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2023 In Review: Masatka Yoshida Was Good. Then He Wasn’t.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

2023 In One Sentence

It was the tale of two halves, one which was stellar, the other which was not.

The Positives

Signing a five-year $90 million dollar deal is going to come with expectations. This is especially true of Masataka Yoshida who, coming from NPB, had no track record of Major League success. Moreover, his defensive prowess was questionable (which many scouts pointed out before he was even posted) and at 5’8 175 lbs there were real questions about whether he could impact the baseball at the Major League level. For as many people who were excited about what he might do for the Red Sox, there was an equal amount that cursed the move and wished the team had spent their money elsewhere.

When he finally debuted, many of those fears were put aside. During the first half of the 2023 season all Masa did was hit (after a small adjustment period in April). If it wasn’t for the defensive struggles, he may have garnered more consideration for an All-Star selection. All told, he hit .316/.382/.492 with 10 home runs and a 136 wRC+ in the first half. Not only was Masa proving that his vaunted hit tool would play in the MLB, but he was proving those who questioned his size wrong by slugging nearly .500. He was hitting, he was impacting the baseball, and he was an on base machine. This was starting to look like a steal for the Red Sox rather than the albatross many predicted it would be.

MLB wRC+ leaders in the first half of 2023
FanGraphs

The Negatives

As good as his first half was, his second half was equally bad. In the first half he was on time and looked confident at the plate, up there hunting for pitches he could do damage on. During much of the second half of the year, his at-bats looked much more in line with the predictions of those who said he would be physically overwhelmed by Major League pitching. Rather than hunting for his pitches, he looked like he was fighting for his life every at-bat. The results bore out what we all witnessed and he hit .254/.278/.386 with just five home runs and a 73 wRC+.

In August and September he was playing his worst baseball. This tells me that in all likelihood he was tired. Before coming over to the United States, his former team, the Orix Buffaloes warned the Red Sox that, should he start to look fatigued at the plate, the should give him some time off and he’d bounce back. Cora did try to do this, however, it couldn’t fix the situation. Life in the majors is far more demanding than that of a player in NPB. In Japan, travel is generally limited to the length of the Japanese archipelago, making trips much shorter and air travel altogether unnecessary in many cases, and the schedule is only 144 games. Playing in the U.S. Masa was not only adjusting to cross-country travel and a 162-game schedule, but he was also adapting to a new country with the mental load of trying to communicate with native English speakers, Spanish speakers, and the services of an interpreter. This is a lot for anyone to handle.

Best Moment

On April 23, the Red Sox were on a road trip in Milwaukee facing arguably the best pitcher in baseball, Corbin Burnes. The 2021 Cy Young award winner has some of the nastiest stuff in the league and is exactly the type of arm you would be worried Masa might have trouble handling. In this game, Masa started off the scoring by hitting a sacrifice fly in the top of the first to make it 1-0. The game was a back-and-forth affair and in the top of the 8th it was 4-4. Masa came to the plate and cranked a go ahead solo shot off Matt Bush. The Red Sox then started to pile on and Masa came to the plate again later that half inning with the bases loaded and the score 8-4 Red Sox. This time Masa hit a grand slam to tear the game open becoming the first player in ten years (the last being Edwin Encarnacion) to homer and hit a grand slam in the same inning.

The Big Question

Where does Masa spend the majority of his time in 2024? Is it at DH or in left field?If there was one thing the doubters were right about, it was Masa’s defense. He was bad in left field by all metrics. Outs Above Average had him worth -8 runs and UZR had him graded out at -2.3. He only committed three errors, but it was clear if you watched him that he had limitations. Numbers aside, he wasn’t awful to watch — in other words, he wasn’t Hanley Ramirez in left field. He was more like Manny Ramirez without the strong arm.

Interestingly, he had his best hitting splits while he was playing left field, posting a 122 wRC+ vs 89 as a DH. How much of this is noise versus real is hard to tell. I do believe the team would be wise not to play him everyday in the outfield.

2024 And Beyond

As Masa enters his age-30 season, he is one of the team’s most important offensive pieces. I’m optimistic that the Red Sox will know how to better manage his workload in 2024 and that the increased work that he is putting in will help him adjust to the grind of the MLB season. I’m not in favor of Masa being the full-time DH as soon as next season, as I’m a firm believer in using that spot to give players from all over the roster a rest when they need it. I do believe that limiting his time in the field substantially, say maybe a 50/50 split, would do wonders for his body. Masa proved unequivocally that he can hit in this league, now he just needs to do it for a full season.