Born July 31 in Yasano, a town in Japan's Kyoto Prefecture, Yoshio Itoi is among Japan's top outfielders. He wasn't always a position player, though. Attending Kinki University, Itoi made his bones as a pitcher, winning the Kansai Big Six University League Best Pitcher and MVP Awards in 2002, his senior year. Though he had some control issues and sported below average off-speed pitches, he blew batters away with a fastball that sat in the mid-90s, well above average in Japan.
Despite those issues, Yoshio was drafted in the first round of the 2003 Nippon Professional Baseball draft, with his rights going to the Nippon Ham Fighters. Rather than throw their draft pick directly into the fire as many NPB teams do, the Fighters decided to assign the young pitcher to their ni-gun (minor league) team in the Eastern League. Down in Kamagaya, things did not go too well for the young pitcher. Over the span of two years his development inched along, derailed by injuries and perhaps his own ceiling as a pitcher. Things were not completely lost, though. Despite not taking steps forward as a pitching prospect, he was maturing as a baseball player—he showed a great deal of maturity at the plate, had some burgeoning power, possessed a strong arm, and displayed plus speed. At the beginning of the 2006 baseball season, Fighters GM Shigeru Takada decided that Itoi would be converted to a full-time position player. The transition paid immediate dividends, as the 24-year-old proved to be one of the best outfielders in the Eastern League.
Yoshio made his Fighters debut in 2007, but he spent most of the season on the ni-gun team because of a crowded outfield. All in all, he appeared in only seven games that year at the ichi-gun (major league) level, getting one hit in eleven plate appearances and stealing a base. He started the 2008 season as the Fighters' Opening Day left fielder, but injuries limited his playing time. For the season, the 26-year-old appeared in 63 games, hitting .239/.285/.404 with five home runs and 13 stolen bases in 16 attempts. Despite the down season, he showed promise—his defense was especially excellent—and was to be given another chance.
At the end of the 2008 season, Hichori Morimoto, the Fighters' center fielder, retired. Possessing good instincts and plus speed, Itoi was moved over and would take over center field duties for the 2009 season. Whether it was confidence, coincidence, both, or neither, everything clicked for Itoi that year. He played 131 games and finished the season with a .306/.381/.520 batting line, 15 home runs, and 24 stolen bases in 30 attempts. He led the league in doubles (40), was selected to play in the All-Star Game, won his first Mitsui Golden Glove Award, and won his first Best Nine: Outfield Award, an honor given to the best player at each position. Yoshio's 2010 season was more of the same. The 28-year-old hit .309/.407/.482 with another 15 home runs and 26 stolen bases in 32 attempts. He was selected to play in his second All-Star Game and won his second Golden Glove Award.
In 2011, offense was down all around NPB. The league introduced a new ball that dampened offense, especially home runs. To Itoi, the new ball was no problem. In a year when the Pacific League average batting line shrunk from .270/.336/.403 to .251/.308/.348, the lefty hit for his highest average and on-base percentage in his career, batting .319/.411/.448 in 137 games. His home run total shrunk slightly, to 11, but his stolen base total and success rate ballooned, to 31 bases in 36 attempts. His on-base percentage led the league, he was selected to his third consecutive All-Star Game, he won his third consecutive Golden Glove Award, and won the Best Nine: Outfield Award for the second time in his career.
When the 2012 season began, Itoi was shifted from center field to right. The Fighters felt that their right fielder, Dai-Kang Yang, profiled better in center, while Itoi would be able to handle the corner spot with no problems. For whatever reason, Yoshio struggled for the better part of the year. Until the All-Star Game, he was hitting under .300 for the first time in his career and had only two home runs. Just as random as the dry spell had come on, it disappeared. He went on a hot streak in the second half—and in September in particular—to finish the year with a respectable .304/.404/.410 batting line. He hit nine home runs and stole 22 bases in 31 attempts. Despite having a subpar season by his standards, the outfielder led the league in on-base percentage for the second time, still made the All-Star Game, won his fourth Golden Glove Award, and won the Best Nine: Outfield Award. The latter two were particularly noteworthy as Itoi earned them in his first season playing right field.
In January 2013, Itoi informed Fighters management that he wanted to be posted so that he could play in the United States. Because of his early history of injuries and time spent as a pitcher, the outfielder didn't get credited with his first year of service time until the 2009 season, when he was already 27, and would not earn his international free agent status until 2017 at the earliest. The Fighters have a policy of not forcing players to stay with the team if they do not want to. That is, if a player asks to be traded, the team will oblige; if a player asks to be posted, he will be posted; if he asks for his outright release, he will be released. This policy put the team between a rock and a hard place: They felt they had to stay true to their internal values of not forcing a player into a situation he did not want to be in, but they felt their All-Star outfielder was worth more than the few million dollars they would get from the posting process. The team handled things in possibly the most diplomatic, Japanese way possible: Yoshio Itoi was traded to the Orix Buffaloes as part of a five-man swap.
