A lot of the questions surrounding Masataka Yoshida’s first season with the Red Sox stem from how he’ll be able to handle new and increased competition.
While the World Baseball Classic might not consistently rise to the level of competition he’ll see every day in the big leagues, Yoshida has passed every single test over the last two weeks.
The outfielder is a huge reason Team Japan will battle the United States on Tuesday night for the WBC championship. Yoshida was right in the middle of an instant classic Monday night when the Japanese outlasted Mexico in one of the best games the tournament has ever seen. Yoshida went 3-for-4 with a home run, a walk and three more runs batted in to help Japan get by Mexico in thrilling walk-off fashion.
Yoshida enters the finale hitting .474 (9-for-19) with two home runs and a tournament-leading 13 RBIs. The names right below him on the RBI leaderboard are a who’s who of big league stars: Trea Turner, Randy Arozarena, Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout are among them. Yoshida’s 1.413 OPS ranks sixth among batters with at least 15 at-bats, trailing Arozarena, Juan Soto, Yu Chang, Turner and Ohtani.
At this point, the 6-1 odds on Yoshida to win American League Rookie of the Year might look like a bargain at season’s end.
“I think he’s every bit of — as advertised,” Japanese teammate and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar told reporters Monday.
The most impressive Yoshida stat might be the zero strikeouts. There have been 122 players to log at least 12 WBC at-bats, and Yoshida is the only one who has yet to strike out. His plate discipline and bat-to-ball ability were his biggest selling points, and he has delivered on that so far.
“He’s really disciplined at the plate,” Nootbaar continued. “That’s something that stood out to me early that he wasn’t getting hits in the first couple exhibition games or whatever it was, but you could see that confidence in him and how he just controlled the zone, didn’t get rattled or anything like that. The next thing you know he’s 5-for-5 or whatever it is against Korea and then starts going off.”
Nootbaar, a California native whose mother is Japanese, has done a nice job settling into a major league role with St. Louis. He was a 2-win player last season, hitting 14 home runs and driving in 40 runs for the Cards in 108 games. He certainly is familiar with the sport at the highest level, and an up-close look at Yoshida is all he has needed to believe the Red Sox got a good one.
More importantly, he believes that even when Yoshida struggles against the best pitchers in the world, his skillset will help him come out of slumps.
“I think as a hitter that’s super important to be able to maintain that strike zone discipline when things aren’t going well,” Nootbaar said. “He does such a great job of that. Obviously, he showed a little power last game that we played. So I think the sky’s the limit for him. Like I said, he’s just a professional hitter and you could see it right away, it stood out for me. That’s the first impression I got from him.”
If his first impression on the rest of Major League Baseball is anything close to this, the Red Sox will feel quite good about the decision to sign the 29-year-old.