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A Dispatch From the WBSC U-18 World Cup: RHP Yasunobu Okugawa

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. Read the rest of this entry »

A Dispatch From Day Five of the WBSC U-18 World Cup

Here are a few more prospects I saw at the WBSC U-18 World Cup taking place in Busan, South Korea. You can check out my previous dispatches here and here.

Mick Abel (United States), RHP

If you’ve followed 2020 prospects for a while, you’ve probably have heard of Mick Abel, a right handed pitcher out of Jesuit High School in Oregon. The righty is currently ranked fourth on THE BOARD and is one of the consensus top pitchers for next year’s draft. In their report, Kiley and Eric noted that Abel is an “excellent high school projection arm” and by looking at him, it was an apt label. Abel currently has a fairly slim frame but long limbs. When he adds some weight, I can see him having an A.J. Burnett-esque build. Abel pitched on September 3 against Spain during the group stage play of the U-18 World Cup. His delivery indicated how he’s able to throw into mid-90s. Abel has a relaxed yet up-tempo delivery with a long stride. When his body parts sync correctly, he features an excellent hip/shoulder separation into landing, which unleashes his torso and arm forward furiously, resulting in elite arm speed. Abel also gets over the front leg well during the release, which should help him command-wise in long-term.

Throughout his outing, Abel showed a two-pitch fastball and slider mix. His best stuff showed in the first inning, when he sat 92-94 mph and touched 95. His slider also showed some tight spin with a 10-4 tilt. At the time, both pitches showed flashes of being plus. However, as the outing progressed, Abel became inconsistent in his delivery – particularly, syncing his body parts and finding the release point – and his fastball velocity dipped to 90-92 mph range. His slider, while garnering a few whiffs here and there, did not flash the sharpness it had in the first inning and became loopier. Read the rest of this entry »

A Dispatch From Days Three and Four of the WBSC U-18 World Cup

I attended more games here in Busan, South Korea for Days Three and Four of the WBSC U-18 World Cup. These are my thoughts on some of the prospects I saw.

Theo Millas (Canada), RHP

Millas is an LSU commit. Listed at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, he has a very good pitcher’s frame and he looks every inch of an intriguing projectable high school guy. He also recently participated in the 2019 Under Armour All-America game, along with some of the other top high school prospects who will enter the draft next year. Millas has an easy delivery with a fluid arm action. It’s not necessarily the best tempo I’ve seen, but he isn’t overly slow either. I would be interested to see if he’s willing to increase his stride length to take advantage of his height. There’s a little stiffness in his front leg when he lands, but it’s not a huge concern for me. Against Korea on September 1, however, Millas was not his best self. While his fastball was advertised to be in the low-90s, he sat mostly in the 86-88 mph range. The pitch showed some late life, but Korean hitters were able to square it up for hard line drives all over the field. His curveball also seemed loopy, and Korean IF Jang Jae-Young squared it up pretty well for a hard, 2-RBI single. Based on all the accounts I’ve read of Millas, it felt like an off day for the righty, as he allowed six runs without recording an out before exiting the game. Millas looks like an arm who could benefit a lot from few years more worth of development.

Austin Hendrick (United States), OF

Hendrick is already known as one of the top prep draft prospects for 2020. He is currently rated eighth on THE BOARD. As expected, Hendrick flashed some serious tools during practice before the United States’ night match versus Japan. During batting practice, he displayed a smooth yet powerful swing that produced strong line drives all over the field. He has a short stroke and he times it with a little hitch and bat tip during his load. Such traits might be a concern for many hitting coaches, but Hendrick seemed to time it well enough to make it work. His hands were impressively quick, as he showed a plus ability to turn the barrel into the zone. As an outfielder, Hendrick displayed an easily above-average arm, if not plus.

