One of the biggest stories in Major League Baseball right now is the dominance of 27-year-old Japanese rookie Seiya Suzuki. In 10 games Suzuki is slashing .429/.564/.929 with four home runs and 11 runs batted in. With Suzuki’s early success and Ohtani’s 2021 MVP campaign fresh in everybody’s minds, every Major League ball club is looking for the next big Japanese star.
It’s usually difficult to pinpoint which Japanese ballplayers would be able to translate their skill set into success in Major League Baseball. Too often we’ve seen prodigies in different countries get brought over with enormous hype only to flounder out and disappear from the MLB landscape just a few years later (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kosuke Fukudome are the first two Japanese players that come to mind). However, every now and again a star comes along that shines so bright, you can’t help but marvel at their impressive baseball repertoire. You can just tell that their dominance transcends borders and language barriers, and 2022 is bringing us our latest iteration of such a ballplayer.
Rōki Sasaki is the ace for the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. While the team currently sits at a smidge under .500 (8-10), Sasaki has not been the reason. Through 31 innings pitched, Sasaki has surrendered only four runs, good for a 1.16 ERA. That’s good, but nothing eye-popping, right? We’ve seen similar stretches of dominance before. However, if you’d look just a little deeper, you’ll notice just how dominant Sasaki has been. In those 31 innings, he’s allowed just seven hits and two walks, giving him a WHIP of .290. However, what’s even more impressive is that all of those baserunners came in Sasaki’s first 14 innings. In Sasaki’s last two starts, he has allowed zero baserunners. Yeah, zero. Like the number that comes before one.
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He’s pitched 17 innings and hasn’t allowed a single hitter to reach base. All the while, Sasaki has recorded 33 strikeouts. Less than a week after tossing the first perfect game in the Nippon Professional Baseball League in nearly three decades. Sasaki went back out and tossed eight perfect innings only to be yanked out by his manager, former White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi.
You can say all you want about Dave Roberts pulling Clayton Kershaw after seven perfect innings, but Kershaw is 34 years old and has endured some pretty serious injuries in recent years. Sasaki is 20 and fresh off a perfect game. Give Iguchi some credit though. It takes massive cajones to pull your ace in the middle of their second consecutive perfect game especially when the game is knotted at 0-0 and your team is meddling around .500. Props to Iguchi for that swig of courage juice he took before making that move. That being said, it’s really fucking dumb. It doesn’t matter that Sasaki was at 102 pitches. That’s about 13 pitches an inning. Let him go one more man. Tim Lincecum once threw 148 pitches in a no-hitter. That’s a no-hitter, not a perfect game. Let the kid get his moment again. If the game is still tied after nine innings, sure, take him out, but let him go the distance and give your team its best chance at winning. Put him on some ice afterwards and maybe give him an extra day of rest or keep him on a short leash in his next start. Obviously, you don’t want his arm falling off halfway through the season, but this was a perfect game and Sasaki had a chance to do something that’s literally never been done before anywhere in the world. Let him go for it!
Alright. Rant over.
What makes Sasaki so dominant? Well, the Japanese sensation boasts a devastating two-pitch arsenal. He has more pitches in his repertoire, but his fastball and splitter are his primaries. His fastball routinely hits triple digits, but averaged only 99.5 miles per hour in the loss to Nippon on Sunday. The crown jewel of Sasaki’s arsenal is his splitter. As Nippon’s Chusei Mannami said, “(Sasaki) is just too tough. The way that forkball drops, forget about it.” Sitting in the low 90's, Sasaki’s splitter has insane horizontal movement. His 91.2 mph average would be the second-fastest splitter in Major League Baseball behind only Boston’s Hirokazu Sawamura (91.6).
Japanese ball players are taking over MLB, and if we’re lucky, maybe in three years or so, Sasaki will throw back-to-back perfect games in an MLB ballpark. No pitcher has ever thrown two perfect games in MLB history. Hell, someone tossing back-to-back no-hitters has only happened once, when Johnny Vander Meer did so for the Cincinnati Reds in 1938. However, if anyone alive today can accomplish the impossible, I’d put my money on Sasaki.