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International Free Agent Profile: RHP Tomoyuki Sugano

Arguably the best pitcher in Japan, Tomo Sugano may be coming to the United States in 2021.

Baseball: World Baseball Classic-USA at Japan
Tomoyuki Sugano
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, Sanspo reported that the Yomiuri Giants were going to post Tomoyuki Sugano. Considered one of, if not the best, pitchers in Japan, the 31 year old could potentially be a sound investment for a Major League club in need of pitching.

Tomoyuki Sugano was born on October 11, 1989 in Sagamihara, a city in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture. Coached on by his uncle, Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer Tatsunori Hara, who won the 1981 Central League Rookie of the Year and 1983 Central League Most Valuable Player, Sugano took to baseball at an early age, showing a particular affinity for pitching. By the time he was in junior high school, his fastball was already hitting the upper-70s and he was being identified by high schools, colleges, and professional organizations as a potential follow.

In his first year at Sagami High School, he almost quit playing entirely, as he sustained an injury to his right shoulder which prevented him from playing. He was convinced to stay and made his high school debut in his second year, instantly becoming the ace of the team’s pitching staff. Though Sugano himself was developing into a premium talent- his fastball was up to 91 MPH by this point- Sagami High School never made it to Koshien, and the right-hander never got the opportunity to showcase his talents on the national stage.

After graduating from high school, he attended Tokai University, a prestigious Japanese university that was affiliated with his high school. In his four years there, Sugano posted a cumulative 0.57 ERA with 347 strikeouts, and his already-impressive fastball had developed even further, as it was now topping out at 98 MPH. Eligible to be selected in the 2011 NPB Draft, Sugano was among the most coveted players available, with the Yomiuri Giants being the most likely team to draft him due to the fact that his uncle, Tatsunori Hara, was the manager of the team. Surprisingly, when draft day came, the Giants were not the only team to select Sugano. In addition to being selected by the Giants, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters picked the right-hander with their first-round pick. Much to the consternation of the Giants and Sugano’s family, the Fighters won their special lottery to decide which team would win the rights to negotiate with the college star- a team that had previously assured the right-hander and his family that they would not select him and then did not give them notice just prior to the draft that they were going to.

After weighing his options, the right-hander announced that he was rejecting their contractual offer, joining Shinji Kuroda and Ikuo Takayama as the only drafted players in franchise history to get drafted but turn down the club. “When I was a child, I had my diapers changed [by my uncle], [he gave] me baths, and when I was in elementary school, [we played] catch,” he said. “[His] 1995 retirement game was the first professional baseball match that [I] went to see…The person I admire most is Tatsunori Hara. I couldn’t think of joining another team because I was eager to [play] together.” He would add, “I may be taking a longer route [of becoming a professional ballplayer], but my childhood dream [of playing for the Yomiuri Giants] was stronger.”

Using a graduation postponement option available at Tokai University for students who were having difficulties finding post-graduation employment, Sugano stayed at Tokai University for an additional year, making him eligible for the 2012 NPB Draft. Unable to play in official games for Tokai and having turned down offers to pitch in the Industrial Leagues, Sugano went roughly an entire year without participating in organized baseball games but was nonetheless selected by the Giants in the first round of the 2012 NPB Draft. This time, his selection went uncontested- the Fighters selected a young man from Hanamaki Higashi High School named Shohei Otani- and the right-hander became a member of the Yomiuri Giants.

The 23-year-old Sugano made his NPB debut in 2013 and immediately had an impact. Named to his first All-Star Game, he pitched 176.0 innings and posted a 3.12 ERA, allowing 166 hits, walking 37, and striking out 155. The following year, though he dealt with injuries in the second half of the season, he was even better, posting a league-leading 2.33 ERA in 158.2 innings, allowing 138 hits, 36 walks, and 122 strikeouts. For his efforts, he won the Central League MVP Award, the first starting pitcher to win the award since Kenshin Kawakami in 2004.

