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Masataka Yoshida Will Be Fine. . . I Think

What’s the cause of this extended slump?

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Way back on May 4, I confidently declared that Masataka Yoshida had arrived. It had been an ugly (albeit brief) start to the season for Masa, as he struggled to produce anything other than ground balls to the right side for the first few weeks of April. But as I wrote at the time, it was only natural to expect a difficult start to the season as he adjusted to a new, well, everything: team, league, routine, city, country, culture, language, etc. etc. and etc. all the way to infinity. Even Ichiro, a man who has an argument as the greatest hitter of all-time, had a sub .800 OPS in his first month in the North America.

And indeed, the Macho Man took off in the ensuing months, looking like one of the best offensive weapons in the game, as he posted a .962 OPS in the month of May and a .314 batting average in July. He appeared to be locked in as a key member of the Red Sox core for years to come.

And then July turned to August. . .

Masataka Yoshida’s performance has plummeted in just about every area. Over the last 30 games, he’s slashed a putrid .254/.277/.395. He’s rolling over pitches again and has grounded into 7 double plays, tied for third-worst in all of baseball during that stretch. And worst of all, for someone who came to America renowned for his approach at the plate, his strikeout and walk numbers are going in the wrong direction.

So, how worried do we need to be about Masataka Yoshida?

This extended second half slump could potentially indicate that the league has developed a book on him, but I’m not sure that’s true. The league started by challenging him with fastballs, as is frequently the case with players who come from Japan and Korea, where velocity is lower on average. He proved he could hit them and started seeing more breaking balls but, overall, I’m not sure we’re seeing any kind of meaningful trend here in the way he’s being pitched that would explain his struggles:

Baseball Savant

Moreover, he’s actually been hitting pitches of all types — and breaking balls in particular — harder over the past month than he has all season:

This should give you some hope: Yoshida is not getting beat by superior stuff.

So, then, what is Masataka Yoshida getting beat by? The answer appears to be: Masataka Yoshida. His plate discipline, which was his calling card in Japan, where he’d walked more than he struck out in every season, has fallen apart. Masataka Yoshida’s issue right now is that he’s flailing at breaking balls outside the zone:

This, believe it or not, actually gives me some hope. He’s still hitting the ball hard; he’s actually swinging and missing at pitches inside the zone less than he was during his May hot streak; and his groundball rate has not returned to where it was during those ugly first few weeks in April. He’s simply getting fooled by breaking balls.

This is not what you’d expect to see from a hitter who has as advanced of a batting eye as Yoshida does; and I don’t think you’ll see it again next season. What we’re seeing right now, I think, is what happens when you absolutely grind a baseball player down to the spikes.

Yoshida played his first competitive game of 2023 all the way back on March 9, when Samurai Japan took on China in Tokyo for the World Baseball Classic. Counting the WBC, he’s already played 130 games in two different hemispheres in 2023, after playing just 120, 110, and 119 in his last three seasons in Japan.

And aside from the mere number of games, there are a number of factors that make the MLB season a total grind compared to NPB season. For starters, travel is significantly easier in Japan. Every Japanese team is located in the same time zone, and teams travel almost exclusively via comfortable, efficient, high-speed rail. There are five teams in the Greater Tokyo area alone, with just 35 miles separating the two furthest ballparks. Imagine if, in addition to Fenway, there were Major League teams in Somerville, Natick, Providence, and Saugus (go, Kowloons!), and the furthest road trip the Sox ever took was to Cleveland. That’s how much easier travel is in Japan.

Japanese teams also get Mondays off every week throughout the season, and over half of the 12 NPB teams, including Yoshida’s old team in Osaka, play in climate-controlled domes. Combine the grueling travel, more extreme weather conditions, and cramped schedule with all of the other challenges he’s facing this year, and it’s not surprising that he’s struggling down the stretch.

Am I looking for positives here? Yes, of course. It’s okay to worry about Yoshida. HIs defense in left is so ugly that he’s not really a viable contributor on a MLB team if he continues to hit this poorly. Moreover, in terms of roster construction, he’s an awkward fit on a team that employs a below-average defensive centerfielder and is paying $300 million to a third baseman destined for the DH spot.

Nevertheless, I’m expecting him to bounce back next year, if not this month (he does already have two homers in September, after all). If he were getting beat by the increased velocity, that would be one thing, but the type of elite pitch recognition he’s shown throughout his career doesn’t just disappear. Get him some rest and some home-cooked yakitori and he’ll be fine. . . I think.