However, Japan is going to without easily the best player in the world who is currently not in Major League Baseball, being 22-year-old ace Shohei Otani, who is nursing a right ankle injury sustained in game four of the Japan series. For those not familiar with Otani, he is the Nippon Professional Baseball league’s best pitcher with a 1.86 ERA and a fastball that has touched triple digits, who also hit .322 with 22 home runs in 2016. With no Otani, who was easily the most exciting player in the WBC, baseball fans might be slightly disappointed, but Japan’s roster is still plenty loaded with talented NPB players to make up for the loss of their countries best player.
The role of staff ace will now belong to 27-year-old right-handed pitcher Tomoyaki Sugano from the Yomiuri Giants, who has an arsenal of seven-different pitches to choose from, including a forkball. Sugano should be able to fill-in for Otani more than admirably, with a career 2.34 ERA and a 7.6 K/9, the righty starter has what it takes to be considered an ace in this tournament.1
Of course, at the plate, the Japanese have slugging second baseman Tetstuto Yamada from the Yakult Swallows, who is the only player in NPB history to achieve the incredibly elusive “Triple Three” – hit over .300 with at least 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases. Yamada, who has hit 38 or more home runs in the last two seasons, is the hitter that Otani fears most, according to Jon Morosi of MLB Network.
The Japanese squad will also include Houston Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki, who is the lone major-league player on the roster. Aoki has bounced around the majors the past few seasons but has always maintained a high on-base percentage with a career .353 OBP. His excellent on-base skills should hopefully translate to runs for the Japanese, so long as Yamada is hitting behind him.
The slick-fielding infielder from the Hiroshima Carp, Ryosuke Kikuchi, has the potential to make some serious noise in the WBC for Japan, who turned 102 double-plays in 2016. And while Kikuchi has made a name for himself with his glove he showed he has underrated pop in bat slashing .315/.358/.432 with a career-high 13 home runs and 92 runs scored last season.
One of the main concerns for Japan is their pitching, as even with Sugano as their ace, their pitching was crushed during the four exhibition games, surrendering 29 runs to Mexico and the Netherlands in November. One name who Japan really needs to help solidify their rotation is Shintaro Fujinami, who had a rough go at it for his standards with a 3.25 ERA and 176 strikeouts in 2016. If Fujinami can revert back to his 2015 version of himself, where he posted a 2.40 ERA with 221 strikeouts, Japan could be far more dangerous than originally anticipated.
Pitchers: Ryo Akiyoshi, Shintaro Fujinami, Ayumu Ishikawa, Kazuhisa Makita, Hirotoshi Masui, Yuki Matsui, Naoki Myanishi, Takahiro Norimoto, Toshiya Okada, Kodai Senga, Tomoyuki Sugano, Shota Takeda
Catchers: Seiji Kobayashi, Shota Ohno, Motohiro Shima
Infielders: Ryosuke Kikuchi, Nobuhiro Matsuda, Sho Nakata, Hayato Sakamota, Kosuke Tanaka, Tetsuto Yamada
Outfielders: Shogo Akiyama, Norichika Aoki, Ryosuke Hirata, Seiya Suzuki, Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, Seiichi Uchikawa
It’s championship or bust for Japan as the team looks to win its’ third title in its last four tries, but they’ll have to navigate their way through Pool B to get there. Pool B includes Australia, China, and Cuba with Japan, and while Cuba is considered one of the better teams in the world, the Japanese should find themselves at the top of their pool. It also doesn’t hurt that Tokyo will be hosting Pool B and E, which should give Japan a home field advantage through the first two rounds of the tournament, should the Japanese advance.
Japan’s calling-card the past three WBC’s has been their pitching, but with no Otani, the offense might have to carry the load for its country. Luckily, Japan has six players who smacked at least 23 home runs last season in NPB in Tsutsugo (44), Yamada (38), Suzuki (29), Matsuda (27), Nakata (25), and Sakamoto (23). If their offense can out-swing countries like Cuba, Dominican Republic, and the USA, and their pitching gets some solid outings from other pitchers besides Sugano, there’s no reason not to think Japan can take home another World Baseball Classic title.