How Yoshinobu Yamamoto became baseball's most coveted free agent

ByJeff Passan ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 19, 2023

YOSHINOBU YAMAMOTO'S BAG of tricks is an actual bag.

Inside it, he carries a yoga mat, wooden blocks, tiny soccer balls and mini-javelins. When he's ready, the 25-year-old Yamamoto lays out his yoga mat, arches himself into a backbend and pretzels his body with the precision of a contortionist. He lifts himself into headstands and corkscrews his hips and legs. He pushes up into handstands and walks on his palms toward a wall, against which he can lean and balance on one hand. He steadies himself on the blocks to get the feel for his body's positioning, and when he's done with that he stands up and chucks the size 1 soccer balls into a wall to warm up his right arm. Then he heads to the field to fling the javelins distances inconceivable to his teammates, who try to replicate the practice and chuckle at their comparative ineptitude.

None of this is the typical training regimen for a pitcher -- for most athletes, really, but particularly not in baseball, a paint-by-numbers sort of sport that sneers at anything out of the ordinary. There is room for independent thinkers, for those who dare try something different, but it comes with a prerequisite: greatness.

Yamamoto has earned the right to carry the black duffel -- not only is he a great pitcher, but arguably the greatest ever in Nippon Professional Baseball. He won three straight MVP awards and three consecutive Sawamura Awards, Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young. Now he is the best free agent in Major League Baseball, the one inspiring a bidding war among the game's most moneyed teams that's expected to conclude before the new year and perhaps as early as this week.

At 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, Yamamoto will be among the smallest starting pitchers in MLB when he debuts next season. That all of his strength training comes from these tools -- Yamamoto does not lift weights -- confounds the baseball establishment. But then he throws a baseball and the questions melt away because few in the world can marry a fastball that runs up to 99 mph with a splitter that drops like a hypercoaster and a curveball that breaks 5 feet. To impart that sort of force on a baseball at that size is the domain of a select few: Pedro Martinez and Tim Lincecum, winners of five Cy Youngs between them.

Everything Yamamoto does is in service of one goal: moving with purpose. As MLB teams have learned since the Orix Buffaloes posted him Nov. 20, paving his way to sign with a major league team for hundreds of millions of dollars, Yamamoto's meticulous, disciplined approach is not limited to the baseball field. Executives who have met with Yamamoto admire his preparedness. For years, he has awaited this moment. He peppered his Orix teammates who had played in the big leagues with questions about MLB. He overhauled his delivery to eliminate a weakness that could be exploited here. This year, he sent his best friend, who serves as his assistant, to Toronto to take English classes, travel to major league cities across the United States and collate information that would better inform his ultimate decision.

"He knew what he was getting himself into going into the season," said Lars Nootbaar, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who befriended Yamamoto when playing for Team Japan during the World Baseball Classic. "Publicly and amongst friends, he is the nicest, most caring person there is. But underneath that, he's a stone-cold killer. When he walks in a room, he's not just walking in. He knows what he's looking for. He takes notes on everything."

JACOB WAGUESPACK SIGNED with Orix before the 2022 season, and soon learned his new teammate Yamamoto had won his first Sawamura the previous season. Waguespack, who played with the Toronto Blue Jays for two seasons, stands 6-foot-6, weighs 235 pounds and sits around 92 mph with his fastball. How someone 8 inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter possessed the arsenal of MLB's best aces made no sense.

"I didn't know he was that much of the real deal until I got there," Waguespack said. "And then I was like, holy s---. The hype is real."

Following his first season in Japan, Waguespack saw Yamamoto as one of his closest friends on the team.He watched Yamamoto walk around Osaka, where the Buffaloes play, with a hat and a mask to avoid hordes of fans swarming him. He knew Yamamoto rarely traveled without his tiny, fluffy dog, Mikan, named after Japan's famous mandarin orange whose peel nearly matches the pup's fur color. And he watched his arm just keep getting better.

