Who is Rōki Sasaki? Meet Japan's pitching sensation set to become World Baseball Classic star

Who is Rōki Sasaki? Meet Japan's pitching sensation set to become World Baseball Classic star

Japan headed into this year’s World Baseball Classic with one of the most exciting rosters of any country. While Shohei Ohtani’s name will always jump off the page, there’s another pitcher on the roster baseball fans had been aching to see since stories of his dominance starting becoming international news: 21-year-old Chiba Lotte Marines right-hander Rōki Sasaki.

Sasaki is building a Wilt Chamberlain-esque legend in the United States, where some of his conquests seem too incredible to be believed. The stats, however, are there. They’re real. And they’re utterly dominant.

Indeed, in Sasaki’s one World Baseball Classic start, he went 3 2/3 innings, giving up two hits and a run allowed. He also struck out eight in the outing against the Czech Republic.

Sasaki was a clear-cut first overall pick in the 2019 NPB draft, and four teams were vying for him. The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Saitama Seibu Lions, and Marines all submitted contested picks for Sasaki. Ultimately, the Marines won the rights to negotiate a contract. Chiba Lotte rested Sasaki in the 2020 season after giving him a signing bonus of 100 million yen (about $700,000 US).

The pitcher’s debut came in 2021, and he finished his rookie season with a 4-2 record in the Japan Eastern League and the Japan Pacific League, with a 1.84 ERA and 87 strikeouts to 19 walks.

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In 2022, Sasaki began to build his myth. He threw a perfect game against the Orix Buffaloes on April 10, 2022 with 19 strikeouts, which tied the NPB record previously set by Koji Noda. At one point he fanned 13 straight batters, breaking the baseball world record previously held by Corbin Burnes, Aaron Nola, and Tom Seaver in MLB. In his very next start, Sasaki went eight perfect innings against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters before being pulled to preserve his arm. 

It’s quite a resume for someone so young. Here’s more to know about one of the potential breakout stars of the 2023 World Baseball Classic: 

How old is Rōki Sasaki?

Born Nov. 3, 2001, Sasaki is dominating at just 21 years old. He was drafted at 18 years old by Chiba Lotte.

Sasaki will be 21 in the World Baseball Classic this year.

Sasaki was being looked at by MLB teams when he was in high school before signing with the Marines. He lost his home, father, and grandparents in the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.

“It’s been 11 years but I cannot easily erase the agony and sadness I felt at the time,” Sasaki said in 2022, per The Guardian. “I’ve been able to dedicate myself to baseball thanks to the support I’ve had. I only have the sense of gratitude to those who supported me.”

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Did Rōki Sasaki pitch the best perfect game ever?

Mileage, of course, will vary on whether or not Sasaki threw the best game baseball has ever seen. But his performance on April 10, 2022 against Orix has to be in the conversation.

Sasaki threw a perfect game against the Buffaloes in which he struck out 19 batters, including 13 in a row. He closed out the first inning by striking out now-Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida, and proceeded to strike out the side in the second, third, and fourth innings.

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Thirteen different players made plate appearances for the Buffaloes, and Sasaki recorded at least one strikeout on 11 of them. Of the nine players who took multiple at-bats, Sasaki struck out five of them multiple times.

By the end of the game, Sasaki had struck out 70 percent of the batters he faced. It was the first perfect game NPB had seen since 1994, and Sasaki, at 20 years and five months, became the youngest player to record a perfect game in NPB history.

“This is the greatest,” Sasaki said of the game after, per ESPN. “Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about the possibility. I figured it would be OK if I gave up a hit, so I just pitched and put my trust in (catcher Kō) Matsukawa right until the end.”

The hype for Sasaki ballooned to an almost unbelievable level following the game.

“I think Sasaki definitely surpassed (Shohei) Ohtani for a brief period, especially with him coming so close to another perfect game in his next start,” said The Japan Times’ Jason Coskrey last year, per The Ringer.

How did Rōki Sasaki almost throw two straight perfect games?

Sasaki flirted with perfection in his very next start with Chiba Lotte, this time against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

The righty faced 24 batters in eight innings and struck out 14 of them, once again staying perfect throughout.

However, Sasaki was at 102 pitches by the time the eighth inning ended, and he was taken out of the game to preserve his arm in a 1-0 game.

Chiba Lotte would go on to lose 1-0 in 10 innings, but Sasaki’s dominance became legend. He had retired 52 straight batters and gone 17 perfect innings. That streak ended on the first pitch he threw in his next start.

“This was so exciting, I don’t have words. Our guys just hung in there, and we kept saying on the bench let’s get something going,” Hokkaido outfielder Chusei Mannami, who hit the game-winning home run, said after the game, per CBS Sports. “(Sasaki) is just too tough. The way that forkball drops? Forget about it.”

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Rōki Sasaki 2022 stats

Sasaki finished 9-4 in his second season with the Marines, posting an ERA of 2.02.

He struck out 173 batters and walked 23 in 129 1/3 innings pitched.

Rōki Sasaki height and weight

Sasaki stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 203 pounds, per the NPB website.

What pitches does Rōki Sasaki throw?

Sasaki has a fastball-splitter combo that has proven to be lethal in NPB.

His fastball tops out around 103 mph, and CBS Sports said Sasaki’s fastball averaged out at 99.5 mph in his perfect game against the Buffaloes. It also had 19.8 inches of vertical break and 15.4 inches of horizontal break.

Sasaki also has a wipeout splitter that averages 91.2 mph with 2.3 inches of vertical and 7.8 inches of horizontal break. His splitter will also be called a forkball.

His splitter and fastball have a nearly indiscernible release point. Here’s what they look like.

His stuff obviously hasn’t diminished in 2023.

Will Rōki Sasaki come to MLB?

Does all of this sound enticing to MLB fans? It certainly should. But don’t expect to see Sasaki in the United States any time soon.

The posting rules from NPB are complicated, but in short, Sasaki doesn’t become an international free agent until he plays for the Marines for nine years.

Sasaki can ask to be posted when he is 25 or has six years of experience with the Marines.

As exciting as the prospect of seeing Sasaki throw in MLB is, it’s not going to happen anytime soon, likely until 2027 unless he opts to try to come over early. In the meantime, all eyes will be on the Marines as Sasaki continues to grow and improve as a pitcher.