The Two Best Center Fielders in the NPB
As the calendar ticks into late July and we’ve past the halfway through the 2015 season, we’ve seen quite a few breakout players here on the other side of the Pacific. Notably, a pair of center fielders have blossomed into legitimate superstars. Dynasty owners should be aware of these names. Put them in, coach, they’re ready to play.
Yuki Yanagita, OF, Softbank Hawks
Yanagita, left-handed batsman and right-handed thrower, shows remarkable and loud tools all across the game – tantalizing power, plus bat, lightning-fast wheels that allow him to cover tons of ground in center field and swipe a lot of bases, and a cannon for an arm.
After taking the MVP award of the NPB-MLB Series last November, the 26-year old has taken another step forward in 2015. In the first half of the 2015 season, Yanagita slashed .367/.463/.600 with 17 long balls in 361 PA, posted an NPB-leading 1.063 OPS by 60 points among qualified hitters. His non-park adjusted OPS+ comes at a Harper-esque 198. It’s notable that he’s reduced his strikeout ratio (21.3% in 2014 to 16.6 in 2015) while walking slightly more (11.7 to 12.4). He has also been a threat on the basepaths, stealing 16 bases while getting caught 5 times.
For comparison, Ichiro Suzuki, in 2000, his age-26 and final season in NPB, slashed .387/.460/.539. It’s even more impressive if take the league’s run environment into account. The Pacific League’s runs scored per game was 4.80 in 2000. It’s been down to 4.04 in 2015. Now you realized how Yanagita’s hitting out of his mind, huh?
Alas, unlike the long-time Mariners right fielder, Yanagita’s not likely to take his talent to the Stateside after his age-26 campaign. He plays for the Softbank Hawks, who’s never posted a player. Yanagita, at this moment, needs a hair over 5 years of service time to earn international free agency. As sad as it sounds, we better not expect to see the tool monster in the big leagues in his prime. All we can hope is the Hawks changing its philosophy and let him go early.
If he does get to the majors in his late-20s, we could expect him to be a 20-20 guy with a .280 average who can play a mean center field.
Shogo Akiyama, OF, Seibu Lions
He was on no one’s radar before the season. In 2014, the 27-year old spent the worst season as a full-time player in his 5-year NPB career, where he hit .259/.356/.360 in 561 PA. Even though his numbers rate numbers were right on or a bit above league average, he spent some time on the farm.
in 2015, he has turned himself into one of the best assets in the NPB and having a historic campaign. As of this writing, he’s posted an astonishing .379/.432/.526 while clubbing 8 round trippers in 407 trips to the plate. He’s notched 140 base hits through team’s first 87 games, is on pace for more than 200 in a full season, a feat accomplished only six times in the history of the NPB. In case you’re wondering, those six are Ichiro Suzuki (yep), Alex Ramirez, Matt Murton, Nori Aoki (twice), and rather forgettable Tsuyoshi Nishioka. I have to note that he recently snapped a 31-game hitting streak, which was third-longest in the NPB record book.
With his well-above average speed, quick jump, and accurate route, he can certainly stick in center field for the years to come. In fact, he might be one of the better defensive center fielder in not only the NPB, but the entire baseball world. To my eyes, he’s a Kevin Kiermaier with a slightly lesser glove and a better bat.
The con of his game is his insufferable base stealing skill, as he’s been caught stealing 30 times in just 76 tries in his career, a mediocre 60.5 success rate. He seems to have not improved this area yet, having gone 12-for-23 in base swiping in 2015.
It will take Akiyama another 4 years and a month to earn international free agency, barring changes in the current CBA. But unlike the Softbank Hawks, the Lions have had a history of posting their players, headlined by Daisuke Matsuzaka. So, if Akiyama ever opts to the States, we may see him in the bigs in a couple of years,