The Toronto Blue Jays made another move on the pitching market, adding Japanese righty Shun Yamaguchi who pitched last year for the Yomiuri Giants of the NPB.
Details of the deal have yet to be released but Ken Rosenthal tweeted that it’s a two-year deal worth “just over” six million dollars with performance bonuses and that, because Yamaguchi has been posted and is not a true free agent, the Jays will have to pay the team 20 percent of the contract in addition.
Yamaguchi gives the Blue Jays some flexibility because he’s worked both as a starter and as a reliever in Japan. After he was drafted in the first round in 2005 as an 18 year old, he started out his career with Yokohama as a reliever, finding success between 2008 (his third year as a 20 year old) and 2013, saving 111 games in that time and becoming the youngest player to accrue 100 saves in Nippon Professional Baseball. He moved into the rotation in 2014 and then went to the Yomiuri Giants in 2017 as a free agent apparently with the secret understanding that the Giants would post him at some time, he didn’t pitch much in that year. Yamaguchi put up solid numbers in 2018 and 2019, throwing 170 innings last year in the regular season, and posting a 2.91 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP, striking out 188 and walking 60, leading Japan’s Central League in strikeouts and he was tied for the league lead in wins with 15.
Known for this splitter/forkball, Yamaguchi is probably going to start, says John Lott, who tweeted that the Jays see Yamaguchi as a potential starter. He doesn’t throw particularly hard, with a fastball averaging just over 90 mph, but the splitter and his reportedly good slider probably help that fastball play up and Jim Allen reports that he mixed his pitches to help batters chase the splitter more in 2019.
There is some baggage with Yamaguchi, as he was out drinking in 2017 and had an injury to his pitching hand treated on July 11. He was accused of shoving a security guard and damaging a door at the hospital. He was fined heavily (with one report estimating it would be close to $1,000,000) and suspended for the rest of the year for the incident and it seems he’s left the incident behind him, apologizing at a news conference reported by Japan Times. Otherwise, he was characterized by Jim Allen as “pleasant and straightforward” with the media
So how will the 32-year-old Yamaguchi fit in with the Blue Jays? His two-year contract won’t cost the Blue Jays much and he could provide value either in the rotation or the bullpen. That said, Yamaguchi is fitting into a pattern of finding starters in the late 20s and early 30s to bolster this pitching staff. With Yamaguchi joining Chase Anderson, Tanner Roark and Matt Shoemaker already on the books, it’s going to challenge the Blue Jays’ young core of back-end starters like Ryan Borucki, Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch, Sean Reid-Foley and Jacob Waguespack to step up their game and prove that they can be better than the vets that have joined the team this offseason.
Yamaguchi is the first Blue Jays player to come from Japan via the posting system (others have been free agents) and his small price tag leaves little risk for the financially flexible Jays. The biggest question mark is how Yamaguchi adapts to the differences in the ball between MLB and NPB. While there are reports that the ball used to be smaller (and more variable), there is apparently greater uniformity now and a trend towards using a ball that is more similar to the rest of the world. But even subtle differences in the ball could still make a pitch like the splitter/forkball, Yamaguchi’s signature pitch, less effective in North America than it was in Japan. Like with the rest of the Jays’ moves in the offseason we’ll have to wait and see how they pay off.
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