The wider baseball world is about to meet Tomoyuki Sugano.
Until a few days ago, the Yomiuri Giants star was set to be one of the pitchers throwing in Shohei Otani’s wake in terms of attention at the World Baseball Classic. Now that Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Otani has been ruled out of the competition because of an ankle injury, it’s Sugano who steps into the role as Japan’s top pitcher.
“He is also an ace of the Japanese baseball world,” NPB commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki was quoted as saying of Sugano on Sunday from the Kyojin‘s spring camp in Miyazaki.
For Sugano, it’s a chance to announce his presence to international fans caught up in all things Otani. Just as Hisashi Iwakuma broke out of the shadows of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish during the 2009 WBC, and Kenta Maeda wrested some of the spotlight away from Masahiro Tanaka in 2013, Sugano has a chance to make a greater name for himself globally.
He may not be Otani, but he’s no slouch either.
The 27-year-old has shined on the big stage before. In his rookie year, he made two starts on the road during the 2013 Japan Series. He went almost pitch-for-pitch with Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Tanaka in a narrow loss in Game 2, and outdueled Tanaka in Game 6 to force a decisive seventh game.
He pitched for Samurai Japan during the 2015 Premier 12 and also in an exhibition against Taiwan in 2016.
Sugano was a 13-game winner as a rookie, the Central League MVP in his sophomore year, and threw 179 innings with a 1.91 ERA in his third season. This past year was the first in which he missed out on 10 wins (finishing 9-6 after having amassed 13, 12 and 10 victories previously), but he also struck out a league-best 189.
In his four seasons, Sugano’s innings totals have been 176, 158⅔, 179 and 183⅓. Among all NPB pitchers during that span, he had the best ERA in 2016 at 2.01, and was second in 2014 and 2015 with ERAs of 2.33 and 1.91 respectively.
Sugano gets almost equal usage out of his fastball and slider and also leans on his shuuto. He mixes in a curveball, forkball and cutter, and has spent part of his offseason working on adding a change-up. His control of his pitches is one of his biggest weapons, and could serve him well during the WBC. He’s been working with the WBC ball for some time and is pleased with his progress.
“I’m able to throw with good balance,” he told Sankei News on Sunday.
Sugano doesn’t have the ability to overpower hitters the way Otani can, but his feel for his arsenal can keep them guessing.
Sugano and Otani might’ve been teammates had the cards fallen a little differently. The Fighters rolled the dice on Sugano in the 2011 draft, as the belief he would only sign with the Giants, managed at the time by his uncle, Tatsunori Hara, scared off other teams. The Fighters bit anyway, then won his draft rights in a lottery with Yomiuri. Sugano held firm and chose to sit out a year rather than sign, in order to go back into the draft the next year.
Non-Yomiuri teams stayed away again in 2012, and the Fighters gambled on a different pitcher who had no intention of signing. This time everyone got what they wanted, Sugano was drafted by the Giants, and Nippon Ham in the end successfully persuaded Otani to sign with them.
Neither has disappointed. Otani has set the baseball world ablaze, while Sugano has been one of Japan’s top pitchers. Both have made their league’s Best Nine team, and each has been a league MVP, with Otani winning in the Pacific League in 2016.
Sugano will get to strike out on his own as the presumptive star pitcher for Samurai Japan during the WBC.
He’ll have big shoes to fill, but he’ll also have a chance prove there is more to Japanese pitchers than simply Otani.