Checking In on Roki Sasaki and Munetaka Murakami, NPB’s Brightest Young Stars

Munetaka Murakami
Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

There are not many subjects that baseball teams agree on, outside of not paying minor leaguers much money. One thing that 29 teams do share is an enormous amount of regret that they didn’t convince Shohei Ohtani to come join their franchise after the end of the 2017 season. (OK, 28 teams since the Orioles bizarrely refused to make a presentation on philosophical grounds, but I’d wager that the current front office would not have operated the same way!) In any case, major league teams and fans who pay attention regularly covet the biggest stars in NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball), and a small but steady flow of talent comes to the United States and Canada from overseas. So I wanted to take a look at two Japanese players who, while they may not be the next NPB stars to come to MLB due to the vagaries of the posting system, are the most exciting young players in the league right now: Tokyo Yakult Swallows third baseman Munetaka Murakami, and Chiba Lotte Marines righty Roki Sasaki.

It would be difficult to overstate how dominating Murakami has been at age 22, but I’m going to try my best to do so. Called up for a cup of coffee at 18 years old in 2018, he quickly became one of Japan’s best hitters, slugging 36 round-trippers at age 19 and putting up OPS figures of 1.012 and .974 in the two years since. Like MLB, NPB is at a fairly low offensive environment these days, though it’s unlikely the underlying causes are similar. The Central League — pretty much the last bastion if you like seeing pitchers hit — is only scoring 3.64 runs per game, its fewest since 2015. That hasn’t kept Murakami from not just finding another gear in 2022, but enough extra gears that it looks like he emptied out a bicycle shop.

At 52 homers, Murakami is not merely at the top of the standings; he is the standings. Only a single player in Japan, Hotaka Yamakawa, has even half the home run total (38). There are only two players within 300 points of his 1.229 OPS: Yamakawa (.988) and Masataka Yoshida (.952), and that’s while using a fairly generous plate appearance requirement (250 PA). In recent weeks, Murakami also set an NPB record by hitting home runs in five consecutive plate appearances.

NPB 2022 OPS Leaders
Player Age PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Munetaka Murakami 22 529 52 .339 .473 .756 1.229
Hotaka Yamakawa 30 460 38 .271 .383 .606 .988
Masataka Yoshida 28 438 14 .322 .441 .511 .952
Shugo Maki 24 470 23 .284 .349 .523 .872
Sho Nakata 33 310 18 .290 .356 .515 .871
Yoshihiro Maru 33 541 24 .276 .374 .493 .867
Hiroaki Shimauchi 32 525 14 .309 .388 .479 .867
Keita Sano 27 471 18 .314 .361 .503 .864
Yusuke Ohyama 27 453 23 .272 .363 .497 .860
Go Matsumoto 28 397 3 .352 .400 .442 .842
Kensuke Kondoh 28 330 6 .295 .401 .433 .834
Adam Walker 30 373 20 .276 .308 .518 .827
Toshiro Miyazaki 33 403 10 .305 .372 .454 .827
Takashi Ogino 36 313 5 .310 .377 .443 .819
Hideto Asamura 31 544 24 .253 .362 .444 .807
Tetsuto Yamada 29 472 22 .245 .335 .469 .804
Teruaki Sato 23 546 18 .263 .324 .468 .793
Yasutaka Shiomi 29 491 13 .274 .349 .444 .793
Neftali Soto 33 349 14 .257 .335 .457 .792
Ryoma Nishikawa 27 360 9 .299 .344 .446 .791
Ryan McBroom 30 464 15 .270 .353 .436 .790
Kazuma Okamoto 26 523 25 .250 .331 .453 .783
Keita Nakagawa 26 398 4 .300 .333 .441 .774
Yuki Yanagita 33 404 16 .268 .334 .439 .773
Shogo Sakakura 24 536 13 .289 .349 .419 .768

This type of home run dominance is rare, and Aaron Judge may be the first hitter in nearly a century to beat the runner-up by as large a margin as Murakami’s current one. OPS dominance to this degree is just as rare, even using the same liberal 250 plate appearance threshold rather than the official 3.1 plate appearances per team game, with only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds matching Murakami’s current edge.

