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Yoshi Tsutsugo gets a second chance

The struggling slugger is hoping for a redemption arc.

Rays Baseball

After trading away the team’s top hitter in Tommy Pham during the winter of 2019, the Tampa Bay Rays made some waves when they secured a contract with free agent Japanese slugger, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, with the offset salary.

Tsutsugo had played the previous ten years as a member of the Yokohama Bay Stars, with whom he hit .285/.382/.528 with 205 homeruns over 968 games played. During the peak of his performance with Yokohama, Tsutsugo was among the top players in Nippon Professional Baseball on a regular basis.

At the time of the signing, there wasn’t a clear spot for Tsutsugo on their roster, but the team believed in his offensive capabilities enough that they’d plug him into their lineup... somewhere. In Japan, Tsutsugo mainly played third base, while mixing in some time in the outfield as well as at first base. There were some defensive liabilities, but the primary concern would be on his ability to adjust to Major League pitching, particularly the higher velocities.

During the shortened season, Tsutsugo proved these concerns valid as he struggled against fastballs, hitting well below average against higher velocity pitches, despite an average exit velocity of 94.4 mph. That exit velocity on fastballs puts Tsutsugo among the top 6% in baseball (min. 50 balls in play).

Tsutsugo played in a total of 51 games and hit .197/.314/.395 with 8 homeruns over 185 plate appearances, registering 98 wRC+ and accruing 0.3 fWAR.

Overall, Tsutsugo demonstrated a very disciplined demeanor at the plate. He rarely chased pitches outside of the zone with a 20.9% swing percentage on those pitches; that places him among the top ten in the league in that regard (min. 180 PA). This helped lead to him having a 14.1 BB%, which was the second highest among players on the Rays.

During the postseason in 2020, Tsutsugo received just 16 plate appearances over the 20 total playoff games as the Rays played a better bat in left field (Randy Arozarena) and a better defender at third base (Joey Wendle).

A surely frustrating end to what was likely a frustrating season.

To put his overall performance in context, before the season our Homin Lee predicted that Yoshi could be a similar batter to Justin Smoak in 2018-2019, and that appears to have been a fairly reasonable player comparison:

Player A: 14.1% BB, 27.0% K, .88 GB/FB, .197 ISO, .230 BABIP, 90.2 EV, 98 wRC+
Player B: 14.8% BB, 23.9% K, .89 GB/FB, .208 ISO, .262 BABIP, 89.9 EV, 112 wRC+

The first player above is Yoshi’s line from the 2020 limited season. The bottom line is Justin Smoak from 2018-2019. Overall, in terms of power, EV, GB/FB and patience, the two are quite similar. Yoshi struck out more, but performed more consistently when he steadily received playing time.

The numbers displayed by Tsutsugo all come in a very short sample size of the abbreviated 2020 pandemic-afflicted season. A season in which players had to experience absolutely unique conditions, and this being Tsutsugo’s first season away from Japan would make it all the more bizarre for him. Had it been a normal season, perhaps Yoshi would have had the time to adjust into playing a full time role.

“That was really unfair to Yoshi, coming over from Japan, being a star and then coming and seeing what was taking place throughout Major League Baseball with no fans, learning a new team. There’s just so much on his plate. We’re all very confident that he can really impact us with the bat, and his versatility throughout spring is going to help.”
- Rays Manager, Kevin Cash

These are fair comments from the Rays skipper, but how did he feel in 2020?

Please note: Homin has been so kind as to research both Korean and English translations of recent comments by Yoshi to the media in Japan in this section. We cannot say that this translation is 100% accurate, but using a limited familiarity with the language and an understanding of Japanese culture, Homin has provided loose translations that we hope you will find valuable. You can see the original text here: Source 1 | 2

Yoshi, like many Japanese baseball players, is very quiet. You can think that of Yu Darvish as an exception, not the rule.

Tsutsugo gained valuable experience in the first year of major transition, but his batting average is below .200 for the first time since 2010, his first year as a professional player. It’s easy to imagine that he wasn’t a personally satisfying season. At the same time, he said “I will not run away from the results and I think it will be an important year for me.

With the Japanese media, he spoke at length about the difference between Major League Baseball and Japanese baseball:

“In majors, everyone practices individually before the Spring Camp opened, but I felt that their concentration was much higher than that of Japanese players. Also, they have “strength” that is beyond physical strength; a mental fortitude.

What I was impressed with while playing the season was the speed with which major players switched. Whether you lose a game, make an error, or end up with no hits, by the time you head home, everyone is thinking for the next game.

I felt strongly that the popular belief that, ‘Japanese baseball is delicate, and major baseball is all about power,’ was far from a reality. In particular, the Rays are willing to take on new challenges, such as defensive shifts and opener.”

Yoshi also expressed surprise about how data-based baseball was, and the time each player spent preparing.

“People around me judge by the results, so I might be told that it didn’t work, but it was a year when I could feel a lot of new things in baseball and life. I don’t want to sound like an excuse, so I don’t really want to talk until the end of next year. I’d like to move on as soon as possible for next year.”

With his first taste of the big leagues behind him, Tsutsugo is reported more comfortable entering his second spring training as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. Speaking through his interpreter, Tsutsugo recently stated in his first media session of 2021 that, “I have a fresh mind, and I’m ready for the second season of my career here.”

Tsutsugo is already showing his adjustments, both on the field and with his teammates.

At the plate, he is showcasing some alterations to his swing in which he has lowered his leg kick and moved his hands closer to his body, allowing him to get to pitches quicker. Meanwhile, with his teammates, Tsutsugo is growing more comfortable speaking Spanish, with Marc Topkin noting that he was having loud back-and-forth conversations with his fellow Rays.

Despite being the second-highest paid player on the Rays roster, Tsutsugo will have to force his way back into the starting lineup. He’ll be tested all over the field this spring to try and see where he fits on a Rays roster that’d be set without him on it. Last season, he put up dismal results at third base, posting -3 DRS over 89 innings, while also showing to be an average defender in left field with 2 DRS over 105 23 innings in the outfield.

During the spring, Tsutsugo can expect to play third base and in the outfield, as well as taking in some time at first base, a position that he played occasionally during his decade-long career in Japan.