The Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball League did Major League Baseball teams in search of starting pitching a solid when they, to the surprise of some, posted Japan's best starting pitcher, Tomoyuki Sugano. Considering the right-hander won the equivalent of Japan's Cy Young award twice in his career, he's undoubtedly a starting pitcher fantasy baseball players will need to familiarize themselves with regardless of which MLB team signs him. Sugano's posting process began Monday, and the 30-day process will end January 7th at 4:00 p.m. central.
How good is the 31-year-old righty? Statistically, he's been great and bounced back from a down 2019, thanks in large part to a hip injury, with one of his best professional seasons.
ESPN Insider, and former scout, Kiley McDaniel believes Sugano is, "a reliable fourth (give or take) starter" with the likelihood of a lot of innings pitched and an ERA near 4.00. Other reports have referenced sources in baseball listing Sugano as a possible No. 3 starter and perhaps better.
Kenta Maeda arrived from Japan with a career ERA of 2.39 in the NBP with a 1.05 WHIP, 7.5 H/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 7.4 K/9. As you can see above, Sugano will arrive with similar statistics - 2.32 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 7.5 H/9, 1.8 BB/9 and 8.0 K/9. Masahiro Tanaka arrived to the Yankees as a 25-year-old after also posting similar stats to both Maeda and Sugano - 2.30 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.1 H/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 8.5 K/9.
Interestingly, Maeda is striking out significantly more batters in the MLB than he did in Japan. Even more interestingly, Sugano will arrive with a similar arsenal. Maeda upped his slider usage to a career-high in 2020 followed by his changeup - let's call it a split-change because Statcast labels it a changeup and pitch info a splitter - four-seamer and a big drop-off to a some sinker, curve, and cutter. Sugano's pitch usage will probably profile similarly in MLB except for, based on watching a couple starts, more fastballs than splitters.
After watching one of Sugano's starts, it's obvious his command and slider are his calling cards. Following hip/back issues in 2019, Sugano changed his delivery, and although it certainly looks unorthodox, he has no issues repeating and holds his stuff and velocity (touched 95 MPH in the final inning of this start) throughout his entire outing.
The righty rocks into a pause; he then uses his hands in unison with his hips/torso to twist before his right foot then turns to ignite the process of getting his front side to join the dance party; there's a brief pause and gather with his front leg raised, a positive picture of strength and athleticism; his hands then break and in a very controlled manner his arm drops and slowly, in good unison with his front half, begins to wind back before Sugano gets into a lower position and explodes towards the plate. My favorite thing about the delivery is how still his head is even through the finish; his eyes are always fixated on the target.
As for the stuff, Sugano's slider is a true weapon and a clear plus offering. Thanks to his plus command, the righty routinely hammers righties away with the pitch and puts it on the back foot of lefties often. And Sugano doesn't lack confidence in the pitch. During his 2017 World Baseball Classic start against Team USA, he threw it in 3-0 counts; in the 2020 start versus the Dragons I watched, he tripled-up on the pitch occasionally. Not only is it an out pitch, but it's also a pitch to use in backwards counts to keep hitters off his fastball.
It won't surprise me if his slider is the pitch he throws most, and frankly, that's the best way for him to be successful because his four-seam fastball - sits in the low to mid-90s with the ability to get up to 96 MPH - plays above-average thanks to good command and a hint of efficient spin and some rise through the zone when it comes out of his fingers with a little more zip. His curve, used sparingly but with good feel and confidence, looks to be an above-average offering and more than the get-me-over breaking ball he seems to treat it as; it wouldn't shock me if his curve whiff rate exceeds initial expectations, and let's not forget it registered a high spin rate of 3,079 in the WBC, according to Statcast.
Against lefties, his splitter is a true swing-and-miss weapon that he has good feel for burying down and away. He'd probably benefit from ditching his two-seamer when he makes the move because it doesn't have enough velocity or bite to consistently beat MLB right-handed hitters on the inner half, which is where he often tries to take the pitch.
All international prospects go through an adjustment period. After all, they're not just making a jump in competition and switching leagues. They're making an enormous life change, encountering a new language, etc. But what should give interested organizations confidence in his makeup is WBC success against Team USA and his incredibly successful and long stint pitching for the Yomiuri Giants, regarded as the Yankees of Japan. On the mound, Sugano always seems in control and never rushed or bothered.
Any team in need of starting pitching should do their homework on Sugano and pursue him. Take a hint, Angels.
MLB PLAYER COMP: Making comparisons isn't typically a strength of mine because they often feel forced. That said, what good is a piece like this if I can't point you to what I believe is a similar MLB version? The easiest comparison would be to Tanaka because, well, the profile is very similar and while some might consider it lazy to comp the Japanese pitcher to one of the few Japanses MLB arms, there are a lot of similarities. Plus, not many Major League starters throw a splitter.
Tanaka threw his slider the most, by far, of any pitch last season and it had his highest whiff rate; Tanaka's slider generated the third-highest value in 2019. Additionally, he throws his splitter the second-most, had an average fastball velocity of 92.3 MPH, and mixed in his sinker and curve a little too. He finished 2020 with a 3.56 ERA (4.42 FIP and 4.19 xFIP), and has a 3.74 ERA, 3.91 FIP and 3.52 xFIP over his MLB career. All those numbers seem to be in line with fair expectations for Sugano, and Tanaka has never had a BB% worse than 5.5%. Since Tanaka arrived, his BB% ranks 14th among qualified starters, and I expect Sugano's control/command duo to rate similarly.
WHERE DOES HE SLOT IN FANTASY RANKINGS? Obviously, where Sugano lands will influence his fantasy value at least partially, but I'm confident he should slot in as a mid-rotation arm capable of consistently throwing quality strikes, pitching deep into games to be in line for wins, and missing enough bats to generate above average ERA and SO numbers. He should end up rating in the SP30-40 tier, placing him somewhere around pick 110-150 overall. To give you an idea of where pitchers are going right now, that would put him around Sandy Alcantara, Kevin Gausman, Lance McCullers, Jr., Marco Gonzales, Dustin May, Pablo Lopez, David Price and Charlie Morton.
WILL I BE TARGETING HIM? For the right price, absolutely. There's always a heightened injury risk with pitchers coming from Japan because of their high school and youth pitching methods leading to insanely high pitch counts, although that trend is slowly changing. However, the only thing I could find about Sugano's injury history was some ligament issues in 2016, which then resulted in rest and some of his best fastball velocity as a pro; his only other injuries were non-arm or shoulder related.
I'd be more worried about the fastball velocity if he didn't have plus command and a clear willingness to throw his best pitch, his slider, in any count against any hitter. Over recent years, I've become a bigger believer in BB% being one of the main statistics I value for fantasy pitching, and Sugano's exciting control/command should translate.