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Is His ‘Artistry’ Worth a Deal Like Cole’s?

By JAYSON STARK Jayson Stark is a senior M.L.B. writer for The Athletic. Brendan Kuty of The Athletic contributed reporting.

Yamamoto’s E.R.A. the past three years was 1.68 or below.

NASHVILLE — He’s 25 years old, six months younger than Adley Rutschman. He has thrown zero pitches in American professional baseball, making him a theoretical unknown.

So if you did not know Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s name or story and we asked: How much money would a major league team pay a guy like this, what would you guess?

Six years, $52 million? That was the original Daisuke Matsuzaka contract with the Boston Red Sox.

What about six years, $126 million? That was the original Yu Darvish contract with the Chicago Cubs.

Or maybe seven years, $155 million? That was the original Masahiro Tanaka contract with the New York Yankees.

All right then. The guessing is closed. Now, the verdict: Those guesses are guaranteed to be wrong.

Yamamoto won’t begin meeting with teams on his shortlist until this week. But already, the winter meetings buzz from officials with multiple clubs was that his deal will hit record levels. And not just for a pitcher from Japan, but also very possibly for any pitcher in history not named Gerrit Cole.

Eight years, $240 million? That seems to be the most conservative guess from interested teams. But 10 years, $300 million? That would no longer shock anyone, particularly after the 10-year, $700 million deal announced on Saturday for Shohei Ohtani. And of course, in Yamamoto’s case, a hefty posting fee to the Orix Buffaloes, his team in Nippon Professional Baseball, will be piled on top of that deal.

Just for the record, other than Cole, who signed for nine years and $324 million with the Yankees in December 2019, no pitcher who is not also a hitter has ever received a deal worth more than $300 million. And besides Cole, no pitcher has even crashed through the $250 million barrier. Next highest? The $245 million the Nationals bestowed on Stephen Strasburg after his 2019 postseason heroics. So we’re talking about nearly uncharted territory.

Yet some team — the Mets? The Giants? The Yankees, perhaps? — seems prepared to guarantee huge dollars, and possibly 10 years, to a pitcher who is 5-foot-10, who has never pitched in a five-man rotation, who has never pitched a season of American baseball, and who has a multitude of other baseball and cultural adjustments ahead of him.

It’s kind of amazing when you think about it that way, isn’t it? So when baseball’s general managers appeared on Tuesday at their only mass news media availability of the winter meetings, we made sure to bring up Yamamoto’s name with as many of them as possible.

Asked if Yamamoto would look good in Yankees pinstripes, General Manager Brian Cashman didn’t bob, weave or dodge the question at all.

“Yes, I would agree with that. I personally saw him,” said Cashman, who explained that the Yankees had “extensively” scouted Orix.

“And I think he’s going to be a really successful pitcher anywhere he pitches on the planet,” Cashman said. “He’s a free agent, and we’ll see where it takes us.”

Rangers General Manager Chris Young hasn’t scouted Yamamoto in person, and the Rangers aren’t viewed as Yamamoto shoppers. But Young is a former pitcher and a student of pitching, and he’s interested enough to have watched a ton of Yamamoto video. So not surprisingly, his review sounded much like Cashman’s.

“Well, just he’s really, really talented,” Young said. “I mean, it’s amazing. It’s a unique fastball profile, great command, competitiveness, and it’s explosive. And really, I think it bodes well to translate to Major League Baseball very, very well.”

If we’re merely talking about stuff, talent, athleticism and Yamamoto’s sensational track record in Japan, there is no debate about what feels like a potential one-of-a-kind international phenomenon.

There’s also no need to deluge you with a slew of stats. But it’s hard to ignore this one: Over the past three seasons in Japan, Yamamoto’s earned run average was 1.39, 1.68 and 1.16. Whew.

Who was the last qualifying starter in our fair land to spin off an E.R.A. under 2.00 three years in a row? How about Grover Cleveland Alexander — in 1915, 1916 and 1917.

Because it’s the 21st century, Yamamoto actually is compared more with Pedro Martinez than Grover Cleveland Alexander. But again, let’s make this clear: It isn’t the elite talent level that’s in question.

In the case of a smallish pitcher from another continent, there’s so much more to it. How can any team be confident about guaranteeing 10 years — or even eight — to a man with so many adjustments to tackle and so many questions to answer? That’s the $300 million question. So we asked it.

Is it fair to call Yamamoto unique? Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president for baseball operations, couldn’t bring himself to use that word.

“I don’t think he’s unique,” said Hoyer, who also scouted Yamamoto in person last season. “I think he’s supertalented. I don’t think he’s unique. But I think certainly there have been a lot of really good pitchers that come here from Japan, and he’s certainly in that conversation.”

So was the journey to Japan to watch Yamamoto in person enough to provide that reassurance? Hoyer politely declined to get into anything he learned from that trip. But Cashman — who lucked into seeing Yamamoto pitch a no-hitter in September — was as unfiltered as ever when he was asked what he learned from seeing Yamamoto in person.

“Nothing, to be quite honest,” Cashman replied. “It was just a really enjoyable experience. The fact that it was a no-hitter was really spectacular. It’s special whether you see that in high school, college or the pro ranks. It made my trip worthwhile, flying all that way to watch the artistry play out, which was, again, really moving. For him to do that for his fans and his team as they were going through their playoff effort. It was cool.

“I didn’t learn anything new. I had already been educated enough on him over the course of our scouting years knowing the type of talent he was. He just showed it. But it wasn’t surprising.”

Let’s say this again, though. It isn’t the talent that’s raising the questions. It’s the uncertainty of what’s ahead and how Yamamoto will handle it.

Major league teams have faced that uncertainty for years, obviously. But is it possible there is less of it now than 10 or 15 years ago? No executive we spoke with was more adamant about that than Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington, who was with Boston for the pursuit of Matsuzaka more than a decade and a half ago.

“He’s been an outstanding performer on the world stage,” Cherington said of Yamamoto. “Not just in Japan, but on the world stage. Every team has access to pitch data now. You can do the biomechanical assessment from a distance. He’s really good, you know? It’s not that hard to make the translations.”

Is the data available on Yamamoto really enough to enable teams to predict the future of a player who is only 25 and has never been here or done this? Some teams are skeptical of that — and staying out of this sweepstakes.

But does that mean some team is about to make a huge and hugely costly mistake? That’s the biggest question no one in the sport can answer. The simple answer is: Let’s hope not.

“What I hear and see about him looks extremely exciting as a scouting person,” Orioles General Manager Mike Elias said. “He seems like a bright talent. And it’s great for our game when we get the best players from Japan.”

So, Mr. Yamamoto, welcome to America. We hope you’re every bit as Pedro-esque as people say you are. And if not, well, never forget: It’s just business.

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2023-12-11T08:00:00.0000000Z

2023-12-11T08:00:00.0000000Z

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