Before Japan’s second World Baseball Classic pool game against Korea, an unlikely player hyped up the team: Lars Nootbaar.
Nootbaar became the first player in Japanese national baseball team history to represent Japan despite not being born there. Nootbaar was born and raised in California, but his mother and her family are all from Japan.
In Japan’s first exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers, Nootbaar ripped a leadoff single into center field and did his pepper-grinder celebration. Two innings later, Shohei Ohtani hit a home run and as he rounded third base, he also did the pepper-grinder celebration.
Because of Nootbaar, the pepper-grinder celebration has gone viral in Japan. This celebration not only shows that Nootbaar is an integral part of Japan’s quest to win the World Baseball Classic, but also that despite any language barriers, he remains closely connected to his teammates and fans.
Nootbaar has had an unlikely path to stardom. After playing at USC for three seasons, he was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the eighth round of the 2018 MLB draft. As a prospect, Nootbaar was never considered to be among the best in the Cardinals’ system. However, after working his way up to the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate, Nootbaar put together his best minor league performance and earned a call up to the Cardinals in 2021.
With the Cardinals, Nootbaar provided solid value as a fourth outfielder. In 58 games, Nootbaar was league average at the plate hitting .239/.317/.422 (100 wRC+) while being a plus defensively (2 DRS) and on the bases (1.4 BsR).
Nootbaar made the Cardinals’ 2022 Opening Day roster, but he was clearly relegated to backup duty behind the starting outfield tandem of Tyler O’Neil, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson. However, when Bader was placed on the IL on June 27, it opened the door for Nootbaar to get regular playing time.
In 108 games, Nootbaar hit .228/.340/.448 (125 wRC+) – a drastic improvement from his rookie season. One reason for Nootbaar’s drastic improvement was his plate discipline. Despite his batting average decreasing by .011, Nootbaar’s OBP increased by .023. The driving force behind this is that Nootbaar increased his BB% from 10.5% to 14.7% and decreased his K% from 22.6% to 20.5%.
Additionally, Nootbaar dramatically improved his quality of contact. From 2021 to 2022 Nootbaar improved his barrel% from 4.8% to 12.1%, average exit velocity from 89.1 mph to 91.7 mph, max exit velocity from 109.5 mph to 113.0 mph and hard hit% from 36.1% to 46.0%.
These improvements to Nootbaar’s approach at the plate made him a Statcast darling. Nootbaar’s hard hit% (80th), xwOBA (82nd), barrel% (85th), max exit velocity (89th), average exit velocity (90th), chase rate (92nd) and BB% (98th) all ranked at least in the 80th percentile in 2022.
While it’s a good thing to have elite Statcast metrics, it’s an even better thing to have elite Stacast metrics and great results. Nootbaar’s 125 wRC+ means he was 25% better than the league average and had he had enough at bats to qualify, Nootbaar would’ve been tied with Bryan Reynolds for the eighth-best wRC+ among NL outfielders.
Nootbaar’s combination of plate discipline and power is a unique combination in today’s game. Among all players with at least 300 PAs in 2022, Aaron Judge, Juan Soto, and Nootbaar were the only players to have a BB% of at least 14.0% and an ISO of at least .200.
In 2023, Nootbaar projects to be the Cardinals’ starting right fielder with an opportunity to play every day over a full season. With this opportunity, Nootbaar has the chance to cement himself as one of the best outfielders in Major League Baseball.
First, though, Nootbaar will look to help Japan win its third World Baseball Classic. After serving as the batboy for a Japanese high school all star team that featured Masahiro Tanka as a nine-year-old, Nootbaar is already fulfilling a lifelong dream of representing Japan in the World Baseball Classic.
Nootbaar has already started leaving his mark in Japanese baseball history being a big contributor in helping the team start pool play 2-0 and having his pepper-grinder celebration go viral. Winning the WBC would put the cherry on top.
Featured image via @Cardinals on Twitter