As Eric and Kiley have noted in their report on Hendrick, “Hendrick is old for the class but evokes Cody Bellinger in frame and swing. As you can imagine, with the ultra-athletic swing comes with some swing-and-miss to go with the power.” That swing-and-miss tendency showed during the game. In his first at-bat against Japanese LHP Yuki Hayashi, Hendrick struck out swinging on three offspeed pitches. He seemed to favor driving the ball hard instead of making square contact. Hendrick ended up going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. Despite a poor game performance, his tools displayed in batting practice and his physical talents seem to justify his high draft stock status. It will be interesting to see how his hit tool progresses coming into next year’s draft and how teams may evaluate his ability to handle pro pitching. Read the rest of this entry »

A Dispatch From Day One of the WBSC U-18 World Cup

I am currently in Busan, South Korea for the 2019 WBSC U-18 World Cup, where 12 countries have teams featuring some of their best young talents. Friday, August 30 was Opening Day and, besides an occasional breeze, it was quite sunny and humid. Below are notes on a few of the notable players I saw.

Chen Po-Yu (Taiwan), RHP

The 17-year-old Chen is far from an unknown at this point. According to the international prospect section of THE BOARD, he could be looking at a seven-figure signing bonus in 2020. A major league scout told me that, at this moment, Chen is the most “complete package” among the pitching prospects out of Taiwan. Needless to say, a large group of major league scouts swarmed behind home plate to see Chen pitch against Panama.

Even before his start, Chen’s delivery stood out to me during his bullpen. He has an easy, fast-tempo motion that was direct to home. He finished well towards the home plate, setting himself up for good fielding position in case of a batted ball. He also showed good tempo between his pitches and rarely seemed hesitant to throw any of his pitches.

Chen’s fastball sat at around 89-91 mph throughout the game. He maintained the velocity late in the game when he broke 80-pitch mark. In general, he showed a good feel for commanding the pitch in different parts of the zone. In the second inning, he left some pitches up, which led to some hard contact. When he located his heater well, however, he was able to get called strikes or set up his secondary pitches. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Take a Look at Mike Tauchman’s Breakout

Earlier this month, Jake Mailhot looked at one of the Yankees’ big breakout stories, Gio Urshela. Today, we’ll examine another. If you told many Yankees fans before the season that the majority of Miguel Andújar and Giancarlo Stanton’s playing time would be occupied by Urshela and Mike Tauchman, a lot of them would have thrown in the towel. Of course, that’s when you’d have looked deeper into our crystal ball, and informed them that by August 23, the Yankees would have an 83-43 record with near-certain playoff odds while Urshela and Tauchman have combined for a 5.7 WAR.

It’s no secret that we at FanGraphs like Tauchman; our own Alex Chamberlain has had eyes on the former Rockies outfielder for awhile. Tauchman displayed unique power-contact skills in the high minors similar to those of hitters like Rhys Hoskins and Daniel Vogelbach. But Tauchman is 28 years old, too advanced in age to be considered a bona fide prospect. Prior to 2019, he struggled in his brief major league cameos. Between 2017 and 2018, he hit for a paltry .153/.265/.203 with no home runs in 69 plate appearances. With Colorado grooming younger outfielders like David Dahl and Raimel Tapia for the future, and with Charlie Blackmon solidly entrenched in a starting spot (not to mention Ian Desmond), Tauchman didn’t seem to have a future with the Rockies. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Check in on the KBO’s De-Juiced Baseballs

(Photo: Sung Min Kim/FanGraphs)

Back in April, I wrote about how the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) had de-juiced their baseballs, and how the offensive environment in the league appeared to be reflecting that change. If you remember from the piece, in March, the KBO conducted a test on a batch of new baseballs to test their coefficient of restitution (COR). It was supposedly reduced from a range of .4123-.4374 to .4034-.4234, while the ball size was increased by 1 millimeter and 1 gram. However, the test brought out some interesting results, as they found several defective balls with a COR more in line with the 2018 baseballs mixed in with the new, less-lively ball.

It doesn’t mean that this season has looked like 2018, though. In fact, the changes became clear in a month’s worth of games, but now that it’s mid-August, I thought I’d give you an update with a bigger sample size. I also thought it would be interesting to see how the de-juiced balls interact with Korea’s warm summer weather. The 2019 KBO regular season is about two-thirds of the way through, and league-wide temperatures have risen enough to see if hotter temperatures have caused an uptick in power that might counteract the effects of the new ball.

Here is how the overall league offensive numbers look this year, compared to those of last year:

KBO League Offensive Stats
2018 .286 .352 .450 .802 .164 .349 3.03
2019 .268 .340 .388 .728 .119 .335 1.83
SOURCE: Statiz
2018 stats are for March-August 12, 2018; 2019 stats are as of August 12.