The scouting report on Yamamoto reads something like this: hyperathletic, elite flexibility, unlikely strength, ultrafast arm, exceptional movement patterns. His fastball sits at 95 mph, though velocity alone doesn't begin to describe why the pitch so flummoxes hitters. Yamamoto releases the ball from a low arm slot and has exceptional carry on his fastball, meaning its pure backspin causes it to drop less than a batter expects, so it looks as if it were rising. His splitter is every bit as dangerous as Kodai Senga's vaunted ghost fork, his curve out of the Adam Wainwright book of bend, his slider and cutter rarely used but each potentially a weapon against MLB hitters.

Since transitioning from the bullpen to Orix's rotation as a 20-year-old in 2019, Yamamoto has posted a 1.65 ERA over 820 innings. Batters have hit .189 against him and struck out in more than 27% of plate appearances. His walk rate is minuscule (2.0 per nine innings), his home run rate silly (0.32 per nine) and his win-loss record impressive (65-26). In the past three seasons, Yamamoto has ERAs of 1.39, 1.68 and 1.21. He faced 636 batters this year and yielded two homers -- all with a brand-new delivery.

"He comes to camp [in 2023] with a new windup, and it's like, dude, are you s---ting me?" Waguespack said. "He felt like he needed more momentum to the plate. The game was so easy to him, he felt like he could get better at one thing, and he did it."

Gone was Yamamoto's leg lift, replaced by a slide step to the plate. Not a typical out-of-the-stretch slide step, though. Yamamoto still started in a traditional windup, only to burst toward home plate -- in a fashion that's almost jarring, simply because no other pitcher does it -- with his lead leg barely off the ground. Yamamoto's clearest weakness, scouts had observed, was keeping runners at bay. He had long been too slow to the plate. After the change, he allowed four stolen bases all season, a quarter of what he had given up in 2022.

Yamamoto was moving with a dual purpose, and his athleticism eased the evolution. His new delivery called for more explosiveness, and rather than achieve that through added bulk, he remained steadfast in his ways, relying on a movement guru -- he goes by Yata Sensei, and one source familiar with his work called him a kinetics expert -- to design his training program.

"Over here, everyone puts such an emphasis on lifting weights, getting big, getting strong," said Jacob Nix, who played for the San Diego Padres before joining Orix this year. "And over there, they stretch and they throw. These guys long toss almost every day. Their light days, they're still going out 200-plus feet. It's a totally different style of baseball and training than we do here."

Added Nootbaar: "It is definitely unique -- not the norm here. It's not a lot of weight-bearing. It almost feels like the Tom Brady pliability, flexibility, elasticity sort of thing. He's adding strength in the positions he's getting in, but he's always making sure he's moving at a top level."

For all of Yamamoto's popularity, nobody appreciates the way he throws as much as his peers. Even as he moves at high rates of speed, his head remains remarkably still throughout his delivery, eyes toward the plate. When his front foot strikes the ground, his right arm is vertical -- "in the right spot on every pitch," Waguespack said -- and his hips still closed, ready to fire and carry his arm for the ride.

This winter in Los Angeles, Cleveland Guardians reliever Eli Morgan and Minnesota Twins starter Joe Ryan have worked out alongside Yamamoto and marveled at his abilities. Yamamoto, along with a catcher, his best friend and a trainer, sits in a circle with them and they stretch their hips. The soccer balls appear, as do the javelins. When Yamamoto starts playing catch -- from a variety of different positions: step-ins, modified crow hops, his new windup -- and unleashes his four-seam fastball, Morgan can't help but gawk.

"It's the carry he gets on the ball," Morgan said. "As someone who throws a four-seamer myself, that's the goal. Get the ball to your partner on a frozen rope."

Like everyone who sees Yamamoto, Morgan came away a believer. He's 5-foot-10, too, and he knows it's easy for teams to get hung up on things, like height. Yamamoto is also facing questions about adjusting from pitching one day a week in Japan to every fifth day in MLB or how he'll handle a ball with lower seams and less tack or how the looping curve will play in a league where hitters pray to see one upon which they can prey. All these concerns are valid. They're also not enough to stop the coming frenzy.

