DUNEDIN, Fla. – It’s been a spring of adjustments for Shun Yamaguchi, the 32-year-old right-hander who signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in December after 14 seasons in Japan.
There are plenty of cultural differences, of course, and some technical changes, too. Most notably, gripping the ball has at times been a challenge for Yamaguchi, who finds major-league baseballs slippery in contrast to the tackier ones in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Adjusting to the baseball may have contributed to some early spring struggles for Yamaguchi, who allowed three home runs against the Philadelphia Phillies last Thursday. But his next outing, Tuesday against the New York Yankees, was his strongest of the spring. Thanks to an improved fastball that sat in the 91-93 m.p.h. range and plenty of breaking stuff, he pitched three innings while allowing just one run.
The outing came at an opportune time for Yamaguchi, one of three pitchers in the mix for Toronto’s final rotation spot. While Blue Jays decision makers are too mindful of the big picture to make decisions based on single games, every start counts for Yamaguchi, Trent Thornton and Anthony Kay.
"That’s the best he’s looked," manager Charlie Montoyo said of Yamaguchi. "His fastball was really coming out of his hand. That was good to see.”
While Thornton appears to be the frontrunner for the final rotation spot, the club hasn’t ruled out Yamaguchi, who posted a 2.78 ERA with 194 strikeouts in 181 innings for the Yomiuri Giants last year. After pitching against the Yankees, Yamaguchi said he’s finally feeling like his usual self on the mound.
“I’m finally starting to feel like I’m back to my tempo," Yamaguchi said through an interpreter. "My tempo is getting back to normal. So, if I can keep this up, I think I can have a good start of the season.”
The next time he pitches, Sunday against the Yankees, he will start. Meanwhile, Thornton will start Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kay will start Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Of course, history suggests all three pitchers will get an opportunity eventually. Last year’s team set a club record with 21 starting pitchers used. Even if the 2020 rotation is much stronger, as expected, there will surely be enough churn to create chances for Yamaguchi, Thornton, Kay and many others.
As a group, this rotation tends to get by with movement and deception as opposed to raw power. With that in mind, Blue Jays pitchers have been strategic when facing AL East opponents this spring. Asked to describe the sequence of pitches that led to a J.D. Martinez strikeout, Thornton declined, explaining that he might want to use that same pattern during the regular season.
Along those lines, Tanner Roark used some unusual sequences while facing the Yankees Tuesday. Instead of pitching the way he will once games count, he deliberately varied his pitch sequencing at times.
"I was trying to do some unorthodox stuff, so they’ll be like, ‘Why is he throwing that pitch?’" he said. "Just to keep them on their toes. I don’t want them to see all my best stuff because they’re in the division and we play them a lot … keeping them wondering what the heck I’m trying to do."
When Yamaguchi faces those Yankees for the second time in a week this Sunday, he may want to employ some similar tactics. Regardless, his growing comfort with the MLB baseball and the resulting zip on his fastball add intrigue to his outings with two weeks remaining until opening day and a rotation spot at stake.