Yamamoto vs. Imanaga Could Make for a Great Awards Race

Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga are settling in nicely, making early cases for themselves in the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year races.

Shota Imanaga of the Chicago Cubs delivers a pitch in his MLB debut against the Colorado Rockies during the first inning at Wrigley Field.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - APRIL 01: Shota Imanaga #18 of the Chicago Cubs delivers a pitch in his MLB debut against the Colorado Rockies during the first inning at Wrigley Field on April 01, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

When the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to give $325 million to a player who had never appeared in Major League Baseball, it was an indicator that Yoshinobu Yamamoto would be a force almost immediately. 

Whether or not he would be better than every single pitcher in his league and win the Cy Young Award as a rookie — something only fellow Dodger and international import Fernando Valenzuela (1981) ever accomplished — is one thing.

To be the best amongst a much smaller class of players and win the Rookie of the Year Award seemed like much more of a sure thing for Yamamoto.

Then Shota Imanaga showed up.

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A veteran of NPB for eight years, Imanaga posted an impressive 3.18 ERA for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. Considering Yamamoto’s NPB ERA was more than a full run better (1.82 ERA over seven seasons), Imanaga was viewed as an older, left-handed version of Yamamoto with much less upside.

Three weeks after the 25-year-old Yamamoto signed his record-setting deal, the 30-year-old Imanaga finalized a four-year, $53 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.

The Throwing Philosopher, a nickname Imanaga earned with the BayStars, does not have the same overpowering fastball as his countryman. Instead, he relies on a deceptive mix of pitches that are hard to pick up due to several components of his offerings.

When it comes to these two 5-foot-10 starting pitchers, describing them as unique is an understatement, especially when being different is such a valued commodity in this sport.

Philosopher or Wizard?

Yamamoto’s early success has not been as much of a surprise as Imanaga’s.

For Imanaga, it began with an MLB debut at the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field for the Cubs home opener. In front of 40,000 diehards and an opposing dugout of Colorado Rockies hungry to build some momentum on the road, Imanaga was unhittable

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“I feel like he was very prepared,” Kris Bryant said of Imanaga. “I think he’s definitely a little more mature. I’m sure he had some nerves. To me, it looked like it was just another day in the office for him.”

Were it not for a Christopher Morel error in the second inning, a perfect game could have been at hand. Even still, the left-hander entered the sixth inning without having allowed a base hit before Charlie Blackmon and Brendan Rodgers broke through on consecutive singles. 

“A pitching report can only be so much for a guy you’ve never really faced, that the whole team has never faced,” Rodgers said of his preparation for the lefty. “You can only watch so much video and see what it’s doing on the video compared to the game.

Everything about Imanaga’s arsenal was praised by his first regular season opponent.

“Part of what makes him really, really good there is because he’s shorter,” Bryant explained. “So there’s really no angle coming down. It’s just like really jumpy and it stays on the same plane. I’ve never really seen a pitcher like that because a lot of the pitchers (in the majors) are pretty big. His changeup is like a split. And you don’t really see split-finger changeups from lefties either. They got a good one over there.”

In start number two against the Dodgers, Imanaga gave up just as many hits and runs as in his debut. Not only was he facing a lineup with more accomplished hitters, but he also faced off against Shohei Ohtani in the first inning.

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Imanaga dispatched Ohtani on six pitches, striking out the biggest superstar to ever play in Japan and arguably the best hitter in MLB today.

He gave up a single in the first to Freddie Freeman and another to Teoscar Hernández in the second before retiring the next nine in a row. Were it not for a three-hour rain delay, he might have been able to match the six shutout innings from his debut.

In only 10.0 innings and 135 pitches, Imanaga has now become a must-see performer whenever he takes the ball every five days.

Yoshi’s Story

Yamamoto’s transition to MLB has been a bit better than his 4.09 ERA might suggest. 

He started early, before proper Opening Day, during the second game of the Seoul Series on March 21. The Dodgers right-hander was hit hard by the San Diego Padres, surrendering five earned runs in one inning of work.

In his next two outings, Yamamoto steadied himself and looked to be the pitcher that’s been advertised. His five scoreless frames at home against the St. Louis Cardinals and another five on the road against the Cubs showed he can be the player L.A. expected. 

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Yamamoto allowed just seven baserunners (5 H, 2 BB) and struck out 13 during his second and third outings. Those performances left little doubt as to why he won both the best pitcher and best overall player awards the last three seasons in Japan.

The early data on Yamamoto’s curveball shows the elite tendencies that scouts have raved about: 2,780 rpm, 63.0 inches of vertical movement and 17.1 inches of drop (most among starters in 2024). 

In other words, Tyler Kepner may need to add a few pages on Yamamoto when he updates his modern classic K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches. Alongside Candy Cummings, the creator of the curve, and some of the greats who’ve spun it — Sandy Koufax, Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw — will surely appear Yamamoto’s name in the 10th-anniversary edition.

First-Hand Accounts

Imanaga has arguably been better than his fellow rookie, even when ignoring Yamamoto’s Seoul Series performance. In his 10 innings of work this month, the Cubs’ southpaw has allowed only four baserunners (two hits and no walks in both starts) and struck out 12.

According to some of the hitters who have faced him, Imanaga very well may be the biggest bargain in baseball. Kyle Freeland, who also pitched in the 2023 World Baseball Classic championship game, has been impressed with Team Japan’s starter.

“He’s gonna be a problem for a while in the league,” Freeland said. “He’s got a very fast arm. Seems like he tunnels very, very well with all of his pitches. Obviously, kept our guys very off balance throughout the entire game with his pitch mix.”

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Several Rockies explained how unique of a look Imanaga has. From his mechanics in both the windup and stretch to his shorter stature and lower release point from the left side. It’s simply unlike anything seen on this side of the Pacific.

“Low release, high ride is something that as hitters we have to adjust to, and seeing that early in the season is sometimes tough,” left-handed hitter Nolan Jones said. “I think it’s something that will definitely play.”

Bryant said even from the stretch he’s different. Timing his leg kick, which is quick to the plate, was also a challenge. 

“The motion is different. You see that with Darvish and Ohtani. That’s how they teach it,” he said of Imanaga. “It’s like art (when) you watch them pitch.”

At one-sixth the price tag of Yamamoto, Imanaga has gone from a dark horse in the NL Rookie of the Year conversation to a certified contender in about a week.

Whether you’ve converted to The Throwing Philosopher or have decided it’s still Yoshi’s World, one thing is clear: The best players in the world are not confined to the contiguous United States.

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“Guys like that coming over from Japan and Korea, places like that, you don’t know how things are going to turn out,” Freeland said. “But all the guys that we’ve been seeing coming over have been exactly what they’ve been portrayed to be. And it’s cool to see it because that means that everyone’s getting better and the league is getting better and we’re trending upwards.”