I have argued in this space before that viewing the exploits of players in Japan’s NPB and Korea’s KBO solely through the lens of what they might accomplish in Major League Baseball is reductive and a little insulting. And I hope that Japan’s triumph in the greatest World Baseball Classic to date inspires American fans to pay a little bit more attention to the second and third best baseball leagues in the world, and enjoy them for their own sake.
But I also understand that following these league is not easy to do. While streaming options for NPB and KBO games are plentiful, they tend to be decentralized, are difficult to navigate, and games are played at weird hours. English-language coverage about the leagues abounds as well, but it can be hard to dive in when you’re unfamiliar with the leagues and players.
So if you’re not ready to start watching pirated feeds of Yakult Swallows games at 6 in the morning, here’s a quick primer on a few stars who you just saw in the WBC, and who you might see in MLB in the future.
Roki Sasaki, P, Chiba Lotte Marines (Japan)
Roki Sasaki became something of a sensation last year, when the then-20-year-old threw a perfect game that featured 13 consecutive strikeouts and 19 strikeouts overall — only to follow that up with another 14 strikeouts through 8 perfect innings in his very next outing. As fans outside Japan saw Monday night in the semifinal against Mexico, he consistently tops 100 MPH and complements it with a devastating splitter.
He’s probably not going to be posted until he’s at least 25-years-old in order to avoid MLB’s more restrictive rules on international free agency, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about him. He’s the single best young pitcher in the world right now.
Munetaka Murakami, 3B, Yakult Swallows (Japan)
Another young phenom, but this time on the hitting side. Murakami blasted 57 homers last season (and remember, Nippon Professional Baseball plays a shorter season that MLB). His prolonged slump was one of the stories of the World Baseball Classic, but he came out of it in a huge way, walking off Mexico with a wall-ball double and hitting an absolute bomb against Team USA in last night’s final. The homer he hit off Merrill Kelly traveled at 115.1 MPH, which was faster than all but 20 homers hit all season in Major League Baseball last year.
Murakami has a clause in his contract that guarantees he’ll be posted no later than the 2025-26 offseason.
Jung-hoo Lee, OF, Kiwoom Heroes (Korea)
Unlike Sasaki and Murakami, Jung-hoo Lee will be posted soon — probably in this upcoming offseason. He’s a 24-year-old five tool player and the reigning league MVP. Nicknamed “Grandson of the Wind” owing to the fact that he’s the son of a Korean baseball legend who himself was called the “Son of the Wind,” he has the chance to finish his career as the best Korean hitter of all time.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, P, Orix Buffaloes (Japan)
Yamamoto relieved Sasaki in the semifinal against Mexico and shined for three innings until Randy Arozarena and Alex Verdugo got to him with back-to-back doubles in the 8th. He’s 24-years-old, has been the best pitcher in Japan over the last few seasons, and it’s rumored that he’ll be posted this upcoming offseason.
Baek-ho Kang, 1B, KT Wiz (Korea)
Kang was a rookie sensation a few years back, when he hit 29 home runs as an 18-year-old. He takes absolutely massive cuts that frequently result in bombs in the KBO, but some scouts question whether his swing would translate against the higher velocity pitchers in Major League Baseball. For what it’s worth, though, he did double off Yu Darvish in Korea’s loss to Japan in pool play. Oh, and, uh, he was the dude who got tagged out after celebrating a double against Australia a little too excitedly. Tough break, Baek.