Following in the footsteps of Shohei Ohtani, who debuted five years ago with the Los Angeles Angels, Sasaki is poised to be Japan’s next baseball sensation.
For San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish, Sasaki “has a tremendous fastball, and his pitches and sliders are tremendous. He is someone special”, words he expressed in the Japan camp prior to the World Classic.
The specialty of this Chiba Lotte Marine right-hander is the number of mind-blowing numbers. He pitched a perfect game on April 10, 2022, against the Orix Buffaloes and struck out 19-13 in a row during one inning.
In his next season, he pitched eight perfect innings against the Nippon-Ham Fighters until his manager Tadahito Iguchi decided to remove him as a precaution. He had struck out 14 in that outing, including all three in the eighth with a 101 mph fastball.
Sasaki’s repertoire includes a fastball, the fork and a slider that is beginning to polish. He has barely turned 21 years old. Last week he clocked a 102.5 mph fastball in a warm-up game heading into the Classic and tied a Japanese record set by Ohtani.
Those are the positives, but for Major League Baseball fans, while Sasaki is learning English, he’s a long way from packing up his bags to pitch in North America.
“That’s my dream,” Sasaki said of playing in the majors.
Like Ohtani, who signed with the Angels in late 2017 when he was just 23, Sasaki’s courtship could start just as premature.
The Japanese value and take great care of their promises. The country’s professional baseball players cannot be free agents until they have completed a decade of playing. You can do it in advance through the auction system, in which the Japanese club agrees to let the player go. Most likely, this will happen after Sasaki turns 25, that is, the 2027 season.
The World Classic begins Wednesday in Taiwan, followed by games in Japan and the United States. It will be a global platform for the sport, and Japan will attract talent that will focus primarily on its pitchers.
Oakland Athletics president Dave Kaval told the Associated Press, “What we’ve seen from Japanese pitchers is their control of multiple pitches, which is a huge advantage in the majors. That’s what attracts the most.”
Sasaki has also dealt with death and tragedy, in the midst of all his early success. He grew up in Iwate, a prefecture in the same northern area where Ohtani came out. In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami rocked the region, followed by the meltdown of three nuclear plants. His house was bulldozed and his father and grandparents showed up. More than 20,000 perished in the tragedy.
“11 years have passed, but I can’t easily erase the agony and sadness I felt at that time,” Sasaki said at a press conference a year ago.
Japanese pitchers are rising early due to the great popularity of high school tournaments in the country. They have been more successful in North America than hitters, with Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Ohtani being exceptions.
The most promising Japanese hitter is arguably Munetaka Murakami, who hit 56 homers last season and surpassed the legendary Sadaharu Oh’s 55. The Japanese league record is Wladimir Balentien’s 60. Murakami was also the youngest to complete the batting Triple Crown last season, at 22 years old.
“Most of the best pitchers from Japan who go to the United States end up making it,” said Robert Whiting, author of several books on Japanese baseball, including “The Samurai Way of Baseball.”
But Sasaki is certainly a unique talent. “The interest in him in the majors will be monumental. And Lotte will have a lot of pressure to let him go,” Whiting said. “And he really is one of a kind.”
Published by Emirates Herald, news and information agency.