San Francisco Giants free-agent profile: Yoshinobu Yamamoto

An inconvenient truth about the offseason: The Giants’ main problem is that they play a brand of unwatchable baseball, and extra run prevention isn’t likely to fix that. Another ace would help the Giants win more baseball games, in theory, but don’t forget that Logan Webb’s starts were some of the most unwatchable games of last season. He would be great, but his teammates played behind him like they were holding bats in the field and mitts at the plate. The Giants were 15-18 in Webb’s starts, which is hard to comprehend.

Now imagine the Giants dumping all of their money into another starting pitcher and going 30-36 in the combined starts of Webb and the new guy. Absolutely maddening and unwatchable.

However, this is overthinking it. The first rule of building a successful baseball team is to get better baseball players. As long as you don’t have a McCovey-Cepeda situation, where you have two players who can each only play the same position, just keep acquiring better baseball players. After you get one, look for the next one. Repeat process until the sun becomes a red giant star that swallows the planet whole. There’s no sense in ignoring pitchers because there’s another, more pressing, priority. Besides, there simply aren’t that many impact hitters available*.

With the exception of Shohei Ohtani, who is still available as of this writing.

With all this in mind, it’s time to explore the idea of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the best pitcher available this offseason. I don’t want to oversell him, so I’ll have to choose my words carefully. It’s just that there’s a non-zero chance that he’s the best pitcher alive.

Whoops. That wasn’t very careful.

Guess the cat’s out of the bag.

Let’s talk about why the Giants need to sign Yamamoto, and why we need to storm the administration building and stage a sit-in until it happens.

Why the Giants would want Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Look, it’s impossible to look at NPB numbers and translate them perfectly to MLB numbers. There are all sorts of differences between the two leagues, from quality of competition to style of play, and you can’t just copy numbers from Japan and paste them into Major League Baseball.

You still have to look at the NPB numbers that Yamamoto has put up in his seven seasons, though. And the easiest way to make sense of them is to look at his worst full season as a professional, which came in a truncated 2020 season. You can understand how his performance would suffer under those circumstances, but it still counts toward his career record.

His ERA that season was a ghastly 2.20, which is more than a half-run worse than his career ERA. The only time he had a worse ERA was his rookie season, when he was 18 years old. He had an unseemly 2.35 ERA that season in 13 appearances.

Again, those are his worst seasons.

That 2.20 ERA in 2020 is the only time his ERA has been over 2.00 in the last five seasons. Over the last three seasons, he’s pitched 557 2/3 innings, with an ERA of 1.42. Not a typo. Last season, he allowed two home runs in 171 innings. Also not a typo. Justin Verlander allowed 36 home runs in his Cy Young season of 2019. Yamamoto has allowed 36 home runs in his seven-season career.

He will not have the same numbers in the States. But that doesn’t mean they’re not absolutely hilarious. He works with a mid-90s fastball, a curveball of some renown and a splitter that is supremely GIF-worthy.

After watching this for the 17th time, I notice that Yamamoto points in the direction of the bat, and I have no idea why. “Hey, that bat should not be there!” or “I have found your bat, friend and former teammate! It seems that you have misplaced it.” Either way, you get the idea about his split-finger fastball. It’s absurd.

It’s a splitter that plays. And you know which team has made great strides in the field of Splitter Arts? Why, that would be the Giants, who helped rejuvenate Kevin Gausman’s career and have enjoyed the splitter stylings of Alex Cobb over the last two seasons. It’s been enough for me to decide that the splitter is the Best Pitch in Baseball™. Can’t do anything about a pitch that looks like a fastball until you’re throwing your bat. This would make it a tie with the changeup, I guess, but the point is that Tim Lincecum had the right idea. Make them worried about a fastball that went ffffffsnp, then hit them with a splitter that went ffffffflloop.

Yamamoto’s fastball isn’t that good, at least in terms of velocity, but remember that there’s more than one way to skin a hitter. If you have a binary choice of fastball velocity or fastball location, you take location every time. Location, location, location. And Yamamoto has that kind of command. He can pair that splitter with a fastball at the tippy-top of the zone, and he commands his plus-plus curveball well. There is some confusion about whether he has a slider or a cutter, but he has one of them, and it goes fffffnnrrrow, away from right-handed batters and toward the back foot of left-handed batters, generally where he wants to throw it.

So you have a mid-90s fastball, a splitter of the gods, plus-plus command and plenty of other pitches to keep hitters honest. Is there anything else that could him make him more attractive to a team on a long-term deal?

Yes. Dude just turned 25. He’s younger than Camilo Doval and Keaton Winn. He’s a prospect, but he’s not. It’s not hard to see him thriving until he’s 35, when his contract might expire.