MLB Home Run Leader Dominance
Season Leader HR Runner Up HR Margin
1920 Babe Ruth 54 George Sisler 19 35
1921 Babe Ruth 59 Ken Williams 24 35
1926 Babe Ruth 47 Hack Wilson 21 26
1928 Babe Ruth 54 Jim Bottomley 31 23
1924 Babe Ruth 46 Jack Fournier 27 19
2022 Aaron Judge 55 Kyle Schwarber 36 19
1919 Babe Ruth 29 Gavvy Cravath 12 17
1932 Jimmie Foxx 58 Babe Ruth 41 17
1933 Jimmie Foxx 48 Babe Ruth 34 14
1899 Buck Freeman 25 Bobby Wallace 12 13
1927 Babe Ruth 60 Lou Gehrig 47 13
1965 Willie Mays 52 Willie McCovey 39 13
2010 Jose Bautista 54 Albert Pujols 42 12
1949 Ralph Kiner 54 Ted Williams 43 11
1977 George Foster 52 Jeff Burroughs 41 11
1989 Kevin Mitchell 47 Fred McGriff 36 11
1990 Cecil Fielder 51 Ryne Sandberg 40 11
1950 Ralph Kiner 47 Al Rosen 37 10
1995 Albert Belle 50 Frank Thomas 40 10

MLB OPS Leader Dominance
Season Leader OPS Runner Up OPS Margin
2004 Barry Bonds 1.421 Todd Helton 1.089 .332
1920 Babe Ruth 1.382 George Sisler 1.081 .301
1926 Babe Ruth 1.253 Cy Williams .986 .267
1921 Babe Ruth 1.358 Rogers Hornsby 1.097 .261
2002 Barry Bonds 1.381 Jim Thome 1.122 .259
1942 Ted Williams 1.147 Charlie Keller .930 .217
1941 Ted Williams 1.288 Joe DiMaggio 1.083 .205
2001 Barry Bonds 1.378 Sammy Sosa 1.174 .204
1923 Babe Ruth 1.309 Harry Heilmann 1.113 .196
1925 Rogers Hornsby 1.245 Ty Cobb 1.066 .179
2003 Barry Bonds 1.278 Albert Pujols 1.106 .172
1887 Tip O’Neill 1.181 Pete Browning 1.011 .170
1998 Mark McGwire 1.222 Larry Walker 1.075 .147
1946 Ted Williams 1.164 Stan Musial 1.021 .143
1981 Mike Schmidt 1.079 Dwight Evans .937 .142
1955 Ted Williams 1.199 Willie Mays 1.059 .140
1884 Fred Dunlap 1.069 Dan Brouthers .941 .128
1876 Ross Barnes 1.052 George Hall .929 .123
1933 Jimmie Foxx 1.152 Lou Gehrig 1.029 .123

After translating Murakami’s 2020 and ’21 into relatively normal triple-slashes (.263/.346/.469 and .252/.340/.466), he gets a bonafide star-level translation this year with a year-end estimate of .273/.355/.574 with 45 homers. That’s not his baseline, but it makes for quite the spicy ZiPS projection:

ZiPS Projection – Munetaka Murakami
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .268 .353 .493 574 100 154 25 1 34 120 72 144 13 127 -1 4.0
2024 .271 .362 .509 558 101 151 26 1 35 122 76 146 13 133 -1 4.4
2025 .269 .363 .513 557 102 150 26 1 36 123 78 148 12 135 -1 4.6
2026 .268 .364 .517 553 103 148 25 1 37 124 80 150 12 136 -1 4.6
2027 .265 .363 .517 547 102 145 25 1 37 124 81 152 12 136 -1 4.6
2028 .262 .362 .513 534 100 140 24 1 36 121 80 148 11 135 -2 4.3
2029 .261 .360 .500 518 95 135 23 1 33 113 77 139 11 131 -2 3.8
2030 .261 .359 .494 502 91 131 22 1 31 108 73 127 11 129 -3 3.4

As an offensive player, Murakami’s top ZiPS comps are Harlond Clift, Robin Ventura, Aramis Ramirez, Evan Longoria, and Ken Keltner, among others. I imagine most MLB teams would be happy to sign any of those players — I mean, theoretically; Ventura is 55, and Clift would have just celebrated his 110th birthday.

