MASATAKA YOSHIDA DOES NOT want to be the American League Rookie of the Year, and his reasoning is simple: He doesn’t view himself as a rookie.
The Boston Red Sox outfielder spent the first seven years of his professional baseball career in Japan, where he was a Japan Series champion and a four-time NPB All-Star, plus the winner of two Pacific League batting titles and five Pacific League Best Nine Awards. All that, plus his recent World Baseball Classic title, make him feel overqualified for MLB rookie honors, even if he’s a leading contender in Las Vegas.
“I am a little bit older,” Yoshida, 29, said through interpreter Kei Wakabayashi.
When Yoshida signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Red Sox this past offseason, many around baseball questioned the value of the contract, with one executive telling ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel that Yoshida was worth less than half of what Boston paid. There was skepticism Yoshida could adjust to MLB velocity, that the slugger would be reduced to a slap hitter in America, despite this year’s Japanese World Baseball Classic team throwing more 100 mph-plus pitches than any other team in the tournament.
While Japanese pitchers — such as Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka — have a track record of success transitioning to the major leagues, Japanese hitters do not. While Ohtani, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui stand out as exceptions, the list of NPB hitters who failed to make an impact — from Kosuke Fukudome to Kaz Matsui to Yoshi Tsutsugo — outnumber the success stories.
The Red Sox offered him one of the biggest contracts of chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s four-year tenure anyway, confident Yoshida could adjust to MLB pitching.
“It was part of our due diligence process, trying to poke as many holes in his offensive game as we could,” Bloom said. “The conversation about velocity was more narrative than reality.”
So far, they’ve been proved right. After Yoshida struggled through the season’s first two weeks, he quickly adjusted to become one of the team’s most consistent hitters. Through 61 games, Yoshida is hitting .309/.383/.479 with seven homers, 17 doubles and 36 RBIs.
Of the 19 Japanese hitters to make the transition to the majors, only six have posted a career OPS above league average. Yoshida’s 131 OPS+, albeit in a small sample, is the second highest ever, trailing only Ohtani.
And the criticism that vice president of scouting development and integration Gus Quattlebaum — who scouted Yoshida in Japan — expected has largely died down.
“We knew this would not be conventional and there would be backlash,” Quattlebaum said. “He was always one of our top targets in our mind.”
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“HARPER-SAN! Harper-san! Harper-san!”
When longtime major league outfielder Adam Jones arrived in Japan to play for the Orix Buffaloes in 2020, it didn’t take long for him to find out which one of his teammates was being hailed by a familiar baseball surname. It was Yoshida, a Bryce Harper superfan who named his French bulldog after the Philadelphia Phillies slugger and included the initials “BH” in his Instagram username. And as soon as Jones started hitting in the same batting practice group as Yoshida, he started to envision a bright future for him someday in the United States.
“I just knew this guy was going to the major leagues,” said Jones, who now hosts a podcast for The Baltimore Banner and lives with his family in Barcelona, Spain. “You can just tell by his presence, his attitude, his approach. You could tell by how many questions he asked every time a major league game was on.”
Those questions: What did the ball look like coming out of CC Sabathia’s hand? How did it feel to face Clayton Kershaw? What was it like to experience major league velocity from guys like Max Scherzer? Jones explained to Yoshida how the culture of Major League Baseball differed from the NPB, how many pitchers attacked the zone versus trying to locate on its periphery. While walking past the batting cages, Jones would often see Yoshida facing high-velocity pitches, as he would in the majors. Yoshida would watch videos of Jones earlier in his career and come back with questions about specific at-bats.
“Everyone wants to watch Mike Trout, but he was watching every hitter, every pitcher,” Jones said.
All of that work meant Yoshida was prepared when the Red Sox scouts arrived. When Quattlebaum made his first trip to Japan to see Yoshida in person in September 2021, he brought with him the team’s manager of baseball analytics, Dan Meyer. Meyer was tasked with putting together a statistics model to project Yoshida’s performance in MLB. While watching Yoshida play for the Buffaloes, the speed of the fastballs impressed Meyer.
“It was way more than he was expecting,” Quattlebaum said.
Meyer wasn’t the only one to notice this. Dating to 2019, the Red Sox had been scouting Yoshida — mostly through video because of COVID pandemic travel restrictions. Several members of the front office had found the conventional wisdom that the NPB couldn’t stack up to MLB’s velocity to be flawed.
They saw that the gap between Japanese and MLB velocity is shrinking. In 2014, the average NPB fastball sat around 88 mph, while MLB clocked in at a tick under 92. In 2022, according to FanGraphs, the average NPB fastball was 90.8 mph, while MLB’s was 93.6. In the World Baseball Classic, Team Japan averaged the third-highest velocity (94.9 mph) of any staff, behind only Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
Jones acknowledges a difference between facing pitchers in Japan versus the United States — particularly against left-handers, who throw harder in MLB. But, Jones says, the evolution of pitching in Japan — plus modern technology — has hitters better prepared.