WHEN YAMAMOTO'S INTENTIONto join MLB crystallized earlier this year, executives started guessing what it would cost to sign him. Because he's 25, Yamamoto is no longer considered an international amateur and limited by shallow signing-bonus pools. Likewise, because he's 25, he is hitting free agency at an age no pitcher -- particularly not an elite one -- reaches the open market. The first wave of guesses clocked in around $175 million. By the time free agency started, teams figured the bidding would start at $200 million. In recent weeks, it has jumped to $250 million. And recently, multiple reports suggested teams already had offered Yamamoto deals in excess of $300 million.

Those reports, sources said, are inaccurate. Multiple high-ranking officials trying to sign Yamamoto told ESPN that teams were asked to give a preliminary bid at the start of the process to ensure they were serious -- but not necessarily in the neighborhood of where the deal is likely to land. Since then, those officials say, his agent, Joel Wolfe, has not solicited a new round of bids. Some teams, sources said, were interested in talking dollars recently but were asked not to do so yet; the expectation is that teams will start proposing contract terms as early as Monday.

Yamamoto's meetings have been with a who's who of big-market teams. Among the visitors to see him pitch in Japan this year were Los Angeles Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, San Francisco Giants president Farhan Zaidi and Chicago Cubs president Jed Hoyer. Less than two weeks ago, New York Mets owner Steve Cohen and president David Stearns flew to Japan for dinner with Yamamoto and his mother. They all wanted to see up close what they'd long heard from afar: Yamamoto is special well beyond the otherworldly numbers he puts up annually, and sojourning halfway around the world to indicate the seriousness of their interest was a small price.

Since Yamamoto came to the U.S. this winter, among those reported to have entertained him are the Philadelphia Phillies, Dodgers, Giants and Red Sox, along with the Mets and Yankees twice each -- which will only fuel the talk of a $300 million deal. The question is whether it reaches that number before or after the inclusion of the posting fee, which, for a $250 million contract, would be $39.4 million, or, at $300 million, would be $46.9 million.

The overall dollar figure also will depend on Yamamoto's priorities. Because of his age, he could sign a seven-year deal and hit free agency again at 32. He could target a 10-year contract but request an opt-out after the fourth season and be back on the market at 29. Teams could try to lock him up to a lifetime deal -- a dozen years or more -- that would dampen the competitive-balance-tax hit by lowering the average annual value of the contract.

What's clear is that, like with his countryman and WBC teammate Shohei Ohtani, the power to dictate terms is in Yamamoto's hands. For the concerns about moving to MLB, he need only point to Ohtani, Mets starter Kodai Senga and others whose moves to MLB went off with only minor hitches. Even with a free agent market that still has National League Cy Young winner Blake Snell and a trade market featuring Cy Young winners Corbin Burnes and Shane Bieber along with Dylan Cease, Yamamoto is the clear top choice of baseball's biggest spenders.

All of it tickles Nootbaar. Even if the Cardinals are on the outside looking in, he feels a kinship with Yamamoto that dates to the WBC. Nootbaar was born and raised in California but joined Samurai Japan because his mom, Kumiko, grew up in the prefecture next to Tokyo. At first, Nootbaar said, the language barrier felt like an impediment -- something Yamamoto noticed. He invited Nootbaar to dinner with the team's young stars -- right-handers Roki Sasaki and Hiroto Takahashi, left-hander Hiroya Miyagi and third baseman Munetaka Murakami -- along with Ippei Mizuhara, Ohtani's interpreter.

"Everything they did meant so much," Nootbaar said. "They were doing it for me. But they were also doing it for the team. And that's why as he goes through this process, I know he's going to make the right choice. He's concerned about the right things in his life."

Wherever Yamamoto lands, he'll pack his stuff -- including his bag -- and head off to the best baseball league in the world, the truest test of how good he really is. Whatever happens when he arrives, if it's anything like how he handles the rest of his life, it will be purposeful -- and great.

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