Roki Sasaki Is Baseball’s Next Great, Here’s What to Know
By: JOE SIMILE / CHIEF SPORTS EDITOR
During the 2023 World Baseball Classic, four pitchers had struck out more than 10 batters. Cuba’s Miguel Romero, a minor league pitcher in the A’s organization, led the pack with 13, followed by Japanese star and 2021 Pacific League MVP Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the game’s best player Shohei Ohtani, and a 21 year old pitcher by the name of Roki Sasaki, who was, for much of the tournament, the talk of the tournament.
Roki Sasaki was raised in the Iwate Prefecture in Japan. Named after the villain of Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger, a series of the Super Sentai series which was the basis and inspiration of the American Power Rangers franchise. The character, Duke Org Rouki, was the “most powerful warrior of the Orgs”. Fittingly, Duke Org Rouki was capable of super speed and electric blasts.
When Sasaki was in the third grade, the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake had struck, and the resulting tsunami swept away his home, also claiming the lives of his father and grandparents. Roki, along with his mother and two brothers, had to live in a nursing home as a result. The family eventually moved to Ōfunato, where Roki began playing baseball.
Sasaki was recruited by many high schools, however he chose to attend Ōfunato High School to continue playing with his teammates and friends. It was at Ōfunato where Sasaki truly began to make a name for himself. He earned the nickname “the Monster of the Reiwa Era” due to his 163-kilometer-per-hour (101 mph) fastball, which broke the Japanese high school record set by Shohei Ohtani. His nickname was in reference to Japanese legend Daisuke (known colloquially as Dice-K in America) Matsuzaka, who was referred to as “the Monster of the Heisei Era”.
Sasaki was drafted first overall in the 2019 NPB draft by the Chiba Lotte Marines at the age of 17, receiving a signing bonus of ¥100 million (about $911,000 USD). The Marines did not allow Sasaki to appear in a game during the 2020 season in order to protect his arm. He made his NPB debut on May 16, 2021. He maintained a 2.27 ERA during the regular season, recording 68 strikeouts in 63.1 innings. In the playoffs, he held a .45 ERA in 20 inning
Roki Sasaki made history the next season, during his third start of the season, on April 10, 2022, Sasaki’s Chiba Lotte Mariners were squaring off against the Orix Buffaloes, who went on to win the Pacific League, led by current Boston Red Sox Masataka Yoshida, who led the Pacific League in batting average.
On this day, Sasaki had one of the most dominant pitching performances in baseball history. Sasaki threw a perfect game, retiring all 27 batters he faced, striking out 19 of them. It was the 16th ever perfect game in NPB history, and tied the NPB record for strikeouts. It was also the first perfect game thrown since 2007, during a combined perfect game in the deciding game five of the Japan Series (although not officially recognized by NPB as a perfect game, as multiple pitchers were used). The last recognized perfect game was in 1194, when Hiromi Makihara did so for the Yomiuri Giants.
Sasaki also set the world record for consecutive strikeouts with 13, surpassing the NPB record of 9 set by Takao Kajimoto and Masayuki Dobashi, as well as the MLB record of 10, set by Tom Seaver, Corbin Burnes, and Aaron Nola. At the age of 20, Sasaki became the youngest NPB pitcher to ever throw a perfect game. Sasaki also had the highest game score (106) pitched in a professional baseball game since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, surpassing Kerry Wood’s 105 in his legendary 20 strikeout game in 1998.
Sasaki carried this momentum into his next start against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Sasaki pitched another eight perfect innings before manager Tadahito Iguchi removed him from the game due to a high pitch count. Sasaki recorded 14 strikeouts on 102 pitches, finishing the game having retired 52 consecutive batters between the two starts. This broke the previous NPB record, and is higher than MLB’s record of 46 set by Yusmeiro Petit. A ball from the perfect game is in the National Baseball hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.