“You can work on velocity no matter where you are and you don’t have to necessarily face it all the time from a pitcher,” Jones said. “Japanese pitchers are throwing harder as a group and as a league. With technology and with video, you can simulate all of it.”
While there’s a wider range of pitching talent in Japan, the variance in pitching styles also can help a team better scout hitters. Red Sox hitting coach Peter Fatse spent parts of the past three years watching tape of Yoshida, and he could tell the lefty had a fundamentally sound swing, regardless of who he was facing. Yoshida’s swing looked the same against a pitcher who maxed out in the high 80s or threw fireballs that exceeded 100 mph.
“[Yoshida] covered such a wide range and spectrum of pitchers,” Fatse said. “Whether it was a breaking ball, a splitter, his mechanics never really broke down. It told me he didn’t have to cheat to create space and cut the distance between the bat and the ball. It made my eyes light up.”
When Yoshida first arrived at the Red Sox’s spring training camp in February, Boston set him up with a Traject pitching machine, which replicates the exact speed, spin and trajectory of any pitcher in the majors. While the coaching staff wanted to ease Yoshida into higher velocity pitching by starting at 88 mph, the outfielder immediately wanted to crank things up.
And so the coaching staff turned the settings to replicate Ohtani.
“It was immediately a laser to left, laser up the middle,” Quattlebaum said. “That was why we signed him.”
WHEN YOSHIDA GOT to spring training, he immediately opened the eyes of his teammates, but not just because of his bat.
“My honest first impression was that he was smaller than I thought he was,” said Red Sox designated hitter Justin Turner.
While Yoshida is listed at 5-foot-8, his height more closely skews toward 5-6, with his cleats adding an inch. His stature only added excitement once he stepped into the batter’s box, driving balls to all fields during batting practice.
Even before his first MLB at-bat, Yoshida had begun to silence critics. During the World Baseball Classic, he displayed his keen sense of the strike zone and his high-octane bat, knocking in 13 runs — a WBC tournament record — including a game-tying three-run homer in the seventh inning of the semifinal round against Mexico, setting Japan up for its championship matchup against the United States.
“You see him go play in the World Baseball Classic and you’re like, man this guy just hits,” Turner said. “The ball jumps off his bat, hits the ball hard, all parts of the field. He hits fastballs, splits, curveballs, doesn’t matter. It’s just consistency. Every at-bat is a good at-bat.”
While Yoshida hit just .167/.310/.250 with one homer through his first 13 MLB games, he’s tallied a .346/.404/.537 batting line in the 48 games since. And his transition has extended beyond adjusting to MLB velocity. While grabbing dinner with Cora in May, Yoshida and the skipper broke down the differences in the styles of baseball, everything from the rising velocity in the NPB — where seeing 99 mph is no longer an anomaly — to the use of the splitters instead of changeups. But one observation from Yoshida surprised Cora.
“The tempo of the pitchers there, there’s more slide steps and the windups are quicker, so you have to be on time there,” Cora said. “Here, you have more time to gather, to see it and go. I found that very intriguing. I had never thought about it. He has way more time to get back, land and then go.”
The Red Sox have also made a consistent effort to make Yoshida feel welcome. With the Buffaloes, Yoshida earned the nickname “Macho Man” after he chose the Village People song as his walk-up. After the team made a ballpark video of him curling dumbbells set to the tune, the moniker stuck — and led to a signature home run celebration, lifting inflatable dumbbells When manager Alex Cora learned of the celebration, he ordered a set of inflatable dumbbells to Boston featuring the team’s logo, Yoshida’s name and his number.
Despite that, Yoshida admits the transition off the field is weighing on him. His wife, Yurika, and their two daughters — a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old — have not yet visited him in the United States, and the language barrier continues to be a struggle. He’s working on improving through English classes and spending time with his teammates. He’s still searching for a favorite Japanese restaurant in Boston, but spends a lot of time with Wakabayashi trying out places around the city. There are those with a similar experience willing to help, too. Daisuke Matsuzaka — who came from Japan to pitch eight years in the majors, most of them with the Red Sox, and still lives in the Boston area — has reached out.
“I haven’t gotten any specific advice yet,” Yoshida said. “He told me whatever you want to ask, let me know.”
He has already accomplished some dreams. Before the Red Sox faced off against the Phillies in May, Yoshida met Harper, who gave him a signed game-used bat from last year’s National League Championship Series with the inscription, “To Masataka, MVP2X, GU: NLCS bat” in addition to another painted bat featuring a caricature of Harper’s face and a pair of signed green cleats.
“Obviously, that’s going to be my treasure,” Yoshida said at the time about his Harper memorabilia.
And while Yoshida has made it through the first 2½ months as a Rookie of the Year favorite, Jones has no doubt he will be a big factor in Boston’s lineup for years to come. Jones has seen the hours Yoshida spends working on hitting high velocity, asking about facing MLB pitchers, all building toward this exact opportunity.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Jones said. “He’s the Japanese Juan Soto, making every adjustment that he needs. All of it is possible because he wants to be that good — and he is that good.”