Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

BayStars slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo's move to No. 2 in order could help spark change

by Jason Coskrey

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is not your typical No. 2 batter. Or is he? The answer probably depends on the brand of baseball you prefer.

The BayStars slugger isn’t a speedster nor much of a bunter. He’s a destructive force at the plate with 193 career home runs — at least 20 every season since 2014 and 17 so far this year. Tsutsugo, a maestro in the cleanup spot, isn’t one who moves runners over, he’s the one who drives them in.

He’s the antithesis of an archetypal NPB No. 2 hitter. So there were a few arched eyebrows last week, when Yokohama manager Alex Ramirez decided to stick Tsutsugo in the No. 2 spot for the first time in his career.

We’re now seven games into this new era, and Tsutsugo is 11-for-23 as the No. 2 batter.

“He has been doing a great job lately, getting on base and stuff like that,” Ramirez said. “His determination right now is 100 percent. He’s just, ‘throw me something in the strike zone and I’m gonna hit it hard.’ He’s the key right now. He’s the man right now.”

If Tsutsugo ends up thriving, which is not guaranteed after seven games, as the Yomiuri Giants’ Hayato Sakamoto and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Taishi Ota have, perhaps more NPB teams will take another look at the second spot in the order.

MLB teams have begun to reevaluate it in recent years. Mike Trout bats second for the Angels, Christian Yelich does it for the Brewers and Kris Bryant for the Cubs. It’s no longer only for light-hitting, speedy players.

The BayStars’ Neftali Soto had 221 plate appearances at the No. 2 spot last season (and hit .303 with 20 homers), according to Deltagraphs, and Toshiro Miyazaki had 104. So it isn’t exactly a new concept for Ramirez to use a nontraditional No. 2.

Still, the two-hole in NPB lineups has often been the bastion of banjo hitters, players whose main weapon is speed and guys who play good defense and can get down a bunt. It wasn’t so long ago that if the No. 1 hitter got on base, from the top of the first to the bottom of the ninth, you could almost guarantee the No. 2 man was going to be squaring up to bunt him over.

You can’t really think that way with Tsutsugo, Sakamoto or Ota. They’re all complete offensive threats looking to do more than just get on base.

Sakamoto is hitting .320 with 23 homers in the second spot for the Giants, per Deltagraphs, with both totals leading all NPB hitters from that spot. The only other players with double-digit homers while hitting second are Ota with 14 and the Chiba Lotte Marines’ Daichi Suzuki, who has 10. Ota is hitting .296 when hitting second for Nippon Ham, while Suzuki is batting .315 there.

As far as the BayStars are concerned, the move makes sense. Tsutsugo is the team’s best player and if you can put the bat in his hands more often, you do it. With Soto and Jose Lopez, with 26 and 22 homers respectively, coming up after him, Tsutsugo could really be the key toward further revving up the engines in Yokohama.

Besides, Soto is hitting just .219 with a .278 on-base percentage and seven homers when batting second this year. Tsutsugo is a definite upgrade anyway.

If he succeeds, and Sakamoto and others continue to do well, perhaps more managers will stop looking at the spot as just a place for a designated sacrifice bunter and get a bit more creative.