Read the rest of this entry »

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team: Tales from a KBO Cheer Squad

Left to right: Lee Da-Yeon, Bae Soo-Hyun, Jeong Young-Seok, and Yun Yoanna (Photo by Sung Min Kim/FanGraphs)

In an interview with Great Big Story, Kerry Maher, a Youngsan University professor and Lotte Giants superfan, described the difference between Major League Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) fan atmospheres like this: “To me, MLB is like an opera and the Lotte Giants in the Sajik [Stadium] is rock ‘n’ roll.” For those who have experienced sitting in the stands of both leagues’ ballparks, it probably seems like an apt comparison.

If you’ve followed my work, you’re likely aware of the KBO’s cheering culture. As I wrote when I interviewed several foreign-born players currently playing in the KBO, the league’s fan experience can strike those who aren’t from Korea as somewhat unusual compared to the quieter crowds of MLB. For starters, each KBO team has their own cheermaster and cheerleaders. Last week, I went over to the Incheon SK Munhak Stadium to talk to the SK Wyverns’ cheermaster and three of their cheerleaders. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding a New Baseball Home in the KBO, Part 2

This is the second half of a two-part interview with four foreign-born players in the Korea Baseball Organization. Part 1 can be found here.

RHP Josh Lindblom of the Doosan Bears (Sung Min Kim/FanGraphs)

Any Korean food that grew on you?

Josh Lindblom: All of it. I love Korean food. The best soups I’ve had in my life are here in Korea. Maybe my favorite Korean cuisine is Chinese-Korean food: Jjajangmyeon [noodles in black bean sauce], jjajangbap [rice in black bean sauce], tangsuyuk [sweet and sour fried pork] – all that stuff. That was one of the things that new guys worry about but I’m really lucky to be here in Seoul. When I go to my apartment basement, I’ve got McDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, On The Border, Cinnabon, etc. There’s also a Taco Bell in a train stop away. If I start missing home, I just go down and get some Mexican food. I’m really lucky to be where I’m at.

Jamie Romak: I’m a huge barbecue guy. Sogogi [the Korean term for beef] for sure. Every now and then, I’ll order jjamppong [spicy mixed-up noodle soup] to the clubhouse. I like the seafood one. The guys make fun of me for how much kimchi [spicy fermented cabbage side dish] I have during our team dinners. I eat plates of kimchi. The food transition has been seamless. When I’m back home in Canada during the offseason, I seek Korean food. I wish I could have more of it there.

Tyler Wilson: I actually really like all the food. I would say that the LA Galbi [Korean BBQ beef short ribs] is my favorite. I like galbitang [short ribs soup] a lot. I like kimchijjigae [hot kimchi soup]. I don’t know if there’s one food I didn’t like and now that I like. Just in general I think I’m more comfortable knowing what to order and how to go into a Korean restaurant and know what to expect. I’ve always enjoyed it all. When we were in the States, Hyun-Soo and I would always go out do dinner. On road trips, we would go to Korean restaurants and he introduced them to me before I got here.

Chad Bell: Just your normal Korean barbecue stuff, I love it. Pork kimchi soup – pretty good. Most of the soups here, I’ve enjoyed them. Most of them are spicy and I like spicy stuff. Sometimes the coaching staff or players will walk by, see me eating something, they get surprised and ask me, ‘You like that?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s good!’ There’s nothing that I really hate. I’m not really big on naengmyeon [Korean cold noodles in chilled broth]. I’ve only tried it once. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing with it, but I gotta get the thought of it being weird out of my head. That’s something I haven’t gotten into yet. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding a New Baseball Home in the KBO, Part 1

RHP Tyler Wilson of the LG Twins (Sung Min Kim/FanGraphs)

Last week, I sat down with four of the foreign-born players in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) to discuss their experiences playing in Korea.

Right-handed pitcher Josh Lindblom of the Doosan Bears is the true veteran among all the foreign-born players in the KBO. He started his KBO career with the Lotte Giants in 2015, where he played until 2016, before taking a detour to the States to play for the Pirates in 2017; he returned to Lotte in the second half of that year. In 2018, he signed with the Bears and has been the ace of their staff. This season, Lindblom is the league’s top pitcher: he’s 13-1 with a 1.89 ERA and a 3.09 FIP in 119.0 IP with 112 strikeouts and 18 walks. His 5.38 WAR leads the KBO.

