The best baseball game of 2023 didn’t occur when you thought it would. It wasn’t in the World Series, it wasn’t in the LCS, and it didn’t even happen in the Wild Card round, which before MLB ruined by expanding to a best-of-three, would often provide two of the the most captivating nights anywhere on the entire sports calendar. In fact, the best baseball game of 2023 didn’t even occur in October.
Instead, and probably for the first time in history, the best baseball game anywhere on planet Earth occurred in the month of March. Yes, I’m talking about the World Baseball Classic. But no, I’m probably not talking about the game that first comes to mind. Sure, the moment every baseball fan will remember from this tournament for as long as they live is the impossibly perfect Ohtani vs. Trout conclusion to the USA vs. Japan final. The flawless crescendo to a wildly successful tournament, and for that matter, a global event.
However, the best baseball moment of 2023 never would’ve materialized without the best baseball game of 2023, and that game occurred just 24 hours earlier in the exact same venue. Before Japan beat the U.S. in what was a mediocre game with a thrilling conclusion, they defeated Mexico in an absurdly entertaining and wildly chaotic confrontation. I’ve probably watched the highlights of this thing at least a dozen times in the last year, and it’s still amazing!
And if you don’t want to watch all the highlights but just want to get a sense of what it meant for Japan, just listen to the final call. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve been this excited about something at least once.
I bring this up because I’ve come to view this game as the flawless crescendo Masataka Yoshida’s Japanese baseball career. In the same way that Ohtani vs. Trout built to a perfect conclusion within the tournament itself, so did the final chapter of Yoshida’s Japanese baseball career before he made his Major League debut.
When you breakdown the details of that game, it’s incredible how clearly you can find Yoshida’s fingerprints on the late inning heroics. First, he hit a game tying three-run home run the in the seventh to get his country off the mat. Then, when Mexico counterpunched in the eighth, he threw out Joey Meneses at home plate to limit damage, which is perhaps the most underrated moment in the entire game. And finally, he earned the walk in the ninth that ultimately turned into the winning run. Without Yoshida, Japan never wins that game, we never get Ohtani vs. Trout, and the baseball world is lesser off.
All of this is to say that, even though playing in the majors was a lifelong dream of Yoshida’s, his baptism into a Red Sox uniform transpired within a whirlwind. He went from playing all of his baseball and living in his native country to smashing a bunch of huge life experiences together in the span of just a few months. Specifically, Masataka Yoshida:
- Came to Boston last winter for an introductory press conference after signing with the Red Sox. New team, new city, new country, new continent! Upon donning his new uniform, he also made a small speech in English, and he was an absolute delight!
2. Arrived at spring training in February, when he got to meet his new teammates and learn how he’d fit in.
3. Played in the World Baseball Classic, which for him started back in Japan, meaning he had to cross the Pacific Ocean two more times before all the craziness discussed above even happened.
4. Officially achieved his lifelong dream of making it to the majors and made his Red Sox debut at Fenway Park. (Unfortunately, this homestand also included him not getting to keep his first home run ball because of family of schmucks wouldn’t give it back.)
5. Experienced a full Major League schedule and everything that comes with it, including more games, more elite pitching, more distance to travel on road trips, and more cultures to learn across a diverse and deeply divided country.
So when you wrap all of these ingredients together, it’s not a leap to conclude that we haven’t seen Masataka Yoshida in his final form as a Major Leaguer yet. He had a lot on his plate in 2023, and there’s a good chance he’s going to come back in 2024 better prepared to have a big season, both physically and emotionally.
There’s a couple of other pieces of evidence that suggest this too. For starters, Yoshida is one of those players who’s proven that he always finds ways to get better as a hitter. He keeps unlocking little things in his swing that builds production year over year, which allows him to beat long-term projections.
The most elementary evidence of this can be found simply by looking at his OPS when he was a member of the Orix Buffaloes. He played there for seven seasons, and his OPS never dropped from one season to another. He constantly found ways to build on his success and get better. Here are the details:
In addition to his raw OPS numbers, I’m also fascinated by the way Yoshida arrived there at the plate. This is a hitter who, when everything is going right, is as likely to get an extra base hit as he is to strike out. In his seven seasons for the Buffaloes, encompassing 762 games and 3,189 plate appearances, he had 301 extra base hits (161 doubles, 7 triples, and 133 home runs), and struck out just 300 times. An almost perfect match!
While we certainly can’t expect him to duplicate that in his Red Sox career, the question now is how close can he come once he’s fully settled in, and the answer may be surprising.
Amidst all the wonderful chaos of Yoshida’s 2023 season, something familiar and simple also happened, at least for a while anyway. Following a rough opening couple of weeks to the season and an initial adjustment period, Yoshida had his breakout game against the Milwaukee Brewers on April 23rd, hitting two home runs in one inning. The first was solo shot that broke a 4-4 tie in the eighth, and the second was a grand slam that put an exclamation point on the night.
From the moment he hit that first home run in Milwaukee through the end of the play on July 25th, Yoshida hit .345 with a .399 on base percentage and a .953 OPS. And in a season where everything to him was new, something else looked familiar. In that 72-game stretch spanning 306 plate appearance, Yoshida had 34 extra base hits (20 doubles, 3 triples, and 11 home runs), and struck out just 34 times. A perfect match again!
Now, in the interest of fairness, we do have to mention that his season, much like Boston’s, went in the toilet immediately after that. Yoshida posted just a .592 OPS in his final 52 games and looked as atrocious as you possibly could doing it. He grounded into almost as many double plays (9) as he had extra base hits (14) during this time.
We’re now left to wonder which version of Yoshida is closer to the one we’re going to see moving forward. Did he just hit a wall during the last third of the season? Was the three months he looked like the guy he was in Japan a statistical anomaly? Did pitchers adjust to him and now he needs to spend this winter adjusting back? There’s numerous combinations and possibilities.
It would be nice if there was a precedent here. Another left handed hitter, who played LF and DH, who was great in Japan, made his debut stateside in his age 29 season, had to adjust to a big market in the northeast, and also made major contributions to the winning team in the late innings of the
best worst game of that season.
Well, there was, and it’s Hideki Matsui in 2003. In his first season with the Yankees, Matsui batted .287, hit 16 home runs, posted a .788 OPS, and a 109 OPS+. Last year with the Red Sox, Yoshida batted .289, hit 15 home runs, posted a .783 OPS, and a 109 OPS+.
In the following season, Matsui blasted 31 home runs, posted a .912 OPS, and a 137 OPS+. (When you’re talking about 2004, even good statistical seasons for the Yankees somehow turn out to be encouraging for the Red Sox.)
Before we go too far down the rabbit hole though, Yoshida and Matsui are very different players, and Yoshida doesn’t have the benefit of the right field bandbox in the Bronx to boost his power numbers. But the blueprint is there, and Matsui’s similar journey does tell us that a big jump in production is possible in Yoshida’s second year. Exactly how much improvement he can muster however remains a mystery.