A Contact Wizard Is Here to Help the Red Sox and Their Outfield

© Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Gather ‘round the fireplace, dear FanGraphs readers, because today I want to tell you a story. Ye be warned: It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s probably more appropriate for Halloween night. But a little bit of spookiness never hurt the Christmas spirit — just ask Tim Burton. Here is the outfield depth chart for the Red Sox before they signed Masataka Yoshida:

Scary, huh? Enrique Hernández and Alex Verdugo are good — it’s the individuals behind them that create the horror. Jarren Duran here is like butter scraped over too much bread (which, from the butter’s perspective, has to be a pretty gruesome experience). Then there’s Hoy Park and Wilyer Abreu, who shouldn’t be getting big slices of the outfield pie on a supposedly contending team. Rob Refsnyder did put up a 146 wRC+ out of nowhere this season (in 57 games), but, c’mon. Yoshida’s arrival doesn’t alleviate the Red Sox’s shallow depth. But he is something they desperately needed: a fixture in left field.

The deal, as reported by Jeff Passan, is for five years and $90 million, with a posting fee of $15.4 million bringing the total to $105.4 million. Since the posting fee is a lump sum excluded from payroll calculations, the AAV of Yoshida’s contract is $18 million. It’s a million more than Seiya Suzuki’s contract just a year prior, and a comparison between the two outfielders is unavoidable.

In most aspects, Suzuki comes out on top. Looking at their NPB resumes, Suzuki’s career high in ISO is .322; for Yoshida, it’s .232. Suzuki has multiple seasons of double-digit stolen bases; Yoshida has zero. Suzuki is a competent corner outfielder; Yoshida has largely been relegated to left field. Suzuki’s big-league debut came in his age-27 season, whereas Yoshida will already be 29 when he first dons a Red Sox uniform. And as Kiley McDaniel documented for ESPN, scouts’ and executives’ evaluations of the deal aren’t very flattering, to say the least. It’s not that Yoshida is a bad player, but the Red Sox blew every projected offer out of the water, even if one accounts for just how bonkers the free agent market has been.

But the goal here isn’t to save money, nor is it to beat another Japanese outfielder who signed last year in terms of contract value. The Red Sox had a gaping hole in left, and their zeal netted them a perfect fit. So let’s talk about what Yoshida brings to the table. Depending on which baseball database you consult – Delta Graphs or NPB Stats – Yoshida had either the second- or third-highest WAR among all NPB position players. The slashline behind it is beautiful: .335/.447/.561, a culmination of 508 masterful plate appearances. As you might have guessed based on those numbers, his strength lies in a tremendous feel for contact and a zen-like approach at the plate. In 2022, Yoshida had the second-lowest strikeout rate among qualified NPB batters. He also had the second-highest walk rate among them. “Never whiffin’, always walkin’” – that’s Yoshida’s motto.

It’s no wonder then that former teammate Adam Jones dubbed Yoshida a “Japanese Juan Soto.” Plate discipline transcends borders, and a player who seldom chased outside the zone in Japan will likely do the same in the States. Plus, Yoshida’s bat-to-ball skills should be good enough to mitigate the inevitable uptick in swings and misses. The successes of Yoshi Tsutsugo and Shogo Akiyama were contingent on quick adjustments to the majors, but Yoshida is a complete hitter as is. In other words, the chances of him totally flopping seem miniscule.

That said, his ceiling will be contingent on his results on balls put in play – and that’s significantly harder to project. Right off the bat, there’s no publicly available batted ball data for Japanese pro ball other than rudimentary fly ball or line drive rates. The absence of exit velocity makes it difficult to determine whether Yoshida’s hits came via his bat speed, or a knack for finding holes in the infield. Not that the latter isn’t valuable, but it’s a less reliable option for two reasons: Defense is better optimized in the majors, and Yoshida will naturally have a harder time making contact. Ichiro is so ingrained in baseball culture, we sometimes forget he’s the exception, not the rule.

Also, until Yoshida begins playing for the Red Sox, there will be things we simply won’t know. The biggest concern about players from Asian leagues is whether they can handle high velocity, which is prevalent throughout the majors. To give you an example, Jung Ho Kang and Ha-Seong Kim had similar KBO careers before joining the Pirates and Padres, respectively. Both were one of the top offensive shortstops in Korea, and both were asked the same question: “Can he hit a proper fastball?” Kang, in his rookie season, recorded a .509 wOBAcon against fastballs 95 mph or above. Kim excelled as well, putting up a .422 wOBAcon. In fact, his disappointing debut stemmed from an inability to square up non-fastballs. You can (and should) expect NPB and KBO hitters to experience a decline in their numbers. But expecting them to have issues with specific pitch types is not only misleading, but often entirely inaccurate.