Infielder and designated hitter Jamie Romak of the SK Wyverns was acquired during the 2017 season as a replacement for Danny Worth. Since coming over to Korea, Romak has been one of the most prolific home run hitters in the league, belting 94 out of the park while boasting a career .562 slugging percentage. He’s currently tied for first in home runs (20) while hitting a healthy .276/.366/.517, good for a 136.6 wRC+ on the season.

Right-handed pitcher Tyler Wilson is a former Baltimore Oriole who signed with the LG Twins for the 2018 season and settled in nicely as their staff ace. His strong campaign that year (9-4, 3.07 ERA in 170.0 IP with a 6.33 WAR) earned him another contract with the Twins. This season, Wilson is currently fourth in ERA (2.62) and seventh in WAR (2.85) among all pitchers while headlining the LG Twins rotation that has led the team to fourth place in the 10-team league.

Left-handed pitcher Chad Bell of the Hanwha Eagles is new to the KBO this season. Bell was signed along with fellow former Detroit Tiger Warwick Saupold to be the Eagles’ new rotation arms. Through 18 starts in the KBO, Bell is 5-9 with a 4.00 ERA and 78 strikeouts to 43 walks in 108.0 IP.

What were your first impressions after arriving in Korea?

Lindblom: When I first signed here, I didn’t know what to expect. I never had any reason to come to Asia at all. My expectation, to be honest, was kind of low. Just having a western mindset, you think that America is the best and when you get here, you realize that things that are different can be good too. It was good, but in a different way. You can’t really compare Asia to America. It’s like comparing an apple to an airplane.

Romak: My exact first impression was coming across the bridge from the Incheon International Airport into the Songdo area, which is where we live. It was nighttime, all the big buildings were lit up and it was very exciting. It was very cool. And of course, I was looking forward to the opportunity.

Wilson: We play in Seoul so it’s a huge city. I grew up in a small town in Virginia. I’ve lived in Virginia my whole life, so to see a big city like Seoul and get used to living here was an adjustment. There’s a lot of people, obviously. Different language. So just getting used to things I hadn’t seen before and routines I hadn’t partaken in before, like taking the subway every day to work, there were just a lot of different adjustments to the lifestyle.

Bell: The first thing that took over for me, on the baseball side of things, was the fans’ passion for the game. You just don’t see that everywhere. In this season’s first series – versus the Doosan Bears – when you look at Jamsil Stadium, and the place is split right down the middle between Doosan and Hanwha fans, and everybody’s going insane for nine innings. It was unreal. Off the field, the main differences were cultural ones. Food, communication, etc., stuff like that. Some places it’s easier and some places it’s harder. You just have to get used to it. On the baseball field, you’re playing baseball. I have to use a translator to communicate with people, but in the end, it’s the same game but the atmosphere is electric. Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Reliever on the Trade Market

We have arrived at the part of the season where teams start to identify themselves as buyers and sellers. In turn, we can start assessing which players are likely to be traded.

The San Francisco Giants are clearly sellers. Stuck in last place in the NL West, with one of the weakest farm systems in baseball, the Giants need an influx of young talent. Madison Bumgarner will almost certainly be traded, but come the end of the month, he shouldn’t be the only Giants lefty on the move.

Will Smith was once a failed starter for the Royals. The Brewers acquired him in exchange for Nori Aoki prior to the 2014 season, and quickly turned him into a successful reliever. He was traded to the Giants near the deadline in 2016, and after missing the entire 2017 season with Tommy John surgery, he came back as an even better reliever, maintaining his high whiff rates while throwing more strikes. Smith is now one of the top closers in the league, and contenders will be lining up for his services.

