When the Red Sox were rumored as potential Kodai Senga suitors back in December, I wrote about the raw deal that players from Japan and Korea inevitably receive from Western fans and media. No matter what they achieve in Asia — up to and including proving themselves as possibly the most talented player on Earth, as Shohei Ohtani did in his final seasons with the Fighters — they are completely ignored by the West unless and until they decide to come to MLB. And when they do decide to come over, we unquestioningly assume that their success won’t cleanly translate to Major League Baseball. We get excited for their arrival, but brace for them to be busts, looking at their numbers and trying to parse out just how much worse they’ll be.
But the truth is that there are players in Japan and Korea who are amongst the very best players in the world, and this is true regardless of what league they play in. Hideo Nomo proved this for us decades ago. Ichiro did it again a few years later. And now Ohtani (with a few lesser but still worthy stars sandwiched in between, the Hideki Matsuis, Yu Darvishes, and Hyun-Jin Ryus of the world) has ended the debate. Yes, NPB and the KBO are not as talented top-to-bottom as Major League Baseball; but no, that doesn’t mean that the stars of those leagues won’t, as a matter of course, shine as brilliantly when they come to North America.
This is relevant to the 2023 Red Sox, of course, because of the Masataka Yoshida signing. And it’s particularly relevant this week, because a new statistical projections has been released that is forcing us to consider something: what if Masataka Yoshida is one of those stars?
The Steamer projection model currently used by FanGraphs is considered one of (if not the) best publicly available projection models there is. No projection model is perfect, but they’re the best option we have right now to try to predict the future. Yesterday, Steamer finally spit out its projection for Masataka Yoshida and, well, damn:
You see that .388 on-base percentage up there? That would’ve been the 6th best mark in all of baseball last year, sandwiched in between two guys named Juan Soto and Jose Altuve. That .372 wOBA would have been 12th in baseball, just one-one thousandth of a point behind Rafael Devers. That strikeout rate would’ve been the third best in all of baseball. And the 140 wRC+ (which some consider to be the single best measure of offensive performance in baseball) would’ve been good for 18th, tied with Carlos Correa and 8 spots above Xander Bogaerts.
To repeat: the Steamer projections are not perfect. And the first question you probably have is: how good has Steamer been at projecting hitters from NPB in the past? As it happens, Steamer projections last year for Seiya Suzuki were quite similar. Steamer projected a .286/.386/.528 slash line for Suzuki last year, good for 3.9 fWar. Suzuki didn’t hit those numbers last year, but he also suffered an injury to his ring finger that kept him out for a month along with dealing with the birth of a child in mid-season. At points during the year, he certainly flashed the potential to be elite, hitting .279/.405/.529 in April, and finishing the year with 4 homers and a .282/.354/.493 line in the last month of the season. It’s also worth noting that most scouting reports considered Yoshida to be the superior player, with some scouts calling him a “much better hitter” than Suzuki.
Regardless of both projection systems and scouting reports, we won’t know quite how good Yoshida is until he takes the field. Life is weird and strange and the future might not even come. But we can make some guesses about how good he can be. And as of yesterday, we now have at least some reason to believe that the Red Sox have found their next great left fielder.