The Cincinnati Reds have never had a Japanese player on their team. They are the only team in the Major Leagues that can say that. But this offseason their needs align with the availability of at least one Japanese player, but perhaps two.
One of those players is free agent Shogo Akiyama. How does he fit for the Reds? Well, he’s a center fielder currently. And Cincinnati could be in the market for one of those thanks to the position flexibility of Nick Senzel, who could slide to second base if the team found the right center fielder. In the last five seasons with Seibu he’s hit .321/.399/.497. Last season he hit .303/.392/.471. In that stretch he hasn’t missed a game.
To put into context what that line means, the league hit .252/.326/.392 as a whole in 2019. But his team hit .265/.344/.428 – leading the league in OPS by 40 points. Their pitching staff was also dead last in ERA – by 0.30. These two things may suggest that the home ballpark favors hitters (they were first in OPS and last in ERA in 2018 as well).
Shogo Akiyama is certainly a standout hitter among the league. And in the past he’s been known to be a good defender, too. But he’ll be 32-years-old in April and his speed and defense seem to have been moving in the wrong direction. This is an area where you’re going to want to lean on your scouts that have watched the league. While the Reds haven’t had a player from Japan, they do have a presence there and are actively scouting.
If there’s a chance that he can still handle center field, this is the kind of target the Reds should be seeking. Akiyama looks like he’d be a good hitter (not a great one) and fill a spot of need. But if he’s going to be a corner outfielder, things get a lot less rosy. The bat doesn’t play nearly as well there, and the Reds have options in the corner outfield spots that can’t slide elsewhere on the diamond like they do in center.
Shogo Akiyama’s recent stats
Many of the hitting stats stand out and look good. The one area that doesn’t, though, is on the bases. In 2016 and 2017 Shogo Akiyama was solid on the bases, stealing 34 and being caught 11 times between the two seasons. But the other three years? Not great, Bob. In the last two seasons he’s stolen 27 bases and been caught 18 times. Assuming that Akiyama does come to the Major Leagues for 2020, even if it’s not with the Reds, it will be interesting to see what happens to his base running numbers.
What about Yoshitomo Tsutsugo?
Shogo Akiyama isn’t the only big name that could be on the market from Japan in Major League Baseball this offseason. The Yohohama DeNA Baystars have said that they plan to post slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.
His breakout season came in 2016 when he hit 44 home runs and posted an OPS of 1.110 as a 24-year-old. He hasn’t quite repeated that performance since. In the last three seasons he’s hit 28, 38, and 29 home runs. His OPS has ranged between .899 (2019) and .989 in those three seasons. He’s still been a very good hitter, but nothing like what he was back in 2016.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, however, may not fit in much with Cincinnati. At best he’s a below-average defender in left. The advanced stats suggest he’s a terrible defender. A team that could play him at first base, or use him as a designated hitter would likely feel more comfortable paying him more than a team who doesn’t have that option – again showing the ridiculousness that Major League Baseball has different sets of rules for National and American League teams.
His power would likely play well. And he’s got a pretty strong on-base percentage thanks to a high walk rate. But he also had one of the highest strikeout rates in the league, and it would likely rise in the Major Leagues. He’s younger than Shogo Akiyama by four years. That plays into his favor, but as it relates to the Reds specifically, he’s probably lesser of a fit due to his defensive abilities and positions available.