Update to The Board: NPB Prospects

© Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing our week of updating the International Players tab over on The Board, today we’ve added the need-to-know pros from Nippon Professional Baseball, the top league in baseball-obsessed Japan. If you missed yesterday’s post surrounding Korea Baseball Organization players, you’re going to want to check that out, as lots of what is outlined there is also relevant for this batch of reports.

NPB is made up of 12 total teams split between two leagues, the Central and Pacific Leagues, with roughly half the teams concentrated in the area of the country surrounding Tokyo Bay. Now just over 70 years old, NPB essentially has one level of affiliated minor leagues (also split in two, they’re called the Eastern and Western Leagues), but allows its franchises to vary in the number of affiliates they control, which creates vast disparities in the number of minor league prospects or developmental players teams employ. The Giants and Hawks are Branch Rickey-ing this space while other teams are not.

MLB personnel tend to consider Japan at least on par with Triple-A ball in the U.S., and some (including your author) think it fits somewhere in the yawning chasm between the level of play at Triple-A and in the majors. Evidence that the latter is true: the Quad-A hitters who leave the U.S. for opportunities in Japan don’t tend to dominate the leaderboards; the best NPB players are usually Japanese. There are historical exceptions to this, but no foreign-born player has cracked the single-season top 10 of NPB position player WAR since Hector Luna in 2014.

There are also some indications that the gap is narrowing. Fastball velocities in Japan (averaged 90.8 mph in 2022) are still well below what is typical in MLB (93.6 mph), but like the pitchers on our shores, hurlers in Japan have begun to throw harder, and the rate at which velocity is growing in Japan is faster than in MLB. Here are the year-by-year average fastball velocities in each league dating back to 2014, when DeltaGraphs’ pitch velocity data tracking begins. Note the extent to which the gap between leagues has narrowed during that time:

There’s enough talent in NPB that it’s impractical to try to keep track of every single one of their MLB-quality players over on The Board. I take a narrower and more specific approach, focusing on players we know will be posted or sign as free agents soon even if they’re of medium impact (like Shintaro Fujinami), as well as those who I think could be MLB stars eventually even if we can conclude that they’re likely several years away due to the bonus and posting rules. Once again, MLB.com’s glossary has a very handy rundown of the current posting system and its history.

For the last couple of years, I’ve also spent time on players selected near the top of the NPB draft or who are playing for Japan’s U18 and U23 WBSC teams, but their performance upon turning pro has been extremely volatile, and with some exceptions, I think it will be best to let these guys air out in pro ball for a while before they show up on The Board. For example, outfielder Kenta Bright was the Dragons’ first rounder in 2021 out of Jobu University, one of just two position players taken in the first round. He flashed on film and offered more physical projection than was typical of an NPB prospect. Already 23, he hit just .211 in his first season in the minors. As such, while you can see the 2022 first round here and each team’s entire 2022 draft class here, none of those guys are on The Board just yet. If you’re really curious, I recommend copying the Japanese characters that comprise players’ name and searching YouTube with them. High school catcher Shion Matsuo, the second overall pick, is especially fun to watch against bad high school pitching.

While brand new pro players in Japan might go on the back-burner until they are given more of an opportunity to play, the young stars of the league demand our immediate attention. With both the KBO and NPB players now added to The Board, my hope is that readers have a pretty complete idea of who can make an MLB impact as soon as they are willing and able. Any of the players with a 40+ FV grade or above are considered potential impact players, with 50 FV players and up akin to a Top 100 prospect. Here’s a look at this upper crust of (mostly) young players, as well as an approximation of where they’d rank on an overall prospect list if applicable:

Top Asian League “Prospects”
Name Pos. Age Team League FV ETA Approx Ovr Rank
Munetaka Murakami DH 22.9 Yakult Swallows NPB 60 2026 5
Yoshinobu Yamamoto SP 24.3 Orix Buffaloes NPB 55 2024 25
Kodai Senga SP 29.9 New York Mets MLB 50 2023 50
Roki Sasaki SP 21.1 Chiba Lotte Marines NPB 50 2026 60
Jung-hoo Lee RF 24.3 Kiwoom Heroes KBO 50 2024 75
Masataka Yoshida LF 29.4 Boston Red Sox MLB 47 2023
Woo-jin An SP 23.3 Kiwoom Heroes KBO 45 2025
Baek-ho Kang 1B 23.4 KT Wiz KBO 42 2025
Kaima Taira SIRP 23.1 Saitama Lions NPB 42 2025
Liván Moinelo SIRP 27.0 Fukuoka Hawks NPB 42 2024

If you only read a handful of the Asian pro player reports on The Board, make it these ones (and that of Julin Tima), especially those of you in an open universe fantasy league. Murakami specifically is incredibly talented and powerful, and the process has already begun to set up his eventual transition to MLB.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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1 year ago

“Murakami is fresh off a 10-WAR MVP campaign at just age 22”.
Raw Power: 80/80
Oh, this should be fun.

(I know Seiya Suzuki had a bunch of seasons like that, but that doesn’t mean this can’t be fun!)

Between that and Roki Sasaki sitting 97-99, 2026 is going to be an epic international free agent market.

Last edited 1 year ago by sadtrombone
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Not sure Suzuki has had any seasons quite “like that.” I don’t know how the Yakult and Hiroshima parks compare but Murakami’s ’22 was about 100 points of OPS higher than Suzuki’s best season in Japan.

IOW, yes, this will be fun.

Last edited 1 year ago by slamcactus
1 year ago
Reply to  slamcactus

Yeah, I guess it was only one season, but it was a heck of a season. Per NPB stats, which may or may not be a reputable website, here are Suzuki’s WAR totals by year:
2016: 6.8
2017: 6.6
2018: 6.8
2019: 8.4
2020: 6.2
2021: 9.7

He led his league in WAR for each of 2019, 2020, and 2021 too.

But of course, a good chunk of that was him being a plus to outstanding defender in the outfield. Can’t say that’s something Murakami has ever done. Murakami gets there by being a TTO monster. He comps to someone like “left handed Pete Alonso”, Ryan Howard, or Adam Dunn. Or if you’re being optimistic (which is unwise when talking about prospects), someone like Carlos Delgado. Or, if you’re being super-optimistic (which is super-unwise with prospects), someone like Jim Thome.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, was just comparing them offensively.

NPB Stats has wRC+ numbers too (your same caveats apply), showing 221 for ’22 Murakami to 197 for ’21 Suzuki.

Both great years but a combination of meaningfully better offense, younger age, and my constant desire to get excited about the unknown are working together to make me think Murakami may be on another level from Suzuki (who, to be clear, is very good) when he comes over.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Murakami isn’t just TTO. He lead in BA this year.

1 year ago
Reply to  slamcactus

Jingu (Yakult) is a bandbox, the most HR-friendly park in the NPB. Mazda (Hiroshima), is neutral/slightly-pitcher-friendly

Last edited 1 year ago by Eminor3rd
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The season Murakami just had was essentially the NPB equivalent of the season that Judge just had.

Seiya is a much more athletic, well-rounded player, and so his upside can be argued to be higher as an average-or-better OF that can run the bases pretty well, but there hasn’t been a hitter that’s done what Murakami just did in our generation. If he continues to improve and is able to come over at age 25 instead of 28, the expectations on his bat should be substantially higher.