The Honeymoon lasted about four months. Now, after a single season where he enjoyed one great half and one abysmal one, Masataka Yoshida is on the outs in Boston.

Reviews were mixed when Masataka Yoshida was signed by Chaim Bloom in December of 2022. Many saw Yoshida as a capable professional hitter whose bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline would immediately translate to MLB. Others believed his limited power numbers and poor defense made him unworthy of the five-year, $90 million price Bloom paid for him. Still, Yoshida was the one example of Bloom targeting and acquiring a quality player on the free agent market.

Yoshida looked like a premier signing throughout the first half of his rookie season, putting up a slash line of .316/.382/.492/.874 with 10 HR and 44 RBI for an OPS+ of 139 (an OPS+ of 100 is considered average) in 78 games. The increased workload and rigorous travel schedule of the MLB season, in comparison with the shorter, less road-weary Japanese schedule, seemed to catch up with him after the All Star break though. His production cratered in the second half to .254/.278/.386/.663 with five HR and 28 RBI for a 79 OPS+ in 62 games.

It felt like things were onwards and upwards between Yoshida and the Red Sox coming into 2024. Plans were hatched to make him the primary DH and limit his defensive participation in order to keep him fresh and productive all season long. Alex Cora and the Red Sox have adhered to that plan thus far … to an alarming degree.


Load Management

Managing the workload of a Japanese player who is trying to adapt to an American schedule is important. In all walks of life, however, plans have to be adjusted on the fly sometimes. Being utterly bombarded with injuries all spring definitely feels like one of those instances when a team should reevaluate and change things up accordingly.

Yet here we are.
29 games into the season.
The entire projected starting infield has missed time with injuries.
Cedanne Rafaela, the emerging star center fielder, has been forced over to shortstop.
The offense has been glaringly inconsistent.
Seven different designated hitters have been used.
And a healthy Masataka Yoshida has missed 31% of the team’s games while playing one inning in left field.

Cora’s preferred alignment while Rafaela plays shortstop features Yoshida at DH while Tyler O’Neill, Jarren Duran, and Wilyer Abreu man the three outfield spots. The problem with this alignment is the assumption that the DH spot is free for Yoshida to occupy every day.

Rafael Devers’ shoulder and knee ailments have shifted him to DH four times this season and O’Neill’s return from a concussion has placed him there once. But injuries don’t tell the whole story of Yoshida’s absence from the starting lineup in nine of the first 29 games of 2024.

Let’s consider who else has started at DH while Yoshida has ridden the pine. Triston Casas was slotted there once early on, and the red-hot Connor Wong got an understandable start at DH in the midst of his fantastic start to the season. Nobody could ever find issue with benching Yoshida for O’Neill, Devers, Casas, or Wong under those conditions.

The most telltale issue is with the other two games where Yoshida didn’t DH, presumably because they were against lefthanded starting pitchers. The guys who took his place in those games? Bobby Dalbec (.111/.158/.111/.269 vs lefties this season) and Taylor Heineman (a minor league catcher called up due to injury).


Riding the Pine 

Masa has been all but banished from the lineup against lefties. And while it may seem sensible to not feature a lefthanded DH against a lefthanded pitcher, it makes very little sense when you consider that Yoshida hasn’t fared poorly against lefties overall.

His MLB career slash line vs lefties is .262/.337/.393/.731 with four HR and 23 RBI in 145 at bats for an OPS+ of 89. Those numbers are far better than you’d expect from a lefthanded platoon player. Yet he’s only been allowed to bat against lefties 19 times so far in 2024, a year where he was benched in favor of a guy with an OPS+ of 3 (Dalbec) and a 32-year-old jabronie fresh off the farm (Heineman) within the first 15 games.

I won’t overlook Yoshida’s rough start to the season, where he bottomed out at .215 with a .574 OPS on April 16th. But I implore you to not overlook the recent surge that has seen his average soar to .275 with a .736 OPS during the mere six games he’s been allowed to play since then. To put this in perspective, Dalbec has been in the lineup nine times since April 16th.

The caveat with the Dalbec comparison is that the Red Sox already have a full cast of outfielders while, until Garrett Cooper joins the team Tuesday, they’ve had nobody besides Dalbec to play first base since Triston Casas got hurt. O’Neill, Duran, and Abreu are all younger than Yoshida, and they each deserve a chance to play regularly. But does that mean Yoshida should be pulling splinters out of his backside regularly in deference to all three of them?

Yes, all three are better outfielders than Yoshida. But with the exception of O’Neill’s 2021, none have approached the kind of MLB production that Yoshida amassed in the first half of 2023. Yoshida was a bona fide star in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, the closest comparison to MLB competition that can be found in the world. He’s also making $18 million per year. And let’s not act like he’s helpless in left field either. He has limited range and a weak arm, but he’ll catch the balls that are hit to him and throw to the right base. Are we going to try to pretend that the Boston Red Sox can’t have success with a left fielder who only contributes on the offensive end?


Defense and Flexibility

Defense has clearly been a huge problem for the Red Sox for years now, and it’s commendable that Cora and Craig Breslow are doing their best to shore it up. But left field defense was about seventh from the top on the list of backbreaking Red Sox issues last season. Yoshida’s offensive upside is more than worth letting him play left field once or twice per week, a rate of effort that would never dampen his ability to stay fresh all year.

