Yoshi Tsutsugo has been a very productive minor league signee by the Pittsburgh Pirates. While it’s only been a few games, does he have any future with the club?
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed corner infielder/outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo to a minor league deal. So far, his first few games with the Bucs have been exciting to watch. Entering play on Friday he was batting .333/.364/1.000 with the Pirates. In Friday night’s loss Tsutsugo was 1-for-3 with a triple and a walk at the plate.
With the Pittsburgh Pirates, all but one of his hits have gone for extra bases. Admittedly, we are looking at a very, very small sample size. Tsutsugo has just 25 plate appearances in a Pirate uniform. But is there any chance that he could play a role in the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates?
Before hitting the Major Leagues, Tsutsugo was one of Japan’s biggest sluggers. The lefty corner bat slammed 140 home runs in his final 4 seasons with his lowest slugging percentage during those years being .511. Overall, he reached the 200 home run milestone in Japan, smacking 205 long balls across 10 seasons.
Now in his first season with the Tampa Bay Rays, Tsutsugo showed some decent power and some strong plate patience. He hit .197/.314/.395, .309 wOBA, and 98 wRC+. Not great numbers by any means, but just slightly below average. This was because of his strong 14.1% walk rate and .197 isolated slugging percentage.
However Tsutsugo ran into some bad luck in his rookie campaign. He had an expected batting line of .211/.325/.421 with a .325 xwOBA. His batting average on balls in play sat below .250 at .230. Overall, his expected line would have been about league average production. The average 2020 hitter had a .245/.322/.418 line and .320 wOBA. Almost an identical on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and wOBA.
The power nor the plate discipline carried over in 2021. He started out the year with the Rays where he had a sub-.500 OPS, an ISO below .100, and a walk rate of just 9.2%. A large drop off from his 2020 season. After being released by the Rays, he signed with the Dodgers where things didn’t get much better. The Dodgers released him yet again, which is how he ended up with the Pirates.
There isn’t a question about his raw power potential. Tsutsugo has a 90.3 MPH exit velocity in the United States, as well as a 45% hard hit rate. Both are well above average, being similar to that of Jose Ramirez (90.6 MPH/44.4%), Carlos Correa (90.4 MPH/43.3%), and Brandon Lowe (90.2 MPH, 44.4%).
But while Tsutsugo rips the cover off the ball when he makes contact, he’s a flyball-or-bust kind of hitter. He has a 43.2% fly ball rate in the MLB and he has a line drive rate of a meager 14.6%. His 15.9 degree launch angle would be one of the highest in all baseball. While fly balls have an average slugging percentage of .720 and 142 wRC+ this year, line drives are by far the best possible batted ball result. They fall for a hit nearly 70% of the time (.686 batting average), have an even higher .883 slugging percentage, and 336 wRC+.
Sure, while he can’t hit line drives 100% of the time, a sub-18% rate is not going to cut it. Unless he has light-tower-power, which Tsutsugo sadly doesn’t have, he can’t keep putting up a sub-18% line drive rate and fly ball rate above 40%. Going back to 2018, not many batters have managed to consistently have a wRC+ around or above 100 with both a sub-18% line drive rate and fly ball rate above 40%. The ones who have are some of baseball’s strongest players like Pete Alonso, Matt Olson, and Miguel Sano just to name a few.
Now Tsutsugo did show some promise that he could hit more line drives with the Dodgers’ Triple-A team before being let go. He had a 19.8% line drive rate while still having a high 41.5% FB%. Although only 180 plate appearances, he put up a strong .257/.361/.507 line, .250 ISO, and .363 wOBA.
Now I doubt that Tsutsugo could ever be the player he was in Japan here in the United States. I’m not expecting that. But who’s to say he can’t be a solid bench bat? Tsutsugo can play multiple positions, having experience at first base, third base, and left field. Defensively, he isn’t bad either. Plus his underlying numbers suggested about a league average hitter in 2020. He has the raw power to be a good hitter, just needs to stop hunting for the long flyball all the time.
But if he can collect 300-350 plate appearances a year and hit .250/.350/.450 in a platoon/timeshare with Colin Moran and Mason Martin at first base and designated hitter while also providing some relief in the corner outfield spots. If he can get his LD% around 16%-18%, it isn’t too far fetched.
This is on the optimistic side. I’ll be the first to admit that. Anyone can look good in a such a small amount of plate appearances. However it’s not unrealistic either. A solid platoon/bench bat with some pop is something that could help the Pirates in the future. Right now, Tsutsugo looks like he could be one of those bats. Of course, he could decline over the next few weeks, but I don’t think this is a John Nogowski-like player. There’s more raw power as well as his resume in another country’s highest level of baseball.