Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

SoftBank’s Yuki Yanagita stands out among NPB crowd

by Jason Coskrey

The top buzzwords in Japan in 2015, as chosen through the annual U-Can Shingo Ryukogo Taisho (U-Can New Words and Buzzwords Awards), were co-winners bakugai and toripuru suri.

The former refers to extreme shopping sprees carried out by Chinese tourists. The latter, Triple 3, to a baseball player finishing a season with at least a .300 average, 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, which has happened only 11 times. Triple 3 was launched into the national lexicon that year by the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Tetsuto Yamada, who both achieved the feat.

They’re both still filling up boxscores in 2018. But while Yamada is having a good start, we may need a new buzzword for what Yanagita is doing.

Yanagita, the Hawks center fielder, is the best player in Japan, and it’s shown this season. He leads NPB with a .385 average and is tied for second in the Pacific League with 10 home runs and is second alone in the PL with 34 RBIs to go with nine stolen bases. His 3.4 WAR, according to Deltagraphs, is also tops in Japan — with Yamada second at 2.9— as is his 1.142 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Breaking it down further, Yanagita has a .498 weighed on-base average (a measurement of offensive value per at-bat), another NPB best. For as dynamic as the Seibu Lions’ Hotaka Yamakawa has been at the plate, he “only” clocks in with a .460 wOBA.

Yanagita is producing positive outcomes at a torrid pace. While he could be laying the foundation for a second Triple 3 season — he’d join Yamada as the only players to do it twice — something bigger could be in the works. He’s already had a 22-game hitting streak this year, prompting a few baseball commentators to broach the possibility of a 40-home run, 40-stolen base season. It’s far-fetched, but its not out of the realm of possibility.

That’s the level Yanagita is at right now. The 29-year-old is simply on fire. His talents haven’t gone unnoticed by MLB scouts either, who have had their eyes on him for a few years. He’s Japan’s answer to the Angels’ Mike Trout, a phenomenal player who can do a little bit of everything.

“There’s still a lot of season left,” Yanagita told Sports Hochi on Friday afternoon.

Of course, it’s possible Yanagita is just off to a hot start. His recent numbers, however, suggest even if he does slow down, it might not be by much. He’s finished with at least a .300 average, 15 home runs and 10 stolen bases in every season from 2014. His lowest WAR over that span was 2014’s 5.0. There is luck involved in what Yanagita is doing, but it’s no fluke.

One change in Yanagita’s numbers, that may or may not stick, is his increased contact on pitches outside the strike zone. According to Deltagraphs, he’s swinging at them at roughly the same rate as last season (28.3 vs. 28.1 percent) but making contact on 61.3 percent, compared to 58.2 over the course of last season. If he’s hitting those — his contact percentage inside the zone is 85.6 — he’s going to remain tough to handle.

During his hitting streak, at least, he was also jumping on pitchers early, going 10-for-14 in his first at-bat during the first 15 games of this month, per Sports Hochi.

“I’ve just been preparing really well,” Yanagita told the paper.

Yanagita can hit for average and power. He runs well and is good in center field. He’s the total package. He’s become a tougher out early this year (his batting average on balls in play is .417) and is playing at a high level.

If opposing pitchers can’t find a way to slow him down, there’s only one word they’ll be using when they speak about him this summer: help.