Sakamoto with the Yomiuri Giants
|Yomiuri Giants – No. 6|
December 14, 1988 |
Itami, Hyōgo, Japan
|July 12, 2007, for the Yomiuri Giants|
(through 2013 season)
|Run batted in||374|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Last update: Nov 4, 2013|
In 2008, Sakamoto became the first player in Giants franchise history to start a season opener while under the age of 20 since Hideki Matsui. He is widely regarded as one of the most promising young stars in all of Japanese professional baseball today.
Early life and high school career
Sakamoto was born in Itami, Hyōgo, and began playing baseball while in the first grade at Koyanosato Elementary School for the Koyanosato Tigers (a Little League team) alongside current Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Ironically, Sakamoto was the team's ace pitcher, and Tanaka his batterymate on the team. Both Sakamoto and Tanaka went on to attend Itami Municipal Matsuzaki Junior High School, but Sakamoto opted to join Itami Senior, while Tanaka chose to play for the Takarazuka Boys.
Upon graduating from junior high, Sakamoto decided to attend Kosei Gakuin High School in northern Aomori Prefecture, a baseball powerhouse in the Tohoku region. He became the team's starting shortstop by the fall of his first year (the equivalent of tenth grade in the United States) at Kosei Gakuin High. Sakamoto was hitting cleanup by the summer of his second year (eleventh grade), and led his team to runners-up in the Tohoku Regional Tournament that fall, earning a berth in the 78th National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament that would be held at Koshien Stadium the following spring. He attracted the attention of scouts when he hit .813 (13-for-16) with four home runs in the Tohoku Regional Tournament later that spring and hit a total of 39 home runs during his high school career.
The Yomiuri Giants picked Sakamoto in the compensatory first round of the 2006 NPB high school player draft after losing to the Chunichi Dragons in the lottery that was held for fellow shortstop Naomichi Donoue, the most coveted high school position player, and presented Sakamoto the uniform number 61.
Sakamoto spent most of his rookie season (2007) with the Giants' nigun team (Japanese for "minor league" or "farm team"). He played 77 games in the Western League, hitting .268 with five homers and 28 RBI. Sakamoto saw his first call-up to the ichigun (major league) team in July and made his professional debut as a pinch runner on July 12. He recorded his first career base hit and RBI on September 6, knocking in the game-winning run in a game against the Dragons.
Manager Tatsunori Hara had high hopes for Sakamoto in the 2008 season, playing him in all 15 pre-season (Spring Training) games at either shortstop or second base. Although Tomohiro Nioka, then the Giants' starting shortstop, returned from injury just before their season opener, Sakamoto's quick adjustment to second base, accompanied by left-hander Masanori Ishikawa's taking the mound for the opposing Tokyo Yakult Swallows, prompted Hara to start him in the season opener as the No. 8 hitter on March 28. Sakamoto became the first Giant to start a season opener while under the age of 20 since current Tampa Bay Rays designated hitter Hideki Matsui did so in 1994.
Although Sakamoto was expected to platoon at second base with the likes of veteran journeyman Kimura Takuya and speedster Ryota Wakiya throughout the season, he returned to his natural position when Nioka tore his right calf muscle in that very game. Sakamoto started at shortstop from the second game onwards and never gave up the starting job. His first career home run came against the Hanshin Tigers on April 6, a grand slam off reliever Kenta Abe that made him the youngest player in Central League history (19 years, 114 days) to hit a grand slam in a regular season game. He was also voted to the All-Star team that year, getting his first hit in an All-Star game in Game 2 held at Yokohama Stadium on August 1.
Sakamoto finished the season with a .257 batting average, eight home runs, 43 RBI and 10 stolen bases, contributing to the Giants' league title that year. He made his first appearance in the Japan Series against the Saitama Seibu Lions on November 1, hitting a home run off veteran right-hander Fumiya Nishiguchi in Game 7 and becoming the first NPB player in 22 years to hit a home run in the Japan Series while being under the age of 20 (Kiyohara Kazuhiro last accomplished the feat while he was with the then-Seibu Lions). The Giants lost Game 7 3-2, coming up short in their run for a Japan Series championship.
