CHIBA – With the World Baseball Classic looming in March, slugging second baseman Tetsuto Yamada is facing a huge challenge — not only to hit against the best pitchers in the world, but to do so while negotiating a new position.
The 2015 Central League MVP, Yamada is arguably Japan’s best player. The problem for him and for Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo is Hiroshima Carp star Ryosuke Kikuchi, a competent offensive performer who may be the world’s best-fielding second baseman.
Since his first season as a regular in 2013, Kikuchi has dominated the annual Golden Glove voting and is a lock to make it four straight when the awards are announced Tuesday.
So far, Kokubo’s solution appears to be playing Yamada at third base — a position he last fielded three years ago in eight minor league games.
He got a tryout at third in Monday’s practice, the second for Samurai Japan ahead of this week’s four exhibition games against Mexico on Thursday and Friday, and fellow 2013 WBC semifinalists, the Netherlands, on Saturday and Sunday.
“Because the view of the field is different, I won’t say it didn’t feel a little weird,” Yamada said after taking part in a simulated game at QVC Marine Field.
“I know how to use my feet and my legs at second base, so throwing is easy, but at third, I can’t do that. Because the ball gets on you more quickly, I find myself throwing without using my lower body.
“I’m not used to it all.”
Coach Toshihisa Nishi, a standout at second during his long playing career, had a similar experience after spending most of his rookie year at third.
Nishi said he didn’t expect Yamada to make a flawless transition, but feels the Tokyo Yakult Swallows star can handle it.
“It isn’t easy,” Nishi said. “The angles are different, you see the ball differently off the bat than you do at second and there’s a huge difference between whether it’s a left-handed or right-handed hitter.
“But he has a good feel for the game, he has good judgment, and he is an infielder, so I believe he will do well. That’s not to say I’m not a little worried.
“I don’t think he himself is going to have any concerns about it, though. Of course, playing in real games will be the test.”
Unlike last autumn’s Premier 12, which was played with balls used in Nippon Professional Baseball, this week’s games and the WBC will use Major League Baseball’s standard sphere, which is slightly heavier and has a slicker surface. So as if there weren’t enough on his plate already, Yamada will also be dealing with a different ball.
Nishi said Yamada would not be alone in having to play out of position, adding that one option might be to move Kikuchi to short — where he would have to displace another big hitter, the Yomiuri Giants’ Hayato Sakamoto.
“Other players, too, are going to have to get used to different positions,” Nishi said. “He (Kikuchi) could play there (at short), especially this time, because these are not tournament games, and the skipper would like to test out a number of things.
“We’d certainly like players to become acclimated to different situations.”