It’s impossible to find a pitcher who is a better fit for a long-term contract, mostly because long-term contracts tend to be awful ideas for pitchers. This one wouldn’t be an awful idea.

Why the Giants wouldn’t want Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Because they’re a bunch of ding-dongs. Bring us Yamamoto.

Sorry, sorry, lost myself for a moment there. The Giants want Yamamoto. They’ve been very, very vocal about this.

But if you’re looking for reasons why a team might be skeptical, you can start with Yamamoto’s height. He’s listed as 5-foot-10, which is baseball code for “nah, he’s 5-8 or 5-9.” Pitchers that un-tall are typically thought to be durability risks. Tim Lincecum’s career wasn’t as long as hoped because his long, long stride created awful wear and tear on his hip. Pedro Martínez was only able to start 409 games over an 18-year career, winning just 219 games, winning only three Cy Youngs and making the Hall of Fame. You can understand the aversion to small pitchers, here.

Farhan Zaidi gave a thoughtful response to Ken Rosenthal about their concern with Yamamoto’s height during the GM Meetings:

“A lot of times when you see sort of sub-6-foot righties, they sort of make up for the lack of height in other ways,” said Zaidi, whose original team, the A’s, once had a staff led by Tim Hudson, who is 6-1.

“Oftentimes, it’s athleticism. Tim Hudson was an unbelievable athlete. A couple of free agents out there — Marcus Stroman, Sonny Gray — are also great athletes that don’t have prototypical starting-pitcher height. It creates some interesting pitch-design questions. You’re not coming from the same plane. But you can use that to your advantage as well. I don’t really see it as an issue if guys have a track record of performance.”

Yes, Tim Hudson is 6-1, just like me. People are always asking me to get things from the top shelf because I’m over six feet, just like Hudson. But I’m with Zaidi here. Maybe you don’t want Gray and Yamamoto in back-to-back starts, but it’s certainly a different look for lineups. Different isn’t a synonym for worse. I think Yamamoto’s height is a feature, not a bug. Spencer Strider is a great modern example.

With the height comes concerns about durability, and it’s worth remembering that NPB starters typically make one start per week, not one every five days. There would be an adjustment period, although it hasn’t affected several of the successful Japanese pitchers over the last couple decades. And if there’s a team that can figure out a plan to squeeze in the occasional opener to give a pitcher some extra rest, it’s the Giants.

The biggest reason to be skeptical is that it’s hard to have star power as a starting pitcher in the modern game. You can go all the way back to Mark Fidrych and Fernandomania to find examples of appointment-television starting pitchers, and Tim Lincecum and Dontrelle Willis definitely got fans excited in their respective markets.

In the modern game, is that really possible? It’s hard to put “Come see this dude throw five innings and then give the ball to Ryan Walker” on a billboard.

But that’s a quibble. Yamamoto would absolutely get the fans fired up. Yankees fans and Mets fans are both convinced that Yamamoto is theirs, by divine right, so to steal a pitcher of this caliber away from the East Coast would be a big deal. Webb and Yamamoto and pray for Pitching Ninja slo-mos. The Giants didn’t have a lot to offer before 2010 other than starting pitching, but that was still plenty. When you thought about the Giants in 2009, yes, you got despondent when thinking about the lineup, but you also wanted to watch the games. They had good pitchers. Good pitchers are fun.


You’ve read all of this effusive praise, but here’s the twist:

Nah, just kidding. There’s no twist. Yamamoto should be on the Giants. He should retroactively be on the 2023 Giants and get them over .500. He’s not the 40-homer monster the Giants need in the lineup, but he makes the team better, and he should for a long time.

I’m realistic about the Giants’ chances to sign Shohei Othani, because every single team is going to want him. Don’t get your hopes up there, even if you believe that the Giants are absolutely going to make him an offseason priority.

There’s no reason the Giants should be outbid for Yamamoto, though. They have the money. They have the technology.

Just imagine if Kyle Harrison develops the way everyone is hoping. Webb, Harrison, Yamamoto, together for years and years.

The Giants still need run production, and they need to engage the fan base again, and it’s harder to do that with a starting pitcher than a position player. But this is about as good as an opportunity gets when it comes to starting-pitcher fan service. Yamamoto would make fans care.

In my opinion, the Giants should sign Yamamoto for millions and millions of dollars. It would make them better, and the investment would make the franchise more valuable, which would help them sell more real estate.

It’s not Yamamoto or bust — there isn’t a shortage of strong starting pitching in this market — but this is the best fit. It isn’t especially close, other than Shohei Ohtani, who still hasn’t signed as of this writing.

(Photo of Yamamoto at the World Baseball Classic: Christopher Pasatieri / Getty Images)

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