DUNEDIN, Fla. — Four months ago, Rafael Dolis, the big-haired Dominican reliever, watched Shun Yamaguchi, the amiable Japanese starter, spin a gem that helped end his season.
It was the first game of the Central League Climax Series Final Stage, the NPB’s equivalent of a league championship series. Dolis was a closer for the Hanshin Tigers. Yamaguchi was the ace of the Yomiuri Giants. And he was dealing.
“Yamaguchi? Oh, he’s nasty,” Dolis said Monday morning at his locker in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, where the pitchers are now teammates an ocean away. “He’s got a splitter, a curveball, a slider — a good two-seam, too. Lots of movement. I think he can do a really good job here and really help this team.”
Yamaguchi threw 7.1 one-run innings that day, steering the Giants on their way to the Japan Series — which they lost to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks despite another dominant outing from Yamaguchi in the opener. That was Yamaguchi’s platform to being posted to MLB this winter and signing a two-year, $6.35 million deal with the Blue Jays.
“He’s fun to watch,” said Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. “His breaking ball and split combo — it’s different. Those are weapons you don’t see on a regular basis.”
They’re weapons NPB’s hitters weren’t able to see very well at all. Yamaguchi pitched to a 2.91 ERA over 170 innings for the Giants last year, posting an eye-catching 10 K/9 in a contact-heavy league — tops among qualified starters. At the end of the season, he was considered a front runner for the 2019 Sawamura Award, NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young.
But the committee tasked with determining the Sawamura winner — compromised of five retired NPB pitchers — opted not to name one in service of making a statement regarding the decline of workhorse starters in NPB, where modern approaches to workload and bullpen usage have recently become more prevalent. Honouring a pitcher who neither reached 200 innings nor threw a complete game was seen as sullying the honour.
Safe to say that if the Blue Jays get only 170 innings at a 2.91 ERA out of Yamaguchi this season they won’t be so displeased. Of course, that’s a near-impossible ask of a 32-year-old pitching in MLB for the first time after 14 seasons in Japan. An adjustment process is to be expected, as Yamaguchi acclimatizes to not only day-to-day life in North America, but the different routines pitchers develop between outings in MLB and NPB.
“In Japan, you do more side work, more training, more throwing,” Dolis said. “You just do more of everything.”
Typically, Yamaguchi would take two full months to ramp up for a season during NPB’s somehow-even-longer-than-MLB’s spring training. This year, he only has six weeks. He’s throwing fewer pitches in pre-season games than he normally would, as well, which means he has to get the same amount of in-game work done with less runway. Even the ball itself is different, as MLB’s is slightly bigger with more compacted seams than NPB’s, which affects every pitch he throws.
It was for all those reasons and more that Yamaguchi didn’t look anything like one of Japan’s best pitchers in his Blue Jays debut Monday. He reached his pitch count over the course of seven batters, only two of which he retired. He allowed three hits, a walk, and hit a batter, scattering the zone throughout his 29-pitch, 16-strike outing.
The primary trouble came with his big-movement curveball, which was breaking even more than he’s accustomed to. That led to some bad misses outside the strike zone. Yamaguchi’s fastball command also suffered, which could be due to him adjusting to gripping a baseball in Florida heat as opposed to a climate-controlled, domed stadium as he mostly did in Japan.
“His breaking pitches were backing up and his fastball command was just off,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said after his club topped the Atlanta Braves, 4-3. “He’s adjusting. You can tell he’s going to be good.”
It’s not like Yamaguchi’s the first pitcher to experience an erratic first outing of spring. But there is something on the line every time he takes the mound, as he competes for the fifth and final spot in Toronto’s opening day rotation. And with Trent Thornton looking rejuvenated and effective after a much-needed breather this winter, the pressure’s firmly on Yamaguchi to keep pace.
Thornton threw two clean innings in Toronto’s spring opener on Saturday, featuring the new changeup he’s been working to add to his varied, high-spin arsenal. He’s currently the front-runner in the competition by a wide margin, particularly now that Ryan Borucki’s out of the running.
Borucki played catch Monday for the first time since he was shut down due to elbow tightness a little more than a week ago, but he’s fallen too far behind schedule to still be considered for Toronto’s opening day rotation. If he continues to progress on schedule, the 25-year-old should be available within the first month of the regular season. But the Blue Jays won’t allow Borucki, who’s undergone three elbow surgeries in his young career, to move any quicker than he needs to.
“It’s just being cognizant of the fact that he was just shut down, he is coming off an injury, and we want to make sure that we’re not artificially ramping that up so that he’s making the fifth start of the season,” Atkins said. “At this point, we’re just going day-to-day. Today was a very good day. If that continues, our concern lessens and lessens. But all we can do is go day-to-day at this point.”
Of course, while spring training rotation competitions make for interesting storylines during uneventful camps, they typically end up moot by the second month of the regular season — often earlier. The most likely scenario is that Thornton, Yamaguchi, and Borucki all take turns in Toronto’s rotation at some point this year along with untold others. Injuries and under-performance will necessitate it. Few teams, if any, make it to May with the same five starters they began with.
Plus, Yamaguchi developed in Japan as a reliever and has indicated he’d accept a bullpen role with the Blue Jays. He saved more than 100 games over a four-season run as one of NPB’s best closers.
Considering Yamaguchi’s flexibility and willingness, it could make a lot of sense to utilize him in the bullpen with Thornton in the rotation when the club breaks camp. Yamaguchi could be used in extended relief outings to keep him somewhat stretched out, while Thornton continues to try to build on his spring success. The moment a rotation injury occurs, Yamaguchi’s right there waiting to step in.
There’s always the potential scenario in which Yamaguchi is so undeniable during spring that the Blue Jays are forced into a more difficult decision. He can do that by commanding his fastball in the zone, harnessing his curveball, and getting outs. Monday, he didn’t do any of the above.
But what’s most important from here is that the Blue Jays continue helping Yamaguchi adjust to pitching — and life — in North America. It takes time. And there is no shortage of adjustments for Yamaguchi to make this spring.
“It’s a big transition, if you think about — for the first time being in different countries. The food’s different, the beds are different, everything is different. The baseball is slightly different, the humidity is different,” Atkins said. “Hopefully he can know that what he’s done, we believe in. We believe in guys that get the amount of strikeouts he did in a contact-driven game in Japan. That’s something that will translate well here.”