From the Fighters' point of view, Itoi being forced to play on a team he didn't want to would no longer be their problem, and they would get back more perceived value than a monetary posting fee. From Itoi's point of view, of course, this was a big step backwards, as he was now with a new team that he wasn't as familiar with, nor were they as attentive to the needs of the players as the Fighters had been. At the time, Sports Hochi News quoted anonymous team officials as implying that the team had no interest in posting their newly acquired outfielder either that winter or during the 2013-2014 offseason. One official was diplomatic about things, saying "We need to sit down and talk to [Itoi], but we first want him to work hard to reach the top with our team. We also do not think he will [ask to be posted] after his first year." Another official was more blunt, stating that "There is nothing in his contract that says we have to post him. Even if he wants to be posted, there is no way the organization will approve after the first year." At the same time, according to Danny Knobler of CBS Sports, MLB scouts are expecting Orix to post the outfielder. In late October, the team maintained that they have no plans on posting Itoi.
The consummate professional, Itoi stuck his head down and played baseball. Remaining in right field with Orix, the lefty hit .297/.382/.465.
His NPB stats are as follows:
At the plate, Itoi stands slightly contorted, turning his hips so that his body isn't fully facing the ball—you can usually see his uniform name and numbers peeking over his shoulder when he digs in. As the pitch is delivered, he is very "quiet," for lack of a better description. He lifts his leg, but it isn't overly high, nor does he open up his entire body when he does so, swinging his frame into a new position as the ball comes in. He uses the momentum of his swing, and of his body "uncorking," to generate bat speed and power. Notably, since it is so common in Asia, Itoi does not begin running as he swings. Instead, he uses his swing's follow-through momentum to help carry him out of the batter's box in a more fluid and graceful manner.
He mostly pulls the ball, but has good plate coverage and awareness and can slash balls the other way with ease.
Does He Make Sense For The Mets?
As the team is constructed right now, there's a definite need for an everyday outfielder. Juan Lagares is likely all but guaranteed a starting position based on his breakout performance in 2013. Lagares hit an uninspiring .242/.281/.352, but played truly elite defense, breaking the Mets' rookie record for assists (formerly held by Tsuyoshi Shinjo) in the process. Outside of Lagares, the Mets have a bunch of question marks in their outfield. Depending on who the team decides to go with, Eric Young, Jr., Lucas Duda, Matt den Dekker, Mike Baxter, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, or either one or two free agents could play alongside Lagares in 2014. Yoshio Itoi represents an upgrade over most, if not all, of those options.
My two most immediate comparisons to Itoi are Angel Pagan and fellow countryman Norichika Aoki. All three are about the same age (31-32), play the same position (center or right field), and have similar batter profiles (hit for average, have 10-15 home run potential, and have 20-30 stolen base potential. Aoki is of more interest than Pagan, since he played in Japan in his prime and is therefore more useful for projecting how Itoi might make the transition to North America.
In 2012, Aoki came to North America and had a solid year with the Milwaukee Brewers. Though he wasn't getting regular at-bats at the beginning of the season, injuries and his own standout performance turned him into an everyday player. In 588 plate appearances, he hit .288/.355/.433, hitting 10 home runs and stealing 30 bases in 38 attempts. In 674 plate appearances in 2013, Aoki hit .286/.356/.370. Most notably, he retained his eye at the plate—in 2012, he walked 43 times while striking out 55, and in 2013, he almost flip-flopped that, walking 55 times while striking out 40 times. That Aoki's eye and discipline translated flawlessly bodes well for Itoi. Connor Jennings of NOMProjections.com projects Itoi a .276/.353/.382 batting line with eight home runs and 22 stolen bases in 32 attempts. The projections do not take his 2013 season into account, where his power stroke returned. As a result, I think it fair to credit Itoi with a little bit more power, so perhaps something like a .276/.353/.400 line. This lines up almost perfectly with Aoki, who has a career batting line of .287/.355/.399 playing in the big leagues.
According to Sponichi News in 2012, Itoi would likely attract a $15 million dollar posting fee for his team, and would likely garner a contract worth roughly $15 million. I don't see that happening. I personally feel that a $10 million posting fee and a contract worth less than $10 million are more likely. While the fact that Japanese pitchers are not necessarily inferior to American major league pitchers is starting to catch on around baseball, Japanese hitters still seem to be cast in an inferior light, and a savvy team could very easily exploit this market inefficiency.
Everything is dependent on the Buffaloes' posting of Itoi, of course. If they decide not to, there is nothing to be done. If they do post him, though, the Mets should be in on the outfielder. While not necessarily an All-Star like he was in Japan, there is no doubt in my mind that his skill set can translate to Major League Baseball and that he will be a good complementary player.