Dodgers' Yoshinobu Yamamoto investment looking dicey after Home Run Derby in Seoul

The Seoul Series ends in a draw, with the San Diego Padres winning 15-11 after an all-out slug fest. While all eyes may be on the Shohei Ohtani gambling scandal, one performance is turning heads, and not in a positive way.

2024 Seoul Series - San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers
2024 Seoul Series - San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers / Masterpress/GettyImages

The second game in the regular season was a hitting contest in South Korea in which the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres launched home runs into the Gocheok Skydome air. Today's dinger frenzy also marked highly-touted Los Angeles Dodgers righty Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s MLB regular season debut.

The former Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) star allowed five runs and one walk while only lasting one inning. Although one lousy outing shouldn’t be indicative of a player’s overall performance, his games during spring training haven’t been exactly the best, either, where he’s allowed nine runs in over eight innings pitched. However, when a player is worth over $370 million dollars (his $325 million dollar contract, plus the posting fee paid to the Orix Buffaloes, his former team), it’s no surprise that some eyebrows are being raised. 

The hype behind Yamamoto is legitimate. He only allowed one hit against Australia in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, struck out eight, and totaled 18 strikeouts in the 2021 Olympics, eventually winning gold with Team Japan in both events. His career in NPB speaks for itself: three Pacific League MVPs, a 1.82 ERA over seven seasons, and three straight Sawamura awards between 2021-2023. Yamamoto’s scouting report boasts a fastball that reaches 99 MPH, and a 78 MPH curveball that works well against both right and left-handed batters. It’s no wonder the Dodgers wanted to lock him up long-term, with advanced pitch data being able to more accurately communicate these days how his stuff should translate from NPB to MLB.

And yet...

One aspect that Yamamoto lacked today was command, per Bleacher Report: 

"It was mostly the off-speed stuff with which Yamamoto was missing the strike zone. That's fine if a pitcher is tunneling…that isn't what Yamamoto was doing…not throwing his pitches where he wanted to.When he did hit the zone, he tended to catch too much of it. That was the case on three of the four hits he gave up, and none as much as on a 1-0 splitter that just sort of hung there for Jake Cronenworth to bash for a two-run triple."

Bleacher Report

His command struggles appeared in Dodgers spring training games, too, where after his promising debut “against Texas, hitters hit .389 against him.” Manager Dave Roberts chalked up Yamamoto’s struggles to him getting used to MLB-style baseball. To Roberts’ point, Shohei Ohtani, in his first spring training with the Los Angeles Angels, posted a 27.00 ERA. His first game saw him allow three runs. Kodai Senga also struggled in his early outings with the Mets.  So, yes, there is a learning curve for Yamamoto, and grace should be extended as such.

If anything, the Yamamoto experiment is emblematic of the current MLB zeitgeist, especially with large market teams. The Dodgers' (among other teams) current front office philosophy, “throw money at flashy talent,” can only get them so far. Despite the likes of Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, and other superstars, the Dodgers haven’t sniffed the World Series since 2020. They’ve played in the postseason but have been stopped in the division or championship rounds. The Dodgers spent one billion dollars on two players alone, Ohtani and Yamamoto. Over 370 million dollars is a significant investment for a player who has never played Major League Baseball. This is not to disparage Yamamoto, who clearly has talent and hopefully will make it in the Major Leagues, but rather a criticism of the organization and the trend it is creating for other teams.