Sasaki is making a similar splash this year in his first full season in the top league. He doesn’t turn 21 until November, yet is dominating hitters in Japan to the degree that a healthy Jacob deGrom does over here. A well-built pitcher at 6-foot-3 and nearly 200 pounds, Sasaki has struck out 162 batters in 118 1/3 innings against 20 walks, good for a 2.05 ERA. Only Yoshinobu Yamamoto, another player who may come to MLB at some point, has more strikeouts (172), but he needed 45 more innings to get those 10 extra whiffs.

Back in April, Sasaki threw a perfect game, the first in the NPB majors since 1994, striking out 19 batters along the way. And then he almost did it again, throwing eight perfect innings the following game and striking out 14 before he was pulled in the ninth. I imagine pulling a pitcher in the ninth for a second consecutive perfect game attempt might lead to an actual revolt here! Here’s a fun video of all 19 of his strikeouts.

Oh, did I mention that Sasaki can hit 102 mph with his fastball? He throws an occasional curve or slider, but the usual accompaniment is, depending on your opinion, either a tumbling splitter or a hard forkball (in truth, these pitches are more on a spectrum to each other than being bonafide different pitches). He’s even got a solid nickname already: “The Monster of Reiwa Era,” referring to the current era name in Japan since the crowning of a new emperor in 2019. (Seunghwan Oh, The Final Boss, is still my favorite in that regard, though.)

Overall, ZiPS translates Sasaki’s 2022 as easily MLB quality, with an ERA/FIP right around 3.00 and well over a strikeout per inning. The projection isn’t quite as optimistic, but that’s largely because he’s still a very young pitcher without a whole lot of experience, which increases the uncertainty no matter how good you are.

ZiPS Projection – Roki Sasaki
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2023 10 6 3.49 27 27 160.0 141 62 18 34 168 125 3.6
2024 11 6 3.39 28 28 164.7 142 62 18 34 176 129 3.9
2025 10 6 3.34 27 27 159.0 135 59 18 32 172 131 3.9
2026 10 6 3.35 25 25 147.7 126 55 16 30 160 130 3.6
2027 9 5 3.32 24 24 143.7 121 53 16 29 159 131 3.5
2028 9 5 3.32 23 23 138.3 115 51 16 28 155 132 3.4
2029 9 5 3.28 22 22 131.7 108 48 15 26 149 133 3.3

In the U.S., Sasaki would easily be the best pitching prospect in baseball. As with Murakami, if he expressed a desire to play here sooner than his free agency, and his franchise were open to the notion, all 30 teams should have a great deal of interest in spending a great deal of money to get his services.

It’s likely going to be several years until there’s even a chance that we get to see Murakami or Sasaki in the majors. But our loss is Japan’s gain, and any serious baseball fan should be keeping track of the exploits of these two players in NPB.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Arte Moreno
16 days ago

If you combine those two into one player and give him to my team, I guarantee I can still find a way to waste his skills on a .450 club that’s 25 games behind Houston.

'Tungsten Arm" O'Doyle
16 days ago
Reply to  Arte Moreno

The gift that keeps on giving….

tz
16 days ago
Reply to  Arte Moreno

Fun fact: you can make a full 26-man roster of players who have contributed negative WAR to the Angels this year. This does NOT count starters Max Stassi (67 wRC+) and Andrew Velazquez (46 wRC+ !!), whose respective glovework allows each of them to be worth +0.2 wins above replacement this year.