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Milwaukee Brewers Free Agent Targets: Tomoyuki Sugano

Top-shelf pitcher from Japan is now available to MLB teams

World Baseball Classic - Championship Round - Game 2 - United States v Japan Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The are folks that suggest after Trevor Bauer, the best free agent pitcher available is not Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton. or Jake Ordorizzi. They believe it to be Japanese phenom Tomoyuki Sugano. The Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball formally posted Sugano earlier in December, and major league teams have until January 7th to sign him.

American audiences got a taste of what Sugano could do during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Against Team USA, he covered six innings and struck out six U.S. hitters without allowing an earned run. Hitters he stuck out included Giancarlo Stanton, Nolan Arenado, and Christian Yelich. To see how effective he was, take a look at a condensed version of the game below.

Following the game, Team USA manager Jim Leyland said of Sugano,

I can’t tell you, for me, tonight, how impressed I was with their pitcher. I thought he was really good. Located the ball on the outside corners, fastball. Threw 3-0 sliders. That’s pretty impressive...He is a big league pitcher.

Sugano certainly carved up Nippon Professional Baseball. Over eight seasons, the 31-year old right hander has covered more than 1,300 innings with a 2.34 career ERA. With the exception of his rookie year and 2019, Sugano posted sub-3.00 ERAs in every season. In 2019, his ERA did balloon to 3.89, but injury and/or discomfort were the likely catalyst. Reports suggest that he battled back and hip discomfort which likely caused a dip in velocity. Those velocity rates were back in 2020 as he averaged 93 mph on his fastball. Plus he can work in a somewhat funky delivery.

Ted Baarda describes his delivery has such:

The right-handed Sugano has a unique wind-up as he starts with both feet facing towards home plate, but will turn his upper body 90 degrees towards third base before starting to move his feet. He releases the ball from a ¾ arm slot and repeats his delivery well. Out of the stretch Sugano has a quick delivery with a small leg kick which allows him to help control the running game.

Baarda goes into more detail about his pitching repertoire.

He has a 4-seam fastball that he can locate to all quadrants of the strike zone and a 2-seamer with some run that he will try to keep low in the zone. His best secondary pitch is his mid 80s slider that he uses to run away from righties and in to jam lefties. His slider has late downward break to it which makes it a good putaway pitch or a good option to induce weak contact.

Sugano also has a high-80s splitter that he uses primarily away to lefties but will also throw it away to righties on occasion. His splitter has good downward action and he will throw a lot of them in the dirt with two strikes hoping for a chase. He also throws a high 70s curve sparingly that he will use to steal a strike early in an at-bat, often attempting to back-door it and get an outside strike against lefties.

Sugano is reported to have outstanding command, and that he should perform at the level of a #2 to #4 starter in MLB and has been compared to Johnny Cueto. Will Hoefer offers more information about Sugano in a portion of this scouting report. He indicates that Sugano has lost a tick on his fastball, but as I mentioned, injury was the likely cause, and that fastball velocity returned in 2020. Hoefer’s opinion of him being a #4 for a major league team might have changed since this report from 2019.

Sugano works off a fastball that sits 90-92 and tops out at 94 MPH. In later looks his fastball was sitting 89-91, but he still generates strong armside run and gets good sink on his two seamer. It’s lively enough to be an average pitch at present, though he has lost a tick on his heater and can’t really afford to lose any more velocity. His bread and butter is mixing that fastball with a pair of slider variations, both plus.

The harder slider, which is classified as a cutter in some reports, has a nice tight hook and sharp gloveside bite. The more traditional slider has a more vertical hook that Sugano is able to finish down with regularly. He’ll mix in a hard forkball splitter that flashes plus depth, but the lack of consistent feel keeps it from projecting any more than an average pitch at the major league level...Sugano still profiles as a No. 4 starter for an MLB team at present.

The question is, how much will the six-time All-Star in Japan and a two-time winner of NPB’s Sawamura Award go for? Whatever the contract is for, there will be release fee paid to the Yomiuri Giants, which would be a percentage of Sugano’s contract. For a primer on the posting system, link here.

While the Milwaukee Brewers look to have two outstanding starters at the top of the rotation as well as multiple arms that could fill in the other slots, Sugano would make a wonderful addition. As long as his fastball sits in the 92-94 mph range, Sugano is likely a mid-rotation starter at the least. With his experience in big games and overall, he would lengthen the starting rotation and cover a lot of important innings.

Is he even on the Brewers’ radar though? He probably should be, because adding his arm with Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes could make for one of the best starting pitching trios in MLB. Unfortunately he might be just too expensive for Milwaukee to acquire. Again teams have until January 7th to negotiate with Sugano, and the Giants, Padres, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Rangers are teams that have been mentioned as having interest. While unlikely, maybe the Brewers are the team that grabs this guy. We will know the answer in just a few weeks.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference