Japanese starting pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano could be the unexpected savior to one MLB team’s starting rotation in 2021.
The Yomiuri Giants star is set to come to Major League Baseball after being posted by his NPB club. He joins an offseason market light on impact starters beyond Trevor Bauer, whose own contract quirks might make him unappealing to some teams. Sugano, 31, offers a proven alternative to bolster a contender’s rotation for the next few years.
Here’s what you need to know about Sugano, Japan’s most consistent pitcher since Masahiro Tanaka departed for the Yankees.
1. Right-hander with MLB stuff
Sugano, a 6-1 right-hander, features a slider as his best pitch, according to Jim Allen’s blog focused on Japanese baseball.
“The 31-year-old’s calling card is plus command, poise and a plus slider to go with an average to above-average fastball and split, and the consensus among scouts is that he will slot somewhere in between a No. 2 and 4, but would be a plus to any major-league team’s rotation,” Allen wrote.
Sugano dealt with back and hip discomfort in 2019 that lowered his velocity, but his fastball was back up to nearly 93 miles per hour in 2020, just shy of the major league average. That’s plenty to complement a hard, tight slider like Sugano’s.
2. Two-time winner of Japanese Cy Young-equivalent
Sugano has twice won the Sawamura Award, which is Japan’s equivalent to MLB’s Cy Young Award.
He won the Sawamura Award in back-to-back seasons, in 2017 and 2018. It was in 2018 when Sugano showed his true league dominance when he won the pitching triple crown, leading the league in strikeouts, ERA and wins. He finished 2018 with a 15-8 record, a 2.14 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 202.0 innings.
3. He’s thrown a postseason no-hitter
Sugano capped off his pitching triple crown in 2018 with a no-hitter during the postseason. In the first round of the postseason, Sugano facued off with the Yakult Swallows and retired the first 20 hitters he faced.
Hitter 21 walked after an eight-pitch at bat, but that was the only base-runner Sugano allowed. He finished with seven strikeouts in the no-no.
“It just feels so great,” Sugano told The Japan Times afterward. “I don’t know exactly what to say, but I really feel a sense of accomplishment.”
4. Tomoyuki Sugano faced the United States in the WBC
Sugano pitched for Japan against the United States in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. He lasted six innings in a matchup at Dodger Stadium, allowing a lone run.
“He’s a big league pitcher,” U.S. manager Jim Leyland told MLB.com afterward. “He’s good. I mean, I was really impressed with him. I can’t tell you, for me, tonight, how impressed I was with their pitcher. I mean, I thought he was really good. Located on the ball on the outside corners, fastball. Threw 3-0 sliders. That’s pretty impressive.”
5. Statistical comparisons to Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka make some sense
Sugano is a different pitcher than either Darvish or Tanaka. Darvish came to MLB with more velocity and a deep pitch arsenal, while Tanaka has a heavier reliance on his splitter. But their numbers in NPB suggest that Sugano could have success similar to these two prior high-profile Japanese signings.
In NPB, Darvish had a 25.1 K% (struck out about a quarter of the hitters he faced). Tanaka’s rate was 23.3%, while Sugano’s was 22.4% (and better than Kenta Maeda’s 20.4%). Sugano did that while walking a smaller percentage of hitters than either Darvish or Tanaka, and he posted an ERA nearly identical to Tanaka despite Sugano’s injury-plagued 2019 that hurt his overall numbers.
Darvish has a 3.47 ERA in his MLB career, while Tanaka’s mark is 3.74. The numbers suggest that Sugano, too, may put up a sub-4.00 ERA as an MLB pitcher.