Rookie right-hander Hayato Takagi, who is 5-0 and won the Central League season’s first pitcher of the month award Friday, is making the transition from corporate league standout to pro starter look easier than it’s supposed to be.
The 25-year-old Takagi, the Giants’ third-round draft pick in the fall, told Kyodo News last week at Tokyo Dome that his success has been a matter of simply sticking to what worked for him over seven seasons with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Nagoya.
“More than something you would call an adjustment, I’ve done my best to apply all the things I’ve learned,” Takagi said. “My intent is to pitch within myself. I have defined myself by the way I’ve solved the problem.”
Most former amateur stars struggle when pitches that used to work get hammered by professional hitters and shy away from their core skills. But Takagi so far has been an exception.
“There’s no mistaking the difference in ability, but what good does it do to worry about it during a game?” he said. “Rather than thinking this or that about a guy’s bat speed, my focus is on what I need to do. That’s where I want to make an effort with all my heart and soul.”
No one would mistake the 178-cm Takagi’s stuff for the big heat of Shohei Otani or the impressive and varied arsenal of Yu Darvish.
Instead of one or more plus pitches, Takagi makes the most of command and location of four pitches, with his best being a slider he calls a “cutball”— the Japanese word for a cutter, which his pitch doesn’t really resemble. Giants manager Tatsunori Hara has taken to calling the curiosity a “Takagi ball.”
“My cutball is something I developed over time,” Takagi said. “It got better little by little. It’s nothing like a textbook cut fastball. I think it’s something of my own.
“It was something I worked on to get corporate league hitters out. I have a couple of variations with it: change the way it sinks, the way it breaks. The same goes for my forkball.
“But basically, everything comes off my fastball. If I have that, the other pitches are more effective.”
In Takagi’s first six starts, he faced the Tigers three times, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows twice and the Yokohama BayStars once. The Swallows’ second look at Takagi was even less impressive than their first, with a lot of defensive swings on a night when his control was letter-perfect.
“The thing about him is his horizontal movement,” said Swallows catcher Yuhei Nakamura. “He’s a shuuto (two-seam fastball), slider pitcher. The shuuto throws you off by the width of a ball. The slider has a really big break to it. Just when you’re focused on the shuuto or slider, he comes with a fastball over 145 kph per hour. That’s tough.”
The Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton, the 2014 CL batting champ, has hit the ball hard against Takagi with no base hits to show for it, and said there’s nothing tricky about the right-hander.
“He throws a fastball, slider, curveball, fork. He throws to both sides of the plate. He has a quality mix. He has good command. He throws strikes quite often,” Murton said.
“He’s not a guy who typically nibbles off the plate. The majority of the pitches he throws are out over the plate, so you try to just stay through the middle, see the ball and hit it.”
But it’s harder when a pitcher executes regardless of the situation instead of getting rattled and losing command when things don’t go his way. And so far, that’s where Takagi has excelled.
Facing Hanshin for the third time on May 3, Takagi allowed a season-high three runs and said that kind of game matched his self image as a grinder — particularly when he faced a no-out, bases-loaded dilemma but allowed just one run and went on to win.
“Even with no outs and the bases loaded, it’s a matter of starting over against another hitter. I don’t consider it a special situation,” Takagi said afterward. “Even if they score, my thoughts are always on the next hitter, and then the next one.
“That’s the image I have of myself. One part of my style is about starting over, and then starting over again, looking to get the next guy and staying patient, and in that way dealing with bad situations.”