Over the next five years, Sugano would establish himself as the best pitcher in Japanese baseball, beating out fellow aces Kodai Senga, Takahiro Norimoto, Yudai Ono, Hideaki Wakui, Chihiro Kaneko, Yasuhiro Ogawa, Shohei Otani, Shintaro Fujinami, and others. From 2015 until 2019, he would post a cumulative 2.89 ERA over 888 innings, his 2019 campaign marred and shortened by a back injury. During this period, he was selected to four more All-Star Games, led the Central League in wins twice, led the Central League in strikeouts twice, led the Central League in ERA three times, pitched a no-hitter in the Climax Series on October 14, 2018, and back-to-back Eiji Sawamura Awards in 2017 and 2018, the latter year winning the pitching triple crown.

When the right-handed ace returned to the field when the 2020 season began, not only was he out to prove that he had recovered from his back injury, but he was pitching for his future. With one year remaining on his contract after the 2020 season and the Giants having broken their official policy of not posting players by posting right-hander Shun Yamaguchi during the 2019 offseason, whispers around the baseball world indicated that Sugano would be posted following the conclusion of the season. While the main source of the whispers were from Tokyo Sports, a paper considered a “scandal rag”, the man himself has indicated in the past that he was interested in playing baseball in the United States. “No matter who you are or how you look at it, the major leagues are at a higher level,” he said shortly after playing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. “I love baseball. I think it’s only natural that when there’s something you love doing more than anything else, you think about doing it at the highest level you can.” According to an anonymous source who was familiar with Sugano and his thinking when he first went pro, “He wanted to go to the majors more than anything, but that proved too difficult given his family connections.”

The right-hander dissected the competition with his typical poise, ignoring the speculation about his future. He made 19 starts and posted a 1.97 ERA in 137.1 innings, allowing 96 hits, walking 25, and striking out 131. In an appropriate swan song, he helped guide the Giants to the Nippon Series, where they faced the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who won championships in 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019 and were looking to cement themselves as one of the best dynasties in NPB history.

Sugano, who stands 6’1” and weighs 210-pounds, has a sturdy pitching frame, finding himself in the top one percent of NPB pitchers in terms of innings pitched, missing time in 2013 and 2019 due to non-chronic injuries. He throws from a three-quarter arm slot, eschewing the hesitation and hitch that most Japanese pitchers incorporate into their mechanics.

Earlier in his career, particularly while he was a collegiate athlete, Sugano’s fastball sat in the mid-90s, topping out at 98 MPH. A combination of age and ligament damage suffered in 2014 has sapped some of the explosiveness from his fastball, but the pitch remains a dynamic offering. It generally sits in the low-90s, topping out at 94 MPH, with armside run and some sink when he uses his two-seam variant. While that velocity band may simply be considered average in the United States, Sugano’s fastball is one of the fastest in Japan. When measured during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, his fastball averaged 2,500 RPM

The right-hander complements his fastball with a bevy of secondary pitches, with his slider and splitter being the most effective. He throws two different slider variants, one with more velocity and less break that acts similar to a cutter and one with less velocity and tight, two-plane break. He throws his slider roughly 21.9% of the time, with the faster variant averaging 86 MPH and the slower version averaging 82 MPH. His splitter falls off the table with a ton of vertical break, averaging 85 MPH. Sugano does not throw the pitch very much, using it roughly 10% of the time. Both pitches tunnel extremely well with his fastball, which is partially why they are so effective. He rounds out his regular repertoire with a big, loopy curveball that sits in the upper-70s, that he throws roughly 9% of the time. In addition to these pitches, he also throws a sinker and changeup, but rarely throws these pitches with any regularity.

Sugano possesses exceptional command of all his pitches and has a reputation for being a pinpoint-control artist. Over the course of his 1357.0 professional innings, the right-hander has a 1.8 BB/9 rate.

Sugano’s batted ball profile has trended in the wrong direction in the last few years. His groundball rate has decreased while his flyball rate has increased, to the point that the right-hander allowed more flyballs in 2020 than he did groundballs, the first time in his career that this was the case. This trend is worrying, as his hit hard rate has incrementally increased since 2014, when the data first began being tracked; in 2014, Sugano had a 25.9% hit hard rate, as opposed to 2020, when he had a 33.2% hit hard rate in 2020.