I’ve spent the past 10 days in Busan covering the WBSC U-18 World Cup. You can check out some of my write-ups here, here and here. I was going to write up on several prospects in this post, but I felt like Japanese right-handed pitcher Yasunobu Okugawa, who struck out 18 Canadian hitters in seven innings in his September 5 start, warranted his own article.
Yasunobu Okugawa (Japan), RHP
If I had to choose the best prospect of the tournament, there’s no doubt it would be Okugawa. The 18-year-old righty made headlines earlier this season by leading his high school to the Koshien finals and hitting 95.7 mph. Along with Roki Sasaki, Okugawa was one of the players most sought after by major league scouts on the Japan team. He pitched against Canada on the first day of the Super Rounds on September 5, and he delivered on the hype, and then some.
Okugawa has long legs and a slightly skinny frame that also has an athletic look. He is not maxed out yet, but I don’t see him adding too much to his frame. He has a high, three-quarter arm slot and does an excellent job repeating the same arm action on different pitches. His arm speed is basically identical on his fastballs and offspeed pitches. He has a long stride and keeps his body in line into landing. From leg kick to foot strike, Okugawa does not have much wasted movement – he lines his body well directly to the home plate. Unlike many young pitchers at the tournament, Okugawa was consistent in finding his release point and was not prone to opening his shoulders too early. There’s a bit of effort to his release, but it’s not much of a concern for me. He does not have much of a leg kick when pitching out of the stretch, but the rest of the delivery looked consistent with his usual windup.
Okugawa’s fastball sat 90-91 mph throughout his outing, touching 93 mph. He is capable of throwing harder, but he saved his bullets to go deep into the outing. His fastball has excellent late life that made it look faster than the velocity indicated. When he threw his fastball up the zone, hitters kept whiffing. When he threw it low, he was consistently getting called strikes. Some of his heaters had natural tail to them, while some others had some cut. The late life also made it hard for hitters to square it up. His velocity did not fluctuate much throughout the outing, as he sat in the 90-91 mph range well into his last inning. His best pitch, however, was his slider, which sat 77-79 mph. It comes out of his hand with basically the same arm action as his fastball and features a very tight spin and good 12-6 depth. Okugawa showed an ability to locate it well to get called strikes, or drop it below the zone for whiffs.
As for other pitches, Okugawa threw a solid slow curveball at around 71-73 mph. It has a nice 12-6 tilt with good depth. Just like his slider, it starts from a same plane as his fastball, making it hard for hitters to recognize. He also flashed a splitter around 78-79 mph – usually below the zone – to give hitters a different look. It was a show-me offering and didn’t have a noticeable depth. It wasn’t featured as much of an out pitch against Canada, but with his fastball, slider, and curve all working, it didn’t need to be.
What makes Okugawa a dangerous pitcher is his command. Throughout the game, he was able to locate in different quadrants of the strike zone and keep hitters off-balance. The only damage Canada managed was on a solo home run by first baseman Owen Diodati on a fastball that Okugawa missed. It looked like he intended to locate it inside, but the fastball leaked to middle-high part of the plate. There were a few misses here and there throughout the game, especially in the late innings when he had thrown over 90 pitches, but overall, he was in control of the zone. Against right-handed hitters, he masterfully located on the low-outside corner with his fastball and buried his slider below it.
It is rare to find a pitcher this young with such command and stuff. Okugawa will likely enter the NPB Draft and I can see him becoming an established starter right away there. Does he have MLB potential? Absolutely. I’m excited to see how well he can pitch versus major league competition by the time he’s able to come over. That timing could be a bit of a wild card. There are NPB teams that are more lenient in letting their players be posted to the majors, and there are others, like the Yomiuri Giants, who are more conservative. If Okugawa develops without much injury concerns, he has the potential to be an exciting major league pitcher in his prime.