Let's face it. April analysis is a genre dominated by overreaction and/or confirmation of priors. Every team entering play on Friday has at least 91% of its season remaining. There's ample time for hot starts to cool and frigid starts to thaw, and however a player has performed to date may not be indicative of what's to come. Even knowing all that, there are a slew of people around the league looking at how Boston Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida has performed and saying, if for now only to themselves, "told you so."
When rival evaluators questioned Yoshida's contract (five years, $90 million), they did so believing his above-average raw power would not transfer. They still thought he would hit for average and get on base at a good clip, but that profile was available elsewhere on the free-agent market for less money. (Andrew Benintendi, for example, signed for five years and $75 million.) It's way too early to know if those evaluators will be vindicated. It is fair to write, though, that Yoshida has not had a glamorous introduction to the majors. In 10 games, he's batted .216/.356/.324 (86 OPS+) with two extra-base hits.
It's understandable if Yoshida is still going through transition pains. His participation for Japan in the World Baseball Classic limited him to just a handful of spring training games. Even if he had played a full exhibition season, he'd still be in the early stages of immersing himself in a new culture and league. That's a stressful situation, and everyone adjusts on their own time. Yoshida, it just so happens, is one of the few fields where his performance is logged and scrutinized on a near-nightly basis.
Because Yoshida is likely to find himself under a more powerful microscope this weekend, when the Red Sox host Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels, we figured this would be an appropriate time to check in on him. Below, you'll find three statistics that explain his performance.
1. Launch angle
Yoshida's average launch angle so far is roughly minus-8 degrees, or the lowest among qualified hitters. What's more is that only 15% of Yoshida's batted balls have had a launch angle between 10 and 30 degrees. The league-average mark is 31%. Mind you, a higher launch angle is not always better. But, just as you don't want your batters hitting the ball straight up into the air, you also don't want them wearing out the dirt in front of the plate.
There are various reasons why a batter would have such an extreme launch angle: swing path; swing decisions; point of contact; bat speed; and so on.
We can eliminate the swing decision aspect in this case because he's hitting everything into the ground -- even elevated pitches.
To wit, Yoshida's launch angle on pitches located in the upper half of the zone is minus-9 degrees. The next worst among qualified batters belongs to Jean Segura, at minus-4.9. Only one other player is below minus-1 degrees in that respect. Whatever the exact issue is with Yoshida's swing, it's been consistent.
We feel obligated to note that only four qualified hitters have finished with a negative launch angle over the last five seasons: Raimel Tapia (2021), Wilson Ramos (2019), Eric Hosmer (2018), and Ian Desmond (2018). The highest OPS+ of the four was 106. Two of the other three finished below 85. As such, that's probably not the group you want Yoshida associated with heading forward.
2. Exit velocity
Again, Yoshida's slugging output was the biggest concern evaluators had about him. He's yet to put those doubts to rest, either with results or processes.
Coming into Friday, Yoshida's average exit velocity this season was 85.4 mph. The league-average mark in that statistic was 88.8 mph. Yoshida, then, was keeping company with light-hitting middle infielders, like Tony Kemp and CJ Abrams. You wouldn't want either playing a corner-outfield spot. He has recorded exit velocities of 95 mph or greater on 36% of his batted balls. Unfortunately, that's also below the league-average mark (40%).
Masataka Yoshida's first MLB home run— David Adler (@_dadler) April 4, 2023
104.6 mph to the opposite field against a 96.2 mph fastball that was 3.46 feet high
Fun fact: He's the only lefty in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008) to go oppo over the Green Monster off a pitch that hard and that high pic.twitter.com/7UpnwQjLDi
One of the blanket concerns teams have about batters transferring from foreign leagues is how they'll handle MLB-caliber fastballs. That concern is more common these days with players making the leap from the Korea Baseball Organization. Still, Yoshida hasn't fared well. His exit velocity numbers are notably worse when they're limited to performance against heaters: his average EV (84.9 mph) places him in the 14th percentile.
Yoshida isn't hitting the ball hard, and he isn't hitting at a good angle. We always like to end on a positive, so what, exactly, is he doing well to date?
3. Chase rate
In our estimation, the biggest positive in Yoshida's performance to date has been his feel for the strike zone. His chase rate (18.6%) is far better than the league-average (27.7%). Part of that is because he's not swinging often. Indeed, he's offered at fewer than 40% of the pitches he's seen, putting him in the vicinity of Steven Kwan, Max Muncy, and other notoriously picky hitters.
Of course, one of the upshots of commanding the zone is putting yourself in advantageous counts. Then, you can key-in on a certain pitch and do damage if you get it. Yoshida isn't striking the ball with enough authority, or on a good enough plane, to make the most of his apparent eye.
If Yoshida can make the necessary adjustments -- and, hey, there's nothing but highway ahead of him this season -- then his ability to discern balls from strikes could help turn around the narrative about him and his contract.