Whether Yoshida will crush fastballs or whiff through them is anyone’s guess. One last thing I’ll add about his offensive potential is that he accumulated gaudy numbers in a pitcher-friendly environment. Yoshida played for the Orix Buffaloes, whose home park has the second-lowest run scoring factor and the fourth-lowest home run factor, per the five-year regressions from NPB Stats. The Buffaloes belonged to the Pacific League, which has a higher level of pitching talent than its counterpart, the Central League. Yoshida was a good hitter in spite of where he played, not because of it.

Maybe that’s part of why ZiPS’ outlook on Yoshida is rosy. Here’s what the projection system sees him averaging for the next five years:

ZiPS Projections – Masataka Yoshida
2023 .305 .372 .489 505 70 154 29 2 20 76 51 62 3 131 0 2.8
2024 .298 .367 .474 496 68 148 28 1 19 73 51 61 3 125 0 2.4
2025 .292 .361 .456 480 64 140 26 1 17 68 49 59 3 119 0 1.9
2026 .288 .359 .452 458 60 132 25 1 16 63 47 57 2 118 -1 1.7
2027 .283 .351 .439 428 54 121 23 1 14 56 43 54 2 112 -1 1.3

And here are the percentile projections for 2023:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles Masataka Yoshida
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 40 31 .357 .430 .595 174 5.8
90% 38 29 .344 .410 .571 160 4.7
80% 35 25 .332 .397 .537 148 3.9
70% 32 23 .322 .388 .516 141 3.5
60% 30 22 .313 .379 .500 135 3.1
50% 29 20 .305 .372 .489 131 2.8
40% 27 19 .298 .362 .476 125 2.4
30% 26 17 .288 .354 .463 120 2.0
20% 24 16 .277 .343 .447 111 1.4
10% 22 13 .261 .327 .423 101 0.7
5% 20 12 .252 .318 .398 95 0.2

From ZiPS’ point of view, the difference between Suzuki and Yoshida is minimal. Initially, it saw Suzuki putting up 11 WAR across five years, a total that isn’t far off from the 10.1 WAR assigned to Yoshida. A sharper decline shows up in Yoshida’s projection, though, reflecting his elder status. ZiPS is also surprisingly optimistic about Yoshida’s glove, which I didn’t anticipate – his defensive shortcomings are what made many skeptical of the left fielder, but even a neutral amount of defensive runs saved would be a boon to the Red Sox.

What’s really interesting are those percentile projections. Yoshida’s 95th percentile 2023 season is ridiculous. A .357 batting average? Thirty-one home runs? It’s a season that would be enshrined in baseball lore. But that lofty high comes with a miserable low: In the worst-case scenario, ZiPS sees Yoshida slashing .252/.318/.398. If you thought the variance is higher than usual, you’d be right. As we explored earlier, there’s so much to consider and so much we don’t know when it comes to translating numbers from foreign leagues. The variety of outcomes generated by ZiPS is reflective of that hassle. A predictable set of outcomes (like flipping a coin) produces a narrow distribution; an unpredictable set of outcomes (like Yoshida’s MLB career) produces a wide distribution, ranging from a 95 OPS+ to a 174 OPS+.

Even so, the uncertainty doesn’t change who Yoshida is. Based on everything available on him, he looks like the next Andrew Benintendi: a contact-oriented hitter with doubles power, an excellent feel for the strike zone, and acceptable defense in left field. On a purely dollars-per-WAR basis, $105 million isn’t a bargain; a total of around $90 million, including the posting fee, would have been more appropriate. But look, $15 million isn’t going to run the Red Sox into the ground, nor should it prevent them from making upgrades. On the more important construct-the-best-roster-possible basis, Boston’s decision to sign Yoshida is justified. The risk involved in signing a player from a foreign league doesn’t change the fact that the Red Sox have a dilapidated outfield. Rebuilding it is now an easier task with Yoshida secured in left. When one player can provide that kind of impact, you bring him onto your team.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

Benintendi (the 2023 version) is a decent enough comp, and maybe he is also in line for this type of contract. If the Red Sox brass truly believes they can contend with this current group, it’s not a bad pickup for this season. But if they have to rebuild, this might not the easiest contract to offload.

1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Rebuilding reams don’t HAVE TO run bargain basement payrolls. It just doesn’t make a lot of financial sense to spend money on a team that isn’t going to win. The BoSox bring in plenty of revenue, however, and if they carry a couple of heavy contracts through a rebuilding phase it isn’t going to prevent their ability to spend more when it’s time to contend again.