Sakamoto also started all 144 games, becoming just the third player (and first in the Central League) to start every game of the season in one's second year out of high school (along with Futoshi Nakanishi and Kiyohara). Perhaps even more impressive was that if one were to include pre-season, All-Star, Climax Series (playoffs) and Japan Series games, Sakamoto played a grand total of 172 total games that year. Although the Central League Most Valuable Rookie award was presented to teammate and left-handed reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi, who went 11-2 with a 2.32 ERA in 67 appearances, Sakamoto received a special award for his efforts. The Giants also rewarded him by giving him the uniform number 6.
Sakamoto got off to a good start to the 2009 season (his third in the pros and second at the major league level), hitting .376 with a league-leading 11 doubles and slugging .541 for the month of April. He continued his torrid streak into May, hitting multiple home runs (the second a game-winning solo shot off closer Kyuji Fujikawa) in a single game for the first time on May 2 against the Tigers and passing Tigers slugger Tomoaki Kanemoto to take the league lead in batting average that week. He hit the first walk-off home run of his career on May 6 off reliever Hiroki Sanada (who was a teammate of Sakamoto until he was traded midway through the 2008 season) in a game against the Yokohama BayStars.
Sakamoto was chosen to represent Japan in the tournament, and was the starting shortstop. Like most of his teammates, he had problems at the batting plate, as he was unable to hit for consistency during the pool rounds, though he had a crucial RBI single equalizer against Chinese Taipei in the bottom of the 8th of that game. Sakamoto seems to regain his batting sense alongside his teammates in the 16-4 mulling of the Netherlands that qualifies Team Japan to the semi-finals, hitting 2-5 in the game including a grand slam in the top of the 7th that gave Japan a more than 10 run lead needed to end the game early via mercy rule, securing an early ticket to the semis. Unfortunately, they lost their semi-final match against Puerto Rico 3-1, thus finishing third and losing their two-time defending championship streak.
Listed at 6 ft 1 in and 176 lb, Sakamoto has a relatively large frame for a Japanese middle infielder. He is a spray hitter whose swing is characterized by a pronounced leg kick. Though the majority of his extra-base hits tend to be line drives into the alleys (37 doubles in 653 career at-bats as of May 13, 2009), many predict that Sakamoto will develop home run power as his body fills out.
Sakamoto puts his superb athleticism (he was clocked at 6.0 seconds in the 50-meter dash and 110 meters in the long toss in high school) to good use in the field. Though he committed 15 errors in the field in his first season in the majors in 2008, he has very good range and has improved on his throwing tremendously since coming into the pros.
|Nippon Professional Baseball|
Bold indicates league leader; statistics current as of January 15, 2014
-  "2008.4.7 NPB Power Rankings" - Japan, Hockey, Baseball, etc.
-  Allen, Jim. "Ones to watch in 2009: (2) Hayato Sakamoto, Baseball / Giants' future is here" - The Yomiuri Shimbun.
-  Gibson, John. "Teen Sakamoto taking Giant steps" - The Yomiuri Shimbun.
-  "Kamei, Sakamoto capitalize when given chance to shine with Giants" - The Japan Times.
-  "Sakamoto hits slam as Giants win rout" - The Japan Times.
-  "Ichiro, Fukudome win All-Star squad places" - The Japan Times.
-  Gibson, John. "Giants' Sakamoto realizes heroic ambition" - The Yomiuri Shimbun.
-  "11/9/08 - Japan Series - Saitama vs. Yomiuri - Game 7" - The Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
-  "Yomiuri Giants prepare to commemorate 75th anniversary in 2009" - The Japan Times.
-  "Yamasaki backs Iwakuma in Rakuten victory" - The Japan Times.
-  "Pacific League leader Rakuten soars above Seibu" - The Japan Times.
-  Hayato Sakamoto - mlb.com.
- Nippon Professional Baseball career statistics from Japanesebaseball.com
- Hayato Sakamoto Official Blog (Japanese)