Sasaki and Murakami Shine as Next Japanese Stars

A look into the arrival of two Japanese superstars at the WBC.

The World Baseball Classic has come and gone, and with it, baseball fans got everything they could have ever asked for with upsets during the pool stage and an all-time dramatic finish: Mike Trout vs. Shohei Ohtani! I’d bet they are working on the movie script right now. While the two Angels teammates capped off an incredible few weeks of international play, who were the notable supporting stars for the Japanese national team, formally known as Samurai Japan, and who were the biggest names that blessed the world with a brief glimpse of what’s to come in the future?

Roki Sasaki and Munetaka Murakami put on a show for all baseball fans, and now we’re on notice for their eventual move stateside. The dynamic arm from Sasaki and the unique power from Murakami headlined exciting potential for Samurai Japan leading into the tournament, and they didn’t disappoint in the biggest moments.


Up and Coming Talents


Before discussing the recent history, let’s look at their performance in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league.

Roki Sasaki, 21, is the leading man for an eventual move to MLB. Debuting for the Chiba Lotte Marines in NPB in 2021, Sasaki tallied only 63.1 IP in 11 games. Although, the positive results were swift as he finished the season with a dominant 2.27 ERA in his first taste of professional baseball. Along with a 9.66 K/9 and 2.67 FIP, there wasn’t much left to be desired from the 20-year-old prodigy.

After a strong start to his career, Sasaki outdid himself with a truly remarkable 2022 campaign. Remaining relative to already discussed stats, his K/9 blasted up to 12.04 with a wowing 1.70 FIP. In 20 starts he managed 129.1 IP, 2 complete games, and a 9-4 record, including a stretch of 17 straight perfect innings. Sasaki’s average start eclipsed 6 IP and at a young age proved to be the definition of an ace. Sasaki has rare arm talent and currently maintains one of the highest average fastball velocities in the world:

Now to the batter’s box. Sitting at the very top of the NPB hitting stats is Munetaka Murakami, 23. When pulling up the leaderboard, it was staggering to see how dominant Murakami was at the plate for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. The 6′ 2″, 215 lb. 3rd baseman set a new precedent in 2022. In his 4th full season, he hit 56 home runs to set a new NPB record. The home run record sat at the top of a historic campaign totaling 134 RBI and a 1.168 OPS. Murakami was simply the best in NPB with a whopping 10.2 WAR and 231 OPS+.

In Murakami’s previous 3 seasons, all the consistency was there to precede the 2022 season. Availability is the best ability, and Murakami has never played less than 120 games (NPB has a 143-game season), has hit over 28 home runs in each full season, and has finished 3 seasons with over a .400 OBP.

The table was set for both going into 2023. The WBC was in front of them and with a historically dominant 2022 campaign in the rearview, they still had everything to prove in front of millions of new eyes in the pool stage and championship bracket.

The statistics above are provided by npbstats.com


WBC Performance


Samurai Japan was off to a roaring start to the WBC in Pool B. After Ohtani and Darvish, the long-established top-end starters, Sasaki was slated to pitch third in the rotation against the Czech Republic. In 3.2 IP, Sasaki racked up 8 strikeouts and showed off his devastating 1-2 punch with his fastball and splitter. Sasaki tees you up with 100+ mph, and then crushes your spirits with an incredible wipeout off-speed pitch:

After capturing everyone’s attention in his first start, his next opportunity would be against Mexico in the semi-finals. Mexico had been red hot, knocking out Puerto Rico and winning Pool C which included a win over Team USA. While he struggled a bit more in this matchup, allowing a home run, the strike thrower continued to display the pitch mix:

And in a perfect sequence of events for this piece, Murakami stepped into the Japan-Mexico game and left his impact on the WBC. Sasaki had left the game with Mexico leading 3-0. After some runs traded back and forth, the world watched as the vaunted top of Japan’s lineup was due, down 1 run in the bottom of the 9th inning. Up until that point, Murakami had a mere .143 BA (3 for 21) in the WBC. As with so many superstars, the moment was met with a clutch swing:

After the long road of battling through 2 weeks of unexpected struggles, Murakami only needed one impact swing in the finals against Team USA. I don’t think it can be understated that after a Trea Turner home run in the top of the same inning and seizing the early momentum, Japan’s best hitter struck back:

Swiftly after that swing, Japan loaded the bases, and Team USA surrendered one more run on a fielder’s choice. The damage was done, and Japan held the lead and provided us with the dramatics of the aforementioned Ohtani vs. Trout matchup to end the game.

Sasaki left early impacts in the WBC and Murakami late, but combined provided an exceptional level of success from Samurai Japan who went undefeated during the tournament.


The Timeline to MLB


I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when imagining Murakami in Yankee pinstripes. That left-handed swing in Yankee Stadium … Sheesh! Although, we will likely need to wait until 2026, after his contract clause with the Swallows states he must be posted, according to SI. Murakami will be 26 and in the prime of his career, perfectly teed up to be courted by MLB’s biggest franchises.

Based on the restrictions around the NPB posting system, it seems Sasaki will be on a similar timeline. 2027 is the soonest he can hit unrestricted international free agency, when he will be 25 years old, according to The Sporting News.

In the meantime, MLB teams can negotiate with the Swallows and Marines to get ahold of these two generational talents through the posting system, but I wouldn’t hold your breath for a move in the near future.


The Shooting Stars of Japan


Just like that, these stars have come and gone from the day-to-day viewing of MLB fans. The international stage provides something truly special, an opportunity to see players that you have heard of, or read about, but never have a chance to watch play. Roki Sasaki and Munetaka Murakami headlined Samurai Japan alongside staple names like Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish, recent Red Sox signing Masataka Yoshida, and other incredible players, and seemed to set themselves up for future MLB intrigue.

While it is impossible to outshine the two-way unicorn that is Shohei Ohtani, both of these players proved their ability in front of baseball fans across the world. The two young NPB superstars lit up the WBC fields for such a brief moment this spring and North and Latin American fans are wondering when they’ll be able to witness their greatness again. Will it be the next WBC in 2026? Or after they sign with an MLB club? One thing is for certain, both of these players will light up the field once they do.

Andrew Abramo

Andrew Abramo is a Staff Writer at Pitcher List. He's a lifelong baseball and sports fan, as well as a PC and Nintendo Switch gamer, cat dad, and proud husband.

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