Several surface numbers — including his 40.9% strikeout rate and 6.1% walk rate – indicate that the lefty has pitched well this season. But perhaps nothing underscores the point like WPA. Relievers are often thrust into high-leverage situations without much room for error, and in that regard, Smith has starred:

2019 Reliever WPA Ranking
Pitcher WPA
Will Smith 3.10
Josh Hader 2.82
Kirby Yates 2.48
Felipe Vazquez 2.41
Scott Oberg 2.08
John Gant 2.01
Taylor Rogers 1.93
Alex Colome 1.70
Shane Greene 1.50
Sergio Romo 1.46

WPA isn’t designed to predict a player’s future success: It’s just a measure of how they have harmed or enhanced their team’s chances of winning. Still, it’s useful in evaluating relievers, as the context in which they are deployed shapes our understanding of their performance. By this measure, Smith has clearly thrived.

Quietly, Smith has been a pretty solid reliever for a few years now. In 2018, he posted career-low walk rate (7.1%) while striking out well over a hitter per inning. Back in the offseason, Jeff Sullivan examined Smith’s brilliance, concluding that his strong numbers and San Francisco’s needs made him an obvious trade candidate. This season, he’s been even better. Here’s how he ranks among major league relievers in several important categories:

Will Smith ranks vs. other ML relievers (min. qualified IP)
41.1 (4th) 6.5% (37th least) 34.7 (4th) 49 (7th) 47 (3rd) 2.03 (5th)

Smith’s rise from a good reliever to an elite one can be partly explained by a small shift in his pitch mix. Last year, Smith threw his slider 36% of the time, establishing it as his main go-to weapon. It induced a .129 wOBA and a .129 xwOBA. This season, it’s got even deadlier, good for a .120 wOBA and a .108 xwOBA, even as he’s thrown it more often (42.1%). To better illustrate his slider’s effectiveness, here are a couple of gifs for your viewing pleasure:

Smith will be a free agent this winter, and so he’s just a rental. That’s dings the potential return San Francisco’s brass can expect to receive, but Smith will still fetch some talent that could help the club long-term. To get an idea of how he could be valued, let’s compare his 2019 numbers to those of other relievers who were traded as half-season rentals in recent years.

2019 Will Smith vs. Rental Relievers Traded During Deadline Season
Pitcher Year K% BB% HR/9 IP FIP WPA WAR
Zack Britton 2018 20.6% 16.4% 0.51 4.41 -0.28 0.0
Mark Melancon 2016 23.3% 5.5% 0.43 2.67 1.83 0.9
Addison Reed 2017 24.0% 3.0% 1.10 3.16 2.30 0.9
Will Smith 2019 41.5% 5.9% 0.84 2.01 3.10 1.2
Jeurys Familia 2018 25.9% 8.1% 0.19 2.43 0.28 1.4
Joakim Soria 2018 29.1% 6.9% 0.43 2.27 0.46 1.4
Anthony Swarzak 2017 27.8% 7.2% 0.54 2.62 1.63 1.6
Aroldis Chapman 2016 37.9% 6.1% 0.51 1.72 2.09 1.7

Smith’s numbers look top-notch even when compared to this stellar group. One could make an argument that Smith has performed better this season than Aroldis Chapman at the time he was traded in 2016, though the Giants certainly won’t be acquiring a prospect of Gleyber Torres’s caliber.

As always, several teams pushing for the playoffs are in need of bullpen help. The following clubs in particular could really use Smith’s services:

Potential Buyers With Bullpen Need
Team Playoff Odds Bullpen ERA Bullpen FIP Bullpen WAR
Red Sox 58.2% 4.37 4.12 2.7
Twins 97.3% 4.28 4.21 2.6
Braves 94.1% 3.81 4.53 0.6
Phillies 24.2% 4.79 4.99 -0.1
Nationals 59.9% 6.30 4.82 0.3
Cubs 78.9% 3.99 4.42 0.8
Dodgers 100.0% 4.26 4.32 1.4

While just about any contender could find a place for Smith, teams with deep bullpens — like the Rays, Brewers and Indians — will probably be looking to bolster other parts of their roster. In addition to the teams listed above, the Astros are also a potential partner. Houston’s relievers have pitched very well, but they don’t have a southpaw in their bullpen right now.

With so many contending teams needing to beef up their bullpens, Smith will attract plenty of calls to the Giants front office. That’s a good news for San Francisco: the more suitors, the better their leverage. The odds are that, come August, Smith is going to make someone else’s bullpen happier. We just don’t know who, and for what return, quite yet.