Can anyone honestly look at the way Jarren Duran has played the past couple weeks and say it doesn’t make sense to sit his butt down for a couple games and shift O’Neill into center so Yoshida can play some left field? This makes all the more sense when we take Breslow’s preference of a rotating crew of designated hitters into account. Devers, O’Neill, Duran, Abreu, Wong, and now Garrett Cooper can all get some rest by alternating in the DH spot while Yoshida takes his occasional turn in left field.

But I don’t really see Yoshida’s lack of playing time as a logistical problem at all. I see it as an indication of just how little value Breslow, and possibly Cora, place on professional hitters who are not that good in the field. I think Breslow would absolutely love the opportunity to ditch the four years and $72 million that remain on Yoshida’s contract in order to bring more flexibility and versatility to the Red Sox roster.

Yoshida is on the outs in Boston because Breslow never wanted him to begin with. Masa is a Bloom acquisition, a lefty who plays sub-par defense clogging a roster with a handful of other lefties who play sub-par defense. However, Yoshida has neither the elite power of Devers or Casas nor the game-breaking speed of Duran. He’s shown that he can consistently make contact and reach base (for three months at a time), but he possesses no tools that truly stand out. I think Breslow sees Yoshida as a member of the expendable Enmanuel Valdez/David Hamilton camp as opposed to the uniquely gifted Devers/Casas/Duran group.

Odd Man Out

Perhaps Breslow and Cora can live with Yoshida as the everyday DH in a perfect world where no position players are hurt. That perfect world rarely exists in this day and age though. As Lou Brown once said, “Over 162 games, even tough guys get sprains, sore arms, muscle pulls.” Breslow’s preference for a versatile, defensively sound roster where players can take turns having a breather in the DH spot will probably ensure that Yoshida is on the outs in Boston for the foreseeable future.

It’s nothing new for a first-year general manager (or chief baseball officer) to inherit the undesirable contracts that were signed by the last guy on the job. It’s also not new ground for a manager to be forced to live with the mistakes that were made by his former boss.

Alex Cora recently took umbrage at Boston writers (imagine that) who pressed him on why Yoshida was on the bench so often as of late.

“He’s an everyday DH, man. I don’t know what the big deal is. O’Neill had to DH yesterday. Raffy had to DH today. He’ll DH tomorrow (*Note: he didn’t DH tomorrow). I don’t get it. Our outfield is O’Neill, Abreu and Duran. Yesterday and today, (Yoshida) was ready to play but we can’t play him … If you look at the lineup and where we’re at roster-wise, I cannot have two DH’s. I wish. I wish I had three.” 

In other words: All Yoshida can do is hit, but he doesn’t hit that well. I’d rather him not hit at all then ever risk him screwing up in the field.

I disagree with this line of thinking. Boston has survived with crappy left fielders throughout team history, from Ted Williams to Jim Rice to Mike Greenwell to Manny Ramirez, none of whom killed the team with their poor defense. If you can thrive with Manny playing 130+ games in left field for eight years, you can survive with Masataka Yoshida guarding the green monster twice a week.

On the other hand, I generally defer to Alex Cora. I’m not going to kill him for wanting to improve a defense that has been gross for the past few years.

This problem could naturally resolve itself if O’Neill, Duran, or Abreu suffer an injury (God forbid), which would probably force Yoshida into the everyday outfield mix via a mere lack of bodies. However, if Cora and Breslow truly find Yoshida’s defense unbearable and would prefer to move on from him entirely, they are going about it the wrong way.


Pump and Dump

How do you justify paying someone $18 million per year to be a part-time DH? If Yoshida’s roster spot is unjustified, shouldn’t the goal now be to trade him for something useful?

Now that Yoshida is on the outs and the team is suffering, the Red Sox should try to increase his trade value. That means playing him regularly, hoping he gets hot, and displaying his hitting prowess for potential suitors. Nobody is making trades this early in the season, so showcasing Yoshida would have to be a long-term commitment during which you prove to other teams that he can indeed play every day and is worth a significant return. Sitting him two or three times a week while forbidding him from picking up a glove does the exact opposite of that.

If you treat him like an $18 million/year platoon player, you’ll never get a decent return for him. The front office has already deemed this year to be non-essential in terms of competing for a championship. If you’re willing to play out the string in 2024 without adding dependable pitching depth or signing a pro shortstop to improve your team, what’s the harm in letting Yoshida play some left field to up his trade value? Even if he costs you a few games with his glove (he wouldn’t), how much does that really harm the big picture?

It’s been made clear to fans that the Red Sox view their championship window as remaining closed until Marcelo Mayer, Roman Anthony, and Kyle Teel (three more lefties) grace Fenway Park with their divine brilliance. If Yoshida is that much of a problem, pump him and dump him so he won’t muddy up the legendary run of our budding baby Golddust Triplets.

Or, dare I say it, just let Yoshida play a little left field to keep his bat in the lineup. He’s a good hitter, an okay fielder, and he can even hit lefties a little bit. Devers, Wong, O’Neill, and Abreu taking an occasional game at DH is one thing. But putting Bobby Dalbec in the lineup as a designated hitter is akin to putting Rafael Devers on the pitcher’s mound.

Hopefully Yoshida stays hot and forces his way into the everyday lineup. It’s kind of hard to get hot when you spend so much time on the bench though, and it’s even harder to get value out of a significant investment that’s stuck on the bench. If Yoshida is on the outs, that $18 million may as well be on the outs too.

By Luke

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *