For the first time in a long time, the next big major league player to come out of Japan could well be a position player, Tokyo Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada.
The 24-year-old Yamada is on a pace to far surpass his production from a year ago, when he earned all but eight of 270 first-place votes to win the Central League’s MVP Award.
“He has a real passion to improve and be consistent,” a major league scout told Kyodo News. “Most players don’t get a lot better from the time when they arrive as regulars at the top level, but he has.”
To be more accurate, Yamada hasn’t really gotten better this season. Rather, according to Swallows batting coach Ryuji Miyade, Yamada found himself in June 2015 and has been operating at full throttle since.
“He was dealing with a lot of little things at the start of last season,” Miyade said. “In June, everything came together and he’s maintained that — which is pretty special.”
Yamada finished the 2015 season batting .329, the league’s second-best average, while leading the CL in runs, doubles, home runs, total bases, stolen bases, slugging average and on-base percentage. He was second in RBIs and third in walks.
His secret to staying consistent: Don’t think too much.
“I try not to dwell on difficult things. Keep it simple,” Yamada told Kyodo News this past week. “So far, I haven’t hit a wall, and I’ve been able to stay positive.”
As of Friday, Yamada led both leagues in nine offensive categories and the CL in two others. He says his turnaround came with an attitude adjustment.
“Two years ago, I had a really good season, with 193 hits, and at the start of last season, I was not doing well. I had some injuries but it was really about the year before that. I was too conscious of trying to replicate that big season.
“But the conditions were what they were. My form was what it was. It was not the same as the year before, so I changed my thinking.
“I need to consider what the conditions are right now and make adjustments to my swing now.”
He started the 2015 season batting .291 with seven homers in 57 games. Over his final 86 games, Yamada batted .355 with 31 home runs. Although the Swallows fell 4-1 in the Japan Series to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Yamada owned Game 3, when he belted a record three home runs at Jingu Stadium.
“You have to execute your pitches against him,” Giants setup man Scott Mathieson, said. “If you make mistakes, he’s better than others at hitting them.”
Unlike some teams, Yakult has posted its players in the past and might be willing to let him go if he were to win another MVP award this year. The scout thinks Yamada could definitely play in the bigs now and could receive the maximum $20 million posting fee if he were to go this year or next.
“(He should go) sooner rather than later,” the scout said.
“His fielding is better than (major league) average. His base running is something special. He’s an excellent base stealer, but you really can’t appreciate what a good base runner he is just by watching video.”
But it’s not all cut and dried. Yamada has a lot of things going for him here that he won’t get to take with him to the States.
Yamada entered this season with an OPS of .802 away from Yakult’s home, Jingu Stadium, but 1.047 when hitting at the historic Tokyo ballpark.
And in a nation where aggressive shifting is all but unheard of, Yamada benefits from being Japan’s most extreme pull hitter, although Miyade indicated hitting the other way was the next phase.
“He has quick hands, and he generates great power with his upper body. But he is not using the whole field, so that’s an area where he can grow,” the coach said.
Asked how to defend him, first-year Yokohama BayStars manager Alex Ramirez joked, “Walk him.”
But Ramirez’s club, which employs the most aggressive shifts in Nippon Professional Baseball, has walked Yamada less frequently than the rest of the league. And when Yamada has put the ball in play against Yokohama, he has batted just .277 this season compared to .379 against everyone else.
“Sometimes, guys here do great for one or two years, but then you never hear from them again, and it’s, ‘What happened to that guy?’ ” said Ramirez, a two-time CL MVP and the only foreign-born player to reach NPB’s iconic 2,000-hit milestone.
“It takes a few years to show he’s consistent.”
And when Yamada does that and is ready for a new challenge overseas, major league clubs will be eager to give him that chance.