Blue Jays’ Yamaguchi flashes ‘Tanaka-like’ splitter in bounce-back outing

The Toronto Blue Jays took on the Philadelphia Phillies this afternoon with Shun Yamaguchi leading the Jays to a 6-5 win giving up one run over three innings.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Toronto Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen doesn’t only have a bunch of new repertoires to learn on his club’s revamped pitching staff this spring — there are a couple new languages, too

South Korea’s Hyun-Jin Ryu is pretty easy. He’s pitched in MLB for seven seasons, and understands baseball vernacular in English pretty well. But Japan’s Shun Yamaguchi, pitching in North America for the first time as a 32-year-old, is a different story.

“Yeah, I’m learning a couple Japanese words here and there. I’m pretty sure I’ve learned how to say ‘let’s go,’” Jansen said Saturday after catching Yamaguchi’s second spring training appearance with his new team. “I don’t know — at least that’s what he’s telling me.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Yamaguchi fared much better Saturday than in his first outing of spring, allowing a run on two hits and a walk over three innings, striking out a pair. Five days earlier he didn’t get out of the first inning, allowing three runs on three hits and a walk to the Atlanta Braves.

This time out he looked much more like one of Japan’s best pitchers in 2019, playing his splitter off his fastball to stymie a Philadelphia Phillies lineup featuring a combination of big-leaguers and non-roster invitees.

Yamaguchi’s mid-80s splitter — sometimes referred to as his forkball — is a premium pitch, one that looks the same out of his hand as his 90-m.p.h. fastball before tumbling down to the bottom of the zone or beneath, generating groundballs and swinging strikes.

It’s a common tool among pitchers in Japan’s NPB, where Yamaguchi spent the last 14 seasons, including a dominant 2.78-ERA 2019 in which he struck out 194 over 181 innings. But MLB hitters aren’t as accustomed to its action and can look foolish trying to square it up, particularly ones that sell out for power in lieu of contact.

“It’s almost [Masahiro] Tanaka-like,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It’s a big weapon. With a guy like that who throws strikes, and now that split with that action — that was good action. I liked a lot of what I saw.”

Yamaguchi cruised through his first inning Saturday, retiring the side on only 12 pitches. He got into a couple long battles with Logan Forsythe and Deivy Grullon in the second, but came out unscathed, getting the former to fly out and the latter to chase a third strike.

His third inning was less fun, as Nick Martini took Yamaguchi’s second pitch of the frame over the wall in left field before No. 9 hitter Nick Maton drew a five-pitch walk. From there, Yamaguchi continued searching for his command, falling behind Scott Kingery, 2-0. Suddenly, he found it, getting a pair of groundballs and a three-pitch strikeout of Rhys Hoskins to finish his day.

“That splitter is a big pitch,” Jansen said. “He’s got a lot of stuff and he knows how to utilize it. Good fastball, good life, good splitter off of that. That was my main focus with him today, was to use that splitter early and to put hitters away.”

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In all, Yamaguchi threw 49 pitches, 27 of them for strikes (four swinging). He said his plan coming into the day was to attack the lower outside corner with fastballs and use his splitter ahead in the count. In his coming starts, Yamaguchi wants to incorporate more of his secondary weapons — a slider, curveball, and change-up — while pitching with a game plan more specific to his opposition.

“I looked at last time and wanted to fix some things that I couldn’t do well,” he said. “I want to mix in more pitches going forward. I also want to focus on what the hitters have as their strike zone.”

Yamaguchi was only able to get to his curveball twice during his outing Saturday, focusing primarily on locking down his command of his fastball and splitter. Those are the two pitches he’ll rely on primarily this season, but the curveball and change-up are going to be necessary weapons in certain situations. As is a slider he’ll manipulate depending on his goal, throwing it bigger and slower at times, sharper and harder at others. When he really tightens the pitch up, it’s often identified as a cutter.

Jansen’s been tasked with watching old NPB video of Yamaguchi, paying particular attention to how he sequences his pitches and tunnels them off one another. Yamaguchi is always trying to get to his splitter one way or another — he just needs to be able to take different paths there in order to remain unpredictable and turn a lineup over three times.

“We’re really trying to stay in certain lanes,” Jansen said. “A strength is definitely sticking it down-and-away to righties. But he can go in to righties, too. He’s got the ability to go up in the zone with his fastball. He has good life on it. It’s got a little zing at the end. He has great stuff. Day-by-day, outing-by-outing, we’re just finding out the right approach and how to utilize it.”

A difference for Yamaguchi now that he’s pitching in MLB will be throwing more elevated fastballs, which he didn’t do frequently in Japan. NPB is a much more contact-oriented offensive environment than MLB, where the majority of hitters are trying to drive the ball in the air and leave the yard. A common counter to that is to use fastballs up in the zone to either miss upward swings or generate weak, pop-up contact.

Incorporating tactics like those will be a focus for Jansen going forward as he continues to learn his team’s new pitcher, and Yamaguchi learns him. And the Blue Jays catcher might just pick up a couple more Japanese words along the way.

“He’s an awesome dude. He’s really funny. He wants to get better, he wants to learn,” Jansen said. “I can’t imagine how hard it is to come over here, right? You have to think about that. Not being able to communicate with a lot of people has to be tough. But he’s a good dude. I’m excited for him. Good outing today. We had a really good mix of all his stuff.”

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