Roki Sasaki made himself a global star in the World Baseball Classic, regularly pumping 102 MPH past hitters, and devastating them with his splitter, which may have been the best pitch in the entire tournament. In 7.2 innings, Sasaki only surrendered seven hits, and tallied 11 strikeouts, allowing a .233 batting average to opponents. Sasaki did hit one batter with a pitch, Czech Republic’s William Escala, and to make up for it, Sasaki gifted Escala two massive bags of candy.
Sasaki has been considered to be one of the top pitchers in the world, regardless of league. And in the WBC, he got a chance to start in the semifinal against Mexico in Miami, meaning he was pitching in front of Statcast for the first time ever, which gave us plenty of data to compare him to MLB’s top arms.
Sasaki’s fastball averaged 100.5 MPH, with 26 of his 29 fastballs in Miami eclipsing 100 MPH or more. Since Statcast tracking began in 2008, only four starters have thrown 26 triple-digit fastballs in a single start (Hunter Greene 6x, Jacob deGrom 2x, Nathan Eovaldi and Yordan Ventura (rest in peace) once each). It wasn’t just that Sasaki threw a lot of triple digit fastballs, it’s that so many of his fastballs were triple digits. In the Statcast era, Roki Sasaki’s start against Mexico is the only recorded instance of 90% of a starting pitcher's fastballs being 100 MPH or more. Only Jordan Hicks and Hunter Greene have had a percentage higher than 75, and Jacob deGrom is the only other pitcher to have a start above 70. Ninety. Percent.
Sasaki’s fastball isn’t just fast, it also moves. But, it moves in a unique fashion. Most fastballs have at least a foot of vertical drop. However, Roki Sasaki’s fastball averaged only 10.1 inches of drop on the way to the plate. Only three Major League pitchers averaged less drop on their fastballs in 2022, James Karinchak, Felix Bautista, and Ryan Helsley. The lack of vertical drop gives these fastballs a “rising” sensation as they barrel towards the hitter. The big difference between Sasaki and the other three is how much arm-side run Sasaki’s fastball has. In the WBC semifinals, his fastball averaged an insane 13.1 inches of run, reaching as high as 15 inches. His fastball basically moves like a lefty cutter. One popular comparison for this fastball is Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole. The five-time All Stars fastball averages 10.5 inches of drop and 10.4 inches of run, for comparison.
Sasaki’s devastating fastball isn’t even his best pitch, that title would go to his splitter. It averaged 91.2 MPH in the game, reaching as high as 93 MPH. It also absolutely fell, with an average vertical break of 31.4 inches including a max drop of 37 inches, over three feet of vertical drop for a pitch that is over 90 MPH. Sasaki’s whiff rate on his splitter was a whopping 53% in the WBC semifinal.
How are you supposed to hit that?
Roki Sasaki is also incredibly passionate about the game of baseball. He takes pride in each and every start that he makes. Former Chicago Cubs all star Kosuke Fukudome revealed to reporters that Sasaki broke down crying in the dugout after surrendering a three run homerun against Team Mexico, fearing he lost Japan the game. When Yoshida tied the game for Samurai Japan, Sasaki “exploded in happiness and relief”.
Roki Sasaki has turned many heads with his WBC performance, garnering a similar reputation and respect that he has earned in Japan. Unfortunately for American fans, Sasaki won’t be coming to MLB anytime soon. Although he told reporters it is his dream to play in MLB, he will not become a free agent until 2027. There is the possibility that he can come over earlier, if he requests that the Chiba Lotte Mariners post him, and they agree, then MLB teams can conjure up a bidding war for the young phenom. Sasaki would likely garner a record setting contract. However, another complication is, if Chiba Lotte were to post Sasaki before he accumulated 6 years of service time or before he turns 25, a deal for him would count against international bonus money restrictions. Given the new CBA, MLB teams can only spend $4.75 million in bonus pool money, but can trade for up to $10.1 million. However, any deal using this money would be selling Sasaki short. Whenever he finally comes over, Sasaki will likely earn a nine-digit deal.