TOKYO — In Japan they call pitcher Roki Sasaki the “Monster of the Reiwa Era," which translates roughly into a “once-in-a-generation superstar."
In simple English, Sasaki is likely to be the next big thing out of Japan following Shohei Ohtani, who debuted five years ago with the Los Angeles Angels.
“He’s got velocity, and his forkballs and sliders are great. He is something special,” San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish said of Sasaki at Japan's training camp for the World Baseball Classic.
How special is the Chiba Lotte Marines right-handed pitcher?
His numbers are astounding. He pitched a perfect game on April 10, 2022, against Japan's Orix Buffaloes and struck out 19 — 13 in a row at one point.
In his next start on April 17, he pitched eight perfect innings against the Nippon-Ham Fighters before he was pulled for cautionary reasons by manager Tadahito Iguchi. He had 14 strikeouts in that outing, including striking out the side in the eighth and showing off a 101-mph fastball.
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Sasaki has the fastball, the wipeout forkball, and a developing slider — and he just turned 21. Last week his fastball was clocked at 102.5 mph in a WBC prep game, tying a record in Japan held by Ohtani.
That's the good news. The bad news for fans of Major League Baseball is that — although Sasaki is reported to be working on his English — he's not likely to go to North America very soon.
“That is my dream,” Sasaki said of being a major leaguer.
Ohtani landed his deal with the Angels late in 2017, when he was only 23. This means the courtship for Sasaki might start earlier, as it did for Ohtani.
Japanese baseball guards its talent. Japanese professional baseball players generally do not become free agents until they have played for almost a decade. They can go earlier under a special so-called “posting" system, in which the Japanese club agrees to let a player go. The most likely scenario is after Sasaki turns 25, which might mean the 2027 season at the earliest.
The World Baseball Classic, which opens Wednesday in Taiwan, will be followed by two weeks of games in Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. It's a showcase of world baseball, and in Japan the focus for scouts will be mostly on the pitchers.
“What we’ve seen with the Japanese pitchers is the command of multiple pitches, which is really advantageous in the major league system. And so that is a big selling point,” Dave Kaval, president of Oakland Athletics, told The Associated Press.
“There are a lot of reasons why having a global player brings with it benefits for viewership, and ultimately to revenue," Kaval added.
For all the early success, Sasaki has also faced death and tragedy.
He grew up in Iwate Prefecture, the same northern area of Japan as Ohtani. But in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami struck the region, followed by the meltdown of three nuclear reactors. His house was swept away and his father and grandparents died. About 20,000 perished in the tragedy.
"It’s been 11 years but I cannot easily erase the agony and sadness I felt at the time,” Sasaki said a year ago at a news conference.
Then he spoke to young children about his loss.
“I want them to appreciate and not take for granted the things they have now and the precious people around them,” he said.
Pitchers in Japan get early training, driven by the wild popularity of the country's high school tournaments. They have historically had more success in North America than the hitters, with some exceptions including Ichiro Suzuki, Ohtani, and Hideki Matsui.
Japan's most promising hitter is probably Munetaka Murakami, who hit 56 home runs last season and surpassed the 55 hit by Sadaharu Oh. The Japanese league record is 60 by Wladimir Balentien. Murakami was also the youngest to win the league's Triple Crown last season at 22.
Japan's other top pitching prospect is Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who has twice won the top-starting pitcher award in Japanese baseball.
“Most of the top pitchers in Japan who go to the States will succeed,” said Robert Whiting, who has written several books about Japanese baseball including “The Samurai Way of Baseball.”
But Sasaki is undoubtedly that “once in a generation” pick.
“Interest in him in the majors would be monumental. There would be an awful lot of pressure on Lotte to post him," Whiting said. “And he is really, really good.”