Yankees’ top pitching target officially posted in free agency

Olympics: Baseball-Men Semifinal - JPN-KOR, yankees, yoshinobu yamaoto
Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are going to be heavily involved in the bidding for Japanese superstar Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and after much anticipation, he has officially been posted. Bidding for his services will be set to begin tomorrow at 8 AM, and it’ll open a 45-day negotiating period where he can freely talk to any of the 30 MLB teams as he looks to get his Major League career started. At just 25 years old, plenty of teams are going to bid aggressively for his services, as the upside and youth are heavily enticing.

Following a three-year stretch where he was by far the best pitcher in the Nippon Baseball League, he’ll likely net a contract north of $200 million, and here’s everything you need to know about the star right-hander.

Getting to Know the Yankees’ Top Free Agent Target

olympics: baseball-men semifinal - jpn-kor, yoshinobu yamamoto, yankees
Aug 4, 2021; Yokohama, Japan; Team Japan pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto (17) throws a pitch against Korea in a baseball semifinal match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Yokohama Baseball Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Yamamoto is clearly the top pitcher in this free agent class for a multitude of reasons, and his pitch mix is definitely the headliner. Starting off with his four-seam fastball, he uses the pitch 41.7% of the time and this past season averaged roughly 95 MPH on the pitch, flashing the ability to get up to 99 MPH when need be. It generates 17″ of vertical movement and 14″ of horizontal run, and from his lower-slot release, it could play up in the United States with better command up in the strike zone.

It wasn’t a heavy swing-and-miss pitch in Japan, but given the increased contact rates and less loft-oriented swings, perhaps that pitch plays better stateside. Kodai Senga, who was the top international free agent from last year’s free agent class, actually had a higher strikeout percentage in his first season in the United States than he did in his final season in Japan.

Lower-slot releases on fastballs with plenty of vertical ride tend to profile well at the Major League level, and if he can consistently locate it up in the strike zone it’ll be a powerhouse offering for him. His second-most used pitch is his splitter, which he threw 26.3% of the time and used to generate soft contact on the ground and swings and misses. With 3″ of Induced Vertical Break, there’s 14 total inches of vertical separation off of his four-seam fastball, and it’ll be a great strikeout and groundball pitch for him.

There’s a trend of NPB pitchers throwing splitters, and Yamamoto’s is one of the best, especially when paired with a dominant four-seam fastball. In terms of velocity differential, it sat at 89.7 MPH this past season, so it’s a firmer offspeed pitch that can really bury righties down and in and lefties down and away. Contact suppression is something Yamamoto excelled at, as he posted a 52.8% groundball rate this past season, and even more impressively, allowed just two home runs all season.

In fact, he had as many no-hitters as he did home runs allowed this season, and that was across 164 innings of work. His primary breaking ball of choice is his curveball, which he releases with a unique grip and spins with plenty of vertical and horizontal movement to get called strikes and put hitters away. It drops 19 inches with 14 inches of glove-side sweep, and at 77.4 MPH it’s a slow breaking ball that can play with timing and eye level.

Just the vertical separation alone off of the fastball is enough to give hitters a fit, and there’s an inverse correlation between total movement and swing rate. Hitters tend to swing less at pitches that move more, which makes sense given how hard it is to not only track a pitch with tons of movement but also get your bat head to the ball. With a 15.6% usage rate, it’s a strong tertiary pitch that complements the dominant vertical profiles established by the fastball and splitter.

His cutter (8.5%) was his fourth-most used pitch, and the Yankees are an organization that’s thrown cutters a ton at the Major League and Minor League levels. The Yankees led all of Minor League Baseball last season in cutter usage, and that’s because of how reliable and effective they are at damage prevention. For Yamamoto, his cutter profiles decently well, but it had issues with consistently getting movement toward the gloveside, and it would leak over the middle of the plate.

I believe this is a pitch that he’ll either dial back or have to refine stateside, as it’s not a reliable enough offering for him to utilize when given the context of an arsenal that features multiple plus pitches. Perhaps the Yankees are able to better generate that consistent movement away from righties and into lefties, but again given the strong splitter and curveball, it calls into question whether he’ll even need that cutter much in the first place given what he already does well.

Yamamoto possesses a sweeping slider that could be nasty in the United States, especially given the Yankees’ aggressive usage of the pitch. Clay Holmes and Michael King stand out as the two biggest proponents of the sweeping slider, and if the Yankees want to find more swing-and-miss in his arsenal, I believe upping the usage of this pitch to right-handed hitters would be an excellent idea. He used this pitch under 3% of the time in the NPB, and the Yankees would likely be able to identify this as a strong pitch.

It’s clear that tweaks need to be made, even for a pitcher that has a 1.44 ERA and three-straight NPB Cy Youngs in the three seasons prior to being posted, and the Yankees are a great organization to make those tweaks. It’s already been reported by Andy Martino that Yamamoto is “intrigued” by the glamour of the Yankees’ brand, and perhaps they leverage that and a longer-term deal to land a pitcher who could really help them solidify the top of their rotation and compete for a World Series title.

He’ll get north of $200 million in free agency, and while it’s unclear whether the Yankees would acquire both Juan Soto and Yoshinobu Yamamoto given the large deals they’ve already invested into Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole, this could be the type of offseason that they sorely need. The Yankees have lost their luster, posting their worst season since 1992 and failing to land “the guy” in every trade or free agent market.

If they want to establish themselves as the top dogs in the American League again, I think Yoshinobu Yamamoto will help take them to the promised land, and at just 25 years old, he’ll entice plenty of teams across the league. His bidding is going to get crazy, as teams like the Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Giants throw their hats in the ring as well, and this could be the most interesting free-agent saga of the offseason.