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Lions teenager Mori thriving on pro level

by

Staff Writer

Tomoya Mori swings hard. Really, really hard. Sometimes, so hard he loses his balance for a moment.

Mori twists his stocky 170-cm, 80-kg frame, which looks even more compact when he’s squatted down in his batting stance, with great force to create that big swing. Japanese often refer to it as a “full-swing,” and Mori’s numbers show it packs a punch.

“I’ve always tried to do that since junior high and high school,” the second-year Seibu Lions star told The Japan Times at Seibu Prince Dome last week. “While I swing hard, I’ve also tried to make better contact. That’s something I want to keep doing.”

Mori is just 19, but more than holding his own in Seibu’s power-packed lineup. Legendary catcher Katsuya Nomura, second all-time with 657 NPB home runs, has said Mori has the look of a future Triple Crown winner. Teammate Ernesto Mejia thinks he could be flirting with 40-home run, 100-RBI seasons — “easy,” Mejia says — in a few years.

“The important thing (for a young player) is to stay aggressive,” Seibu infielder Hideto Asamura said.

Mori has appeared in all 64 games this year, hitting .291 with 12 home runs and 34 RBIs. Mori also has an isolated power of .242 (last year’s Pacific League average was .122). He’s the fifth player in NPB history to post a double-digit home run season within two years of being drafted out of high school, joining an impressive club that also features legendary figures Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Hideki Matsui, who reached double-digits as rookies, Masayuki “Mr. Tigers” Kakefu and young superstar Shohei Otani.

“You don’t see that very often (at 19 years old),” Mejia said of the teenager’s talent. “Maybe in Miguel Cabrera, guys like him, who are really young, but mature and they know how to swing the bat.”

Last season, Mori hit .275 with six homers and 15 RBIs in 41 games as a rookie. Over the winter, he worked on making better contact at the plate.

“It’s rare when he mis-hits a ball,” Asamura said. “One of the good things about him is he can hit well even in a bad count.”

Mejia was equally effusive.

“Because his size isn’t so big, it looks like he’s overdoing it (with his swing), but he’s not,” Mejia opined. “I like his swing, he’s very aggressive all the time, no matter the count. He can hit a home run with two strikes, no strikes, one strike. That’s very important and that’s awesome.”

Opposing pitchers have also taken notice, and try to counter’s Mori’s aggressiveness with more off-speed pitches.

“They’ve mixed their pitches up a lot,” Mori said. “When I’m not able to adjust my timing well enough, I strike out or end up with a poor result. Since I’ve begun trying to adjust to those pitches during practice, I’ve gradually been able to find an ideal approach.”

Mori has quickly become a hit among many NPB fans.

He’s currently the leading vote-getter for next month’s NPB All-Star Series with 302,971 ballots cast in his favor. While the DH pool is shallow, Mori is at a loss for why he’s garnered so much support.

“I have no idea at all,” he said. “I think I’m not the type of player who deserves to be in the All-Star (Series). But If I’m selected, I’d be extremely honored and excited.”

Mori has been a star for some time. He was one of the faces of the Spring and Summer Koshien in 2012, serving as catcher for ace Shintaro Fujinami (currently with the Hanshin Tigers) as Osaka Toin High school rolled to victory in both tournaments. In December of 2013, JR West lauded Mori, and another player, for helping save a man who had fallen off a train platform.

Still, Mori says there’s nothing about him fans would find particularly interesting.

In his spare time, he prefers to watch movies, often foreign films. He’s also a big music fan, his favorite genre being U.S. hip-hop. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg are two of Mori’s favorites, and he chose “The Next Episode,” a song featuring the duo, as his walk-up music early in the season. His foreign teammates got a kick out of that. “They were saying (it was cool),” Mori said, laughing, “and were like, ‘do you understand (the lyrics)?’ ”

While Mori is thriving as Seibu’s designated hitter he wants to play in the field at some point. He’s a natural catcher, but the Lions already have a capable backstop in Ginjiro Sumitani, who doesn’t have Mori’s bat but is adept defensively and at handling the pitching staff.

For now, Mori learns the ropes during practices and by catching in ni-gun games. He also watches how Sumitani handles the position.

“You usually have one or two ace pitchers on your team in high school, but once you turn pro, you have a lot more starting pitchers, plus middle relievers and others, and you still have to get the best out of them,” Mori said. “You also have to have the data of the opposing hitters. You’ve got to play with all those things, and that’s something you don’t get to go through in high school.

“(Sumitani) really leads the pitchers with composure and his throwing is something that impresses me as well.”

Mori is on an amazing trajectory, but understands how much work is still ahead of him.

“I have a lot of ups and downs as far as my hitting goes at the moment, and the gaps between when I can hit and when I cannot hit are huge.” Mori said. “In order to come up with positive outcomes throughout the entire season, I have to have stamina. I’ll also need to polish my technique.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.