Yoshinobu Yamamoto might be the best pitcher alive right now. That’s who he is, and it’s why he’s getting a 12-year, $325 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If that seems hyperbolic to you, then you’ve come to the right place. You want to know who Yamamoto is and why he’s able to afford the guacamole at Chipotle like it’s no big deal. He’s never thrown a pitch in the majors; how can he be the best pitcher alive?
To be fair, that “might be” is doing a lot of work. Gerrit Cole is a marvel, and so is Zack Wheeler. You can scroll through this list of the highest WARs over the last three seasons and pick your personal favorite for “best pitcher alive.” Don’t forget about Roki Sasaki, another Nippon Professional Baseball pitcher you’ll be very, very, very, very familiar with at this time next season.
But Yamamoto is in the conversation, and that’s why he got the contract he did. Let’s get to know Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
What did Yamamoto do in Japan?
OK, check this out: In 2017, he had a 2.35 ERA for the Orix Buffaloes. He had a .750 winning percentage. He struck out five batters for every batter he walked. He allowed 0.5 homers per nine innings pitched.
That was his worst season in the NPB. Also, he was an 18-year-old rookie. That partial season was probably his nadir as a professional so far.
As for the rest of the seasons, his career ERA in the NPB is 1.72, if that gives you some idea. He’s allowed 36 homers over his seven-season career. That’s fewer homers than eight different MLB Hall of Famers have allowed in a season. In his 2023 season, Yamamoto threw 171 innings and allowed two home runs. Not a typo.
His career numbers:
1.72 career ERA
.714 winning percentage
75-30 W-L record
Yamamoto turned 25 in August. So if the common preconception is that the NPB is “Quadruple-A” in terms of its talent, somewhere between the majors and Triple A, what do you make of a pitcher of prospect age who does that when he’s in his early 20s?
You give him a $325 million contract, that’s what you do.
What does Yamamoto throw?
Pitches. Mostly good ones. Ones that get outs, miss bats and prevent home runs.
But if you’re looking for specifics, our own Eno Sarris has you covered, and he took a deep dive.
First, note his compact motion. He’s not bringing that right arm all the way back, at least not yet. When he does, it’s to get him into Tim Lincecum territory, with the ball held toward the ground at a 90-degree angle.
— tanaka13ver2023 (@tanaka13ver2021) October 28, 2023
But when it’s time to come to the plate, that right arm comes up quickly and turns into an ultra-short motion. He helps his mid-to-upper-90s fastball seem even faster, as you can tell by the emergency swing above.
This video does a good job breaking down how he gets that velocity, as well as his other pitches:
Back to Sarris’ article, though. Here are his notes on Yamamoto’s specific pitches, based on the StatCast numbers that he posted in the World Baseball Classic:
• A four-seam fastball that’s good enough to be a top-20 fastball in the majors
• The nastiest splitter in the world
• An elite curveball
• A cutter that’s fine, but needs work
All of that is very exciting, but it wouldn’t work as well if he couldn’t command where those pitches are going. Good news, then: His command is freaky elite. He’s pumping above-average fastballs, world-class splitters and elite curveballs where he wants to throw them, generally. The stuff-command combo gives him a chance to be special, right from Opening Day.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Vicious Curveball. 😤
One of the most unique curveball releases. pic.twitter.com/1RENxkObab
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 12, 2023
Are there any good major-league comparisons for Yamamoto?
Kevin Gausman is an OK one, because of the fastball-splitter combo, but it breaks down when you get to the third pitch. Gausman offers a show-me slider, whereas Yamamoto can go to that elite curveball.
Roy Oswalt had a similar stature (listed at 6-foot-0, but closer to 5-foot-10, with Yamamoto listed at 5-foot-10) and he used exceptional command, control and stuff to be one of the best pitchers of his generation. But he was a true sinkerballer and not as much of a bat-misser.
Masahiro Tanaka is a fair bit taller than Yamamoto, but he had elite command and control, and the strength of his splitter-fastball combo is close to what Yamamoto offers. Still, the height and extension are great separators between the two.
The correct answer is that, no, there aren’t many good major-league comparisons. Gausman is the most obvious one, but only seven pitchers in the majors threw a splitter more than 15 percent of the time last season: Gausman, Alex Cobb, Taijuan Walker, Kenta Maeda, Nathan Eovaldi, Joe Ryan and Tony Gonsolin. None of them seem like great comparisons, though. Yamamoto is sui generis, and comparisons aren’t very useful. Gausman or Eovaldi are probably the best comps, though. Considering that both of them are former All-Stars with some Cy Young Award votes in their past, that seems good.
What is Yamamoto like as a person?
English-language reports from the Japan Times and Japan News have him as a player whom coaches loved and someone who adapted extremely well to the NPB, despite being a teenager. He likes soft-serve ice cream with soy sauce, which sounds amazing. He’s in the salty-sweet club, like everyone in the world should be. He wants to go to Brazil. His favorite food is squid. His favorite color is red, which could lead to a lot of baseless rumors if the right person tweeted it.
Other than that, he’s something of a buttoned-down mystery. I did find this TikTok of him and made it into a GIF, though.
There are no guarantees in baseball, especially for pitchers. Arms are jerks.
But when it comes to the kinds of gambles that teams should take? Here’s one of the best you can find. He’s the age of a prospect with the resume of a future Hall of Famer, at least in Japan. Now that teams are adept at analyzing pitches and pitch shapes and all of that jazz, they’ve come to the conclusion that this dude can pitch. And he represents a rare opportunity, considering his age. If you’re wondering who Yoshinobu Yamamoto is, don’t worry. You’ll be very, very familiar soon enough.
(Top illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos by Lucas Stevenson and Eric Espada / Getty Images)