Rookie changeup artist Shunta Wakamatsu of the Chunichi Dragons won his first pitcher of the month award on Friday, when Nippon Professional Baseball announced its honors for August.
Wakamatsu is a 20-year-old right-hander who was taught the circle change soon after joining Chunichi as its seventh pick in the 2012 draft. He went 4-1 in August with one shutout, a 2.12 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 34 innings.
He is joined on the Central League honor roll by Tokyo Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who won for the second straight month, while the Pacific League awards went to Seibu’s top draft pick last year, 18-year-old right-hander Kona Takahashi, and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita.
After getting a taste of the first team in seven games last season, Wakamatsu’s command of his pitches improved dramatically this year. With a fastball that barely tops 140 kph, he depends on location, good movement and giving batters as many looks as possible with his curve and split.
“It was the command of my other pitches that has made the difference so far this season,” Wakamatsu told Kyodo News last weekend at Tokyo Dome.
“At the start, my changeup wasn’t that good either. But what happened was that since I turned pro, I was told I needed to improve my fastball and it has gotten better little by little along with all my other pitches. The change has improved along with the fastball.”
Wakamatsu suffered his only loss of the month on Sunday, when he fell behind in counts and tried to make up for that by using his fastball in the zone. Unfortunately, too many were left up in the zone and despite its improvement this season, Wakamatsu is under no illusion about where his heater ranks.
“It was a good lesson for me,” he said after allowing six runs in five innings to the Yomiuri Giants. “I didn’t have control and I was unable to correct that.
“I don’t throw hard enough to work up in the zone, so I need to try something else in those situations.”
Dragons head pitching coach Shigekazu Mori said Wakamatsu could become a big star, but that it’s still too early to tell.
“With his fastball, everything is late movement and control,” Mori said. “His change is a plus pitch, but if he lacks late movement on his fastball, the changeup is worthless.”
“If people keep talking about the change, if everyone says, ‘Oh his changeup is so good,’ he might get to the point where he’ll barely have to throw it, because his curve, slider and fastball will be that much more effective.”
Mori added: “If he can do that, he’ll be something special. But he’s still young and we don’t know quite what to expect from him in the future.”
In contrast to the seventh-pick Wakamatsu, Takahashi was highly touted and has become the youngest recipient ever of the monthly award.
Takahashi lost his first-team debut but won his next four starts, including a six-hit shutout of the Chiba Lotte Marines on Aug. 23. He finished the month with a 2.96 ERA and 16 strikeouts. His selection makes him the 68th Lions player to win the award, tying the team record with Orix for the most in the PL.
Yanagita was a no-brainer in the PL after leading the league in batting average (.364), total bases (56), stolen bases (nine), slugging percentage (.636), on-base percentage (.467) and tying the league lead in RBIs (21).
In August, Yