If there was one standout talent from the first half of the six-game Japan All-Star Series, it was without a doubt Yuki Yanagita.
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks star spent the first three games of the series showing off his ability at the plate for Japan’s national team. He put a charge into Japanese fans at Tokyo Dome as he helped lead Samurai Japan to wins over the MLB All-Stars in Games 1 and 2.
The visiting major leaguers also took notice.
“Maybe in two games we’ve seen enough to know that he’s got plenty of talent to go over to the U.S.,” Los Angeles Dodgers star Kike Hernandez said Sunday before Game 3. “To not just be a big leaguer, but he’s got the potential to be an impact player in the big leagues, possibly an All-Star.”
Yanagita, 30, stepped to the plate with Japan trailing 6-5 with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 1. With Sosuke Genda standing on first, Yanagita connected on a pitch from San Diego Padres closer Kirby Yates and hit a ball off the backscreen in center to give Japan a sayonara victory.
He then drove in a run in his first at-bat in Game 2 and hit another two-run homer in his second trip to the plate in that contest. He would finish 4-for-4 with four RBIs.
“I like him,” said Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who is serving as the skipper for the MLB team. “He’s got a good swing. Obviously the home run last night to center and today to left-center. He looks like he has an idea of what he wants to do.
“Anytime you get a guy that’s willing to hit the ball in the middle of the field and the other way, then you know that guy has got a chance to be dangerous.”
Yanagita was 1-for-4, thanks in large part to a pair of good plays in left by Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, in Game 3. The MLB team won 7-3 behind a three-run homer by Yadier Molina and a solo shot from J.T. Realmuto.
“He’s a very relaxed hitter,” said Kansas City Royals pitcher Scott Barlow, who got the start for the MLB team on Sunday.
“He’s got a really good approach. I think the biggest thing is trying to get that first strike and then try to keep him off balance as much as you can.
“He’s just so well-balanced that he’s just really good with getting his hits and being able to do damage when there are runners on base.”
Yanagita is 6-for-11 at the plate with two homers and six RBIs in the series.
“He’s shown an ability to drive the ball,” Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar said.
Yanagita completed his eighth NPB season this year, hitting .352 with 36 homers and 102 RBIs. The Hiroshima native also stole 21 bases. He finished first in NPB in batting average and was second with a 1.092 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“The guy is a special talent,” Hernandez said. “Those numbers don’t lie. If he wants to come to the majors, he’s more than ready.”
Yanagita is a career .320 hitter with 150 home runs, 502 RBIs and 139 stolen bases. In 2015, he hit .363 with 34 homers and swiped 32 bases, becoming one of only 10 players in NPB history to record a Triple 3 season, which consists of a batting average of .300 or above and at least 30 homers and 30 stolen bases.
Yanagita has shown MLB-caliber talent, but it might be a few years before fans see him make the jump — and he’s expressed interest.
Yanagita should meet the requirements for international free agency sometime next season, but just finished the first year of a three-year deal with the Hawks, who are adverse to using the posting system.
Contract issues aside, Hernandez feels Yanagita is ready now.
“He’s one of those guys that can definitely come over to the U.S. and get used to that game and be a really good baseball player,” Hernandez said.