What Comes Next for Japan’s Greatest High School Slugger

The record holder for home runs in Japanese high school baseball history has signed his National Letter of Intent to play for Stanford University starting in the 2025 season.

Rintaro Sasaki, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound first baseman, was viewed by many as the presumed No. 1 pick in Japan’s next Nippon Professional Baseball draft following his record-setting high school career. Instead, Sasaki shocked many when he announced his decision to come overseas to play college baseball last October.

Sasaki was choosing between the University of California Los Angeles, University of California, Vanderbilt University, and Stanford, according to reports. After he first announced his choice to come to America, ESPN had Vanderbilt as the early front-runner due to a Japanese report and “industry chatter.”

Sasaki is the most prolific power hitter in Japanese high school baseball history, totaling 140 home runs during his three years. Sasaki hit  .413/.514/808 (average/on-base/slugging) while playing at Hanamaki-Higashi High School under his father Hiroshi Sasaki. Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani also played under coach Sasaki at the same high school. 

“He may be the most high-profile international prospect to play college baseball in the United States in a long time,” Cardinals head coach David Esquer said. “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.”

Scouts view Sasaki’s raw power as his best tool. He also has a great eye at the plate, drawing twice as many walks as strikeouts in his career. Adjusting to higher pitch velocity will be one of Sasaki’s biggest challenges. The average velocity for Division I pitchers is around 89 miles per hour, with top baseball schools like the University of Tennessee and Louisiana State University averaging over 93 MPH. Sasaki typically faced mid-80s pitching in high school. 

While a player of his caliber has never made a move like this, there is one recent success story that Sasaki can take inspiration from. Rikuu Nishida became an 11th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2023 after graduating from Tohoku High School in Japan and coming over to play baseball at the University of Oregon

Many would assume his choice to play college baseball in America is for name, image, and likeness money. However, his status as an international college athlete restricts what he can do with NIL on American soil. 

Visas for International College Athletes

International college athletes coming to the US are typically on F-1 student visas, which restricts them from off-campus employment unless it is tied to their area of study. They are allowed to fulfill deals in their home country but are prohibited from doing anything due to the F-1 student visa limits. Sasaki will be joining Stanford with this student visa. 

The O-1A visa, or the “Extraordinary Ability” visa, is a non-immigrant visa for an individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, business, education, or athletics. This visa has no restrictions on NIL deals that international college athletes can sign. Given Sasaki’s prolific record and achievements in Japanese high school baseball, there is potential for him to receive this visa if he were to apply. 

The first O-1A visa for NIL-related purposes was given in late 2022 to Hansel Emmanuel, the basketball player with one arm who went viral for high-flying dunks and now plays for Austin Peay University. Emmanuel received this special visa over a year after applying for it.

Granting Emmanuel the O-1A visa has given him the ability to do NIL deals in America and elsewhere, which he has taken advantage of. He teamed up with Gatorade, Adidas, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s ZOA Energy, and Banreservas, the largest bank in the Dominican Republic. Emmanuel’s $1.2M NIL valuation ranks him 15th in the nation, according to On3. 

With Sasaki’s potential for stardom and the large Japanese population on the West Coast, he has plenty of opportunities for NIL. He won’t start playing for the Cardinals’ baseball team until 2025, so the timeline for the application and approval of the O-1A visa could line up with the start of his baseball career at Stanford. 

Rapsodo, a company that uses advanced analytics and biometrics to improve player performance, inked an NIL deal with multiple top draft prospects last season, including SEC sluggers Jac Caglianone and Blake Burke. If Sasaki finds success in college baseball, he has a chance to open doors for all kinds of NIL deals.

His choice to play college baseball in America seems to be beyond trying to make NIL money in college. Instead, it looks like Sasaki wanted to challenge himself by speeding up his timeline to MLB through college baseball and the draft. 

The NPB Draft and Posting System

High school baseball players in Japan and the United States are eligible for their respective drafts upon graduation. In Japan, players typically take less time to reach the big league team, known as the ichi-gun team (“first troop”), due to having only one farm team, which is the ni-gun (“second troop”) team. In America, Minor League Baseball has Low-A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, which doesn’t include the Rookie-level that most high school draftees start at.

NPB players with under nine years of experience have to ask their teams to be “posted” for MLB clubs to sign them. MLB teams will be required to pay a release fee that is contingent upon the guaranteed value of the player’s contract. A player who has turned 25 and completed six seasons in NPB can sign a contract that is free of restrictions, which is what Yoshinobu Yamamoto did this past off-season when he left the NPB’s Orix Buffaloes and joined the Los Angeles Dodgers for $325 million. 

Players meeting neither of these criteria face contract limitations due to the amount of international bonus pool money that MLB teams can spend. Shohei Ohtani’s first contract with the Los Angeles Angels included a signing bonus of just $2.3M and a major league minimum salary due to these rules. Coming over to America two years early and earning less money on his first contract allowed Ohtani to sign his record-setting $700M contract two years earlier.

Why Sasaki’s Decision Makes Sense

By forgoing the NPB draft and opting to play college baseball for Stanford, Sasaki will be eligible for the MLB Draft in 2027 instead of waiting until at least 2030 to be posted by a Japanese team. College baseball players are eligible for the draft after turning 21 or completing their third year at a four-year university or institution. This also moves up the clock for a second contract in the MLB if he plays to his potential.

This could be perceived as a high-risk move for a player of Sasaki’s caliber. He will be joining a Stanford program that has made the College World Series three years in a row. There is no guarantee Sasaki will even make it to the MLB Draft, much less to a second major league contract. However, his willingness to take on this challenge in a new country and style of baseball shows that he has the character makeup to be a trailblazer in his path to MLB.

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