Inside Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s pitch mix: Scouting report on Dodgers’ new ace proves his star potential

Yoshinobu Yamamoto arrived as a bit of an unprecedented free-agent signing.

He won three Pacific League MVPs, three Eiji Sawamura Awards, three pitching Triple Crowns and was a star in the World Baseball Classic as Team Japan’s ace. In December 2023, he inked a 12-year, $325 million contract with the Dodgers. It was the largest contract ever signed by a player to have never appeared in an MLB game.

Yamamoto’s debut in the Seoul Series left plenty to be desired. He surrendered five runs in just an inning on the mound, the most runs allowed by a Dodger making his debut while lasting only an inning or less.

However, there’s plenty to like about Yamamoto and it starts with his diverse arsenal. He comes armed with four standout pitches, all of which grade out as above-average to elite offerings. Though it’s not quite as many as Yu Darvish, who throws anywhere between seven and 11 pitches, Yamamoto’s arsenal still gives him one of the best arrays of pitches in the sport.

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What pitches does Yoshinobu Yamamoto throw?

Yamamoto throws four pitches: a fastball, a curveball, a cutter and a splitter.

Part of what has made Yamamoto the best pitcher in Japan over the past three seasons has been his elite command and control. Over his three straight seasons in which he won the Eiji Sawamura, Yamamoto walked only 110 batters across 557.2 innings, a 5.1 percent walk rate.

The Athletic’s Eno Sarris found Yamamoto’s Location+, which looks at throwing pitches in optimal locations, had elite command on his fastball and curveball and rated above-average on both the splitter and curveball.

But beyond his command and control, how electric is his stuff? We’re taking a look at each pitch looking at Baseball Savant data and analysis from Sarris’ scouting report.

Yamamoto threw only 43 pitches and they all came in the same inning, meaning there is not much info to gain from his outing against the Padres in Seoul. It is both a small sample size and a more deceptive one as he is going to pitch deeper into games and throw fewer pitches in a single inning than the 43 he threw.

Still, we’ll include his pitch velocity, vertical movement and horizontal movement on each pitch.

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Fastball

  • Velocity: 95.4 mph
  • Vertical movement: 13.1 inches of drop (7.9 vs. average)
  • Horizontal movement: 10.8 inches of break (2.2 vs. average)

The first thing that is likely to change over time is the average velocity. The velocity is likely to dip at least a little bit as the game goes on, with Sarris speculating he will likely sit more around 94 mph.

But the movement of the fastball combined with the velocity shows how dangerous of a pitch it can be. He grades as above-average in both vertical and horizontal movement on the pitch, which gives it all the makings of an above-average pitch. 

Last year, there were no fastballs that were 2.2 inches vs. average in horizontal movement and 7.9 inches vs. average in vertical movement. That would make Yamamoto’s perhaps the filthiest heater in the sport.

It’s likely the pitch will wind up losing a bit of movement and velocity as he puts together a larger sample size. But Sarris says the pitch compares with the fastballs of Kodai Senga and Kevin Gausman, and he expects it to be a 92nd percentile heater.

Cutter

  • Velocity: 90.9 mph
  • Vertical movement: 23.3 inches of drop (1.8 vs. average)
  • Horizontal movement: 1.2 inches of break (-1.6 vs. average)

The cutter has been an increasingly popular pitch and has been particularly noteworthy among relievers like Kenley Jansen. 

For Yamamoto, it has largely been regarded as his fourth pitch and one he might be less likely to use as often in the big leagues. The pitch has limited horizontal break and grades out as above-average in vertical movement, while averaging only 90.9 mph in velocity.

Sarris described the pitch overall as being graded as a negative pitch by Stuff+ metrics during the World Baseball Classic, and he said the expectation is largely that it will be a below-average cutter among MLB pitchers. 

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Splitter

  • Velocity: 90.3 mph
  • Vertical movement: 31.5 inches of drop (0.3 vs. average)
  • Horizontal movement: 13.4 inches of break (0.8 vs. average)

Like the cutter, the splitter is rapidly becoming one of baseball’s most popular pitches. Plenty of Japanese stars like Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka and Shohei Ohtani have helped popularize the pitch by turning it into filthy offerings that rival even the best curveballs in the game.

There’s a chance Yamamoto’s splitter might wind up as the best. Though the vertical and horizontal movement grade out only as around slightly above average so far this year, Sarris reported there were no splitters in MLB that combined Yamamoto’s 90-plus mph velocity on the pitch with at least 35 inches of drop found during the World Baseball Classic.

That heavy drop with such high velocity and some solid horizontal movement put it in an elite class of splitters. Sarris projects the pitch to be the best among all starters, highlighting the upside of the offering.

Curveball

  • Velocity: 78.6 mph
  • Vertical movement: 65.6 inches of drop (7.9 vs. average)
  • Horizontal movement: 13.6 inches of break (3.2 vs. average)

There might be some changing numbers as he gets deeper into his career, but as things stand, the curveball looks like an elite pitch early.

The pitch has 65.6 inches of vertical break, which would have ranked 15th in baseball last year and the drop vs. average of 7.9 inches would rank fifth. Adding to that, none of the pitches with more vertical break had a higher velocity, and only Danny Coulombe had a higher velocity (80.1 mph) and higher drop vs. average (10.8).

Then adding in the horizontal movement, where only two curveballs had more inches of break and inches of drop and none had at least 7.9 inches of drop vs. average and 3.2 inches of drop vs. average. 

The curve has the potential to be an elite pitch, giving him a third considerably well above-average offering, helping to provide him a standout breaking ball to throw off batters expecting another high-octane pitch.

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