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Hawks’ rising star Yanagita gives credit to MLB legend Rodriguez

Kyodo

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita has been one of the revelations of the 2014 season, and the Pacific League’s player of the month for May said some of the credit belongs to future big league Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.

Speaking at Tokyo Dome last week before a game against the Chiba Lotte Marines, the 187-cm, 95-kg left-handed hitter told Kyodo News that tips he got from Rodriguez after the 2011 season have helped unleash his swing.

“After my first pro season, I played in Puerto Rico in winter league ball and Ivan Rodriguez was on the same team,” Yanagita said. “Rodriguez taught me a way to time pitches.”

Yanagita, who hit a ball out of Seibu Dome to right center last week, hit one just as far on Thursday, when his 10th homer of the season landed well back in the seats to the right of Yafuoku Dome’s distant center-field hitters’ background.

But it hasn’t just been about power. The 25-year-old is 17-for-20 as a base stealer, second in the PL with a .333 batting average, third in walks with 41 and leads both leagues in being hit by pitches with 10. Yanagita leads the league with a .442 on-base percentage, and 51 runs and on Thursday was named to the PL’s All-Star team.

In 2011, his first season out of Hiroshima University of Economics, where he was seriously scouted by major league clubs, Yanagita did it all in the minors. He hit .291 with 20 stolen bases and 13 homers, while throwing out six runners from the outfield. But in a brief taste of first-team action, Yanagita went 0-for-5.

“Before turning pro, I had confidence in my arm and my speed, but not so much with my batting because it wasn’t such a high-level league,” Yanagita said. “I was a little anxious about hitting as a pro. In my first year, I got a few at-bats as a pinch hitter with the big club and that really made me think, ‘This really is a different level.’ So I changed my batting.”

With a motive for change in hand, Rodriguez provided the necessary tools. Over the course of two months in Puerto Rico while Yanagita acquired a fondness for the local cuisine, he also heeded a future Hall of Famer’s advice about how to smooth out his front-leg movement and use it to time pitches. Where once Yanagita had been rushing his right leg up and jerking it forward, he now raises it early and waits before driving off his back leg.

“Up to that point, I didn’t pick up my front leg so early,” said Yanagita. “It was through Rodriguez that I started my motion earlier. After I changed the way I timed pitches, I was able to get results with the big club. It took a while and it wasn’t easy, but it allowed me to get the most out of my swing.”

When Hawks manager Koji Akiyama gave Yanagita prolonged playing time in 2012, things began to fall into place.

“By having a manager who has kept using me, I’ve been able to learn through trial and error,” said Yanagita, who batted .246 in 68 games in 2012 and .295 last season.

“Now I can understand what happens when I don’t hit. In the beginning, all I would do was think, ‘Why didn’t I get a hit? Why didn’t I get a hit?’ But now, it’s, ‘Why did I swing at that pitch?’ Or I think, ‘Why did my opponent throw those pitches?’ “

The analytical approach applies to getting hit by so many pitches.

“I understand that people have to pitch me inside,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. I am getting pitched in a lot on my hands.”

Yanagita’s style may be similar to that of his veteran Hawks teammate, and two-time batting champion, Seiichi Uchikawa. But the 185-cm Uchikawa, who won his first of batting title with the Yokohama BayStars at the age of 25, said the resemblance is limited.

“In some ways, I was similar (at that age),” Uchikawa said. “But then I look and think how great it would be if only I had his kind of speed and his kind of arm. Even when he first showed up, you could see the power he generated. He’s simply amazing.”