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[ODDS and EVENS] Baseball Phenom Rintaro Sasaki Forges Own Path by Deciding to Attend Stanford

Turning down a chance to start his pro career as a teenager in Japan, Rintaro Sasaki will further develop his skills at Stanford before aiming to play in MLB.

In the future, teenage superstar slugger Rintaro Sasaki aspires to be a successful Major League Baseball player, following in the footsteps of Hanamaki Higashi High School graduates Shohei Ohtani and Yusei Kikuchi.

Sasaki, who will graduate from the Iwate Prefecture school in March, is preparing to enroll at Stanford University in April.

The all-time leader in home runs (140, including in unofficial games) in Japanese high school baseball history, Sasaki could have chosen to enter the 2023 NPB draft in the autumn. Sasaki, currently recognized as the top current high school baseball prospect in his homeland, was expected to be the No 1 pick.

Instead, he chose an unconventional path for an elite Japanese baseball player, opting to attend an American university, play the college game and strive to reach the majors.

For context, remember this: The Chicago White Sox selected University of Oregon's Rikuu Nishida, an Osaka native, in the 11th round of the MLB's amateur draft in June 2023. Nishida was the only Japanese player selected in the past decade.

Sasaki will be eligible to be drafted by an MLB team after three seasons at Stanford, a college baseball powerhouse that has appeared in three consecutive College World Series. Since 2000, 19 Stanford players have been chosen in the first round of the MLB draft.

Sasaki, who turns 19 on April 18, signed a national letter of intent to play baseball at Stanford on Tuesday, February 13.

Rintaro Sasaki
An announcement that Rintaro Sasaki has signed a national letter of intent to attend Stanford University appears on the school's athletics department website. (ⒸSANKEI)

A Decision That Will Influence Rintaro Sasaki's Future

Moving away from Japan can help Sasaki mature as an athlete and as a person. I think he's made a smart decision.

In addition, the new environment at Stanford will help him broaden his views about the world at large. And the opportunity to learn English on a daily basis at the highly respected university could benefit him if he makes it to the majors.

Before that time, Sasaki will have an opportunity to compete for a spot in the Stanford lineup and further develop his impressive baseball skills.

Former NPB and MLB star Hideki Matsui, the 2009 World Series MVP, believes Sasaki has made the right choice.

"I think he's going to gain experience he can't get in Japan, in both his studies and in baseball," Matsui, a spring training instructor for the Yomiuri Giants, was quoted as saying by Kyodo News in Miyazaki.

The retired slugger known as "Godzilla," during his pro career added, "I wish him a good college life. Graduating there will be hard. That was the thing that stuck most in my mind."

Rintaro Sasaki
Rintaro Sasaki, seen in December 2023, clubbed a Japan-record 140 home runs in his high school career at Hanamaki Higashi High School in Iwate Prefecture. Future major leaguers Yusei Kikuchi and Shohei Ohtani previously attended the school. (KYODO)

Twenty-one years after Matsui played his first game for the Yankees in 2003, the impending arrival of another powerful Japanese slugger in the United States is a big deal at Stanford.

"We are excited to welcome Rintaro into our Stanford family," Cardinal coach David Esquer said, reacting to the announcement of Sasaki's signing. "He may be the most high-profile international prospect to play college baseball in the United States in a long time."

In a news release, Esquer added: "His power bat plays right into our style of play, and we look forward to him contributing immediately to help us achieve our goals of competing for and winning national titles."

Sasaki Raised the Bar During His High School Career

In addition to his prolific power-hitting statistics, the 184-cm first baseman had a .413 batting average in his high school career. What's more, Sasaki had a .514 on-base percentage (while drawing a large number of walks) and a whopping .808 slugging percentage playing under well-regarded Hanamaki Higashi High baseball mentor Hiroshi Sasaki, his father.

The elder Sasaki also coached Ohtani and Kikuchi at the school.

Both MLB players began their pro careers in Japan, although Ohtani had expressed the desire to bypass NPB and start his pro career in North America. He opted, of course, to stay in Japan, was selected No 1 by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the 2012 NPB draft and developed into a two-way star with the Fighters. And the rest is history.

Under MLB's international free agency rules, an NPB player isn't eligible for free agency until he's accrued nine seasons of service time.

The posting system, however, enables NPB players to pursue opportunities to sign contracts with MLB teams before they become international free agents.

Rintaro Sasaki
Rintaro Sasaki (ⒸSANKEI)

Sasaki sought advice from Ohtani and Kikuchi before deciding in the fall of 2023 to skip the NPB draft and explore opportunities to play college baseball in the United States, according to published reports.

Now with his mind made up to delay his pro baseball career, Rintaro Sasaki will be a high-profile example for Japanese players eyeing a future in MLB. He thrived in high school in Japan.

So who's to say playing college baseball in the United States is the wrong next step for him?

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.


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