A picturesque start by Tsuyoshi Wada in Game 1 of the Japan Series in November was marred by one bad pitch to Kazuhiro Wada that allowed the Chunichi Dragons to steal a win in the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ home park.
Wada stewed over the mistake afterward, noting wistfully, “It was like, we lost today’s game with just one pitch.”
Truth be told, he got away with a few other mistakes that night, they just weren’t as costly. Then again, that’s the beauty of pitching in the Pacific League, and Yahoo Dome especially.
It’s a luxury the left-hander won’t have next year at Camden Yards, as he begins his MLB career with the Baltimore Orioles.
“As a pitcher, a huge adjustment will be the smaller margin of error,” said C.J. Nitkowski, a fellow lefty who spent 10 seasons in the majors and was Wada’s teammate with the Hawks for two seasons beginning in 2007.
“In Japan, I always felt like I got away with more bad pitches than I would in the U.S. In MLB, mistakes are often capitalized on by hitters. At-bats are tougher, more foul balls, smaller strike zone and there are more power hitters.”
Superb control earned Wada a ticket to the majors, but he may have to be even better in order to reverse the trend of Japanese pitchers who failed to carry NPB success to the next level.
To his credit, he has a lot of success to draw from. In nine seasons with the Hawks, Wada was 107-61 with a 3.13 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Despite marginal velocity, he was an effective strikeout pitcher, boasting a career 8.28 strikeout rate.
“I always thought he had excellent command of the inside part of the plate against righties and knew how to strike out batters in NPB,” Nitkowski said.
He’ll need good control to offset a fastball that sits in the 80s as well as the MLB’s smaller strike zone, which some Japanese pitchers have struggled with.
“He’s a puzzle,” commented one MLB scout. “I don’t think velocity is as much of an issue as everyone is making it. I’ve seen hitters both ahead of his fastball and behind it, sometimes in the same at-bat.
“He relies on deception in Japan, and he’ll have to rely on deception in the major leagues. How well and how long it will work is anyone’s guess, but he has an above average change-up and a usable slider, so he has a fighting chance.”
Wada will have to find his way while adjusting to an entirely new culture and environment on and off the field,
“The mounds and the baseballs will be two of the tangible things that will require adjustment, harder mounds, harder baseballs,” Nitkowski said.
“Going to Japan from MLB, this was a challenge for me. It takes a little time, but he’ll get it. The shorter time in between starts as well as only one day off in spring camp is an adjustment as well. The effects of that won’t be noticed in the short term, but as the year goes on and into the second year as well.”
Wada will also have to adjust his training regimen to fit the rigors of an MLB season.
“Physical strength is a question mark,” the scout said. “As a Hawk, he rarely had to play or even work out outdoors; how will he handle sweaty, sticky Baltimore in August? I think he should start in the pen a la Hisanori Takahashi, but you don’t pay a guy $4.1 million a year to do that.”
Whether in the rotation or the bullpen, Wada won’t have it easy in the AL East, where he’ll see the powerhouse lineups of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox on a semi-regular basis.
“This will no doubt be a challenge for him, but with bigger risk comes bigger reward,” said Nitkowski, himself a former Yankees player. “If Wada can be successful in this division, he will help change the perception of what Japanese pitchers can do in MLB.
“The AL East is the toughest division in baseball. He will have to work hard to learn these hitters and come up with a game plan that suits his repertoire. For someone with his stuff, it can be done. If I were him, I’d find out what mistakes Kei Igawa made and try to learn from them.”