaka. At 17, Sasaki was christened kaibutsu no reiwa — the Monster of the Reiwa era, referencing the time period under the current Japanese emperor.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of Koshien stars flame out, their arms wrecked by the demands of the tournament, so after selecting Sasaki with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, the Chiba Lotte Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball slow-played his arrival. He spent the entire 2020 season throwing only in bullpen sessions, and in 2021, his first five starts came in the minor leagues.

Last season, his first full year with the Marines, Sasaki went 9-4 with a 2.02 ERA. Over 129.1 innings, he struck out 173, walked only 23 and allowed seven home runs as a 20-year-old. His strikeout and walk rates were better than those of Ohtani, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, his closest contemporaries, at the same age. And in the 2022 season’s third week, Sasaki started against the Orix Buffaloes and authored one of the great pitching performances in baseball history.

Sasaki threw NPB’s first perfect game in 28 years, needing only 105 pitches and striking out 19, including 13 consecutive batters at one point. In his next start, against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Sasaki went eight more perfect innings and punched out 14 in 102 pitches before Lotte pulled him to protect his arm. The Marines, cognizant of what Sasaki can be, had no intentions of seeing him suffer the same fate as so many of his predecessors.

To fulfill the prophecy — to be the Monster of the Reiwa era — Sasaki needs one thing above all: health. Keeping Sasaki from overworking himself would fulfill the physical end of it. As for the mental strength, Lotte knew Sasaki had that to spare.

On March 11, 2011, when Sasaki was 9 years old, the Tohoku earthquake struck the east coast of Japan and caused a tsunami that unleashed waves estimated as tall as 130 feet. Nearly 20,000 people died, including Sasaki’s father and paternal grandparents. 3/11 is now a day of national mourning, and on that date this spring, Sasaki pitched in the WBC against the Czech Republic and seemed to be channeling something bigger, almost mystical.

“He pitched every single pitch with his soul, and his performance gave us a lot of energy,” Team Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said. “I’m not talking about his velocity. It’s not talking about the speed. It’s hard to explain, but to me, it’s as if he is throwing his soul, not the baseball.”

Through baseball, Sasaki found some semblance of solace, and it’s a pursuit he continues to chase at the highest level in the country he loves enough to have passed up the opportunity to jump straight to a major league organization. That doesn’t lessen his desire to do so eventually, to be like Ohtani and Darvish and Tanaka and Hideo Nomo and the other pitchers who have plied their trades in MLB.

“That is my dream,” Sasaki said, and it’s likewise the dream of the 30 teams across MLB, who have come to see the Japanese league as a reliable source of high-level talent. Ohtani arrived in 2018. The Chicago Cubs guaranteed outfielder Seiya Suzuki $85 million last winter, and the Boston Red Sox upped the ante with $90 million for outfielder Masataka Yoshida this year. Next up is Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who has won the past two Sawamura Awards — the NPB’s equivalent to the Cy Young — and is expected to be posted after this season, when he’ll be 25 years old and a major league free agent rather than subject to MLB’s international amateur bonus restrictions. Kuriyama plans for Yamamoto to pitch in the semifinal behind Sasaki, just as Japan used Darvish to follow Ohtani in the quarterfinal. If Japan grabs an early lead, though, he could save Yamamoto to start the championship game against Team USA. Munetaka Murakami, a left-handed-slugging third baseman who won the Triple Crown and set a record for Japan-born players with 56 home runs last year, will turn 25 in February 2025.

Sasaki won’t be 25 until after the 2026 season, an eternity in baseball. When asked Sunday before his start when he planned on coming to MLB, he demurred: “I will play in Japan, and then I think something will become clear when I’m going to shift over.”

Doing so would require Lotte to enter him into the posting system — and considering that the fee paid to a Japanese team depends on the size of a player’s contract guarantee in MLB, doing so before Sasaki turns 25 would cost Lotte tens of millions of dollars. Of course, that’s exactly what Ohtani did, forgoing hundreds of millions of dollars himself, and Sasaki did suggest Sunday that Ohtani has been offering him advice on a potential transition, whenever it might be.

Until then, MLB teams will watch and wait with bated breath for the day Sasaki appears on U.S. soil for more than a tournament. They will ready scouts for trips halfway across the world to make sure his stuff still looks like deGrom’s. They will smile at stories like the one that emerged this week, when Sasaki apologized to Czech left fielder William Escala after unfurling a 100.9 mph fastball that hit him in the leg by delivering an oversized bag of candy and signing the ball that plunked him.

“Something I’ll cherish and never forget,” Escala said.

He understands. Every player who bears witness to Roki Sasaki does. And every time he throws a baseball, the Monster of the Reiwa era lets it be known that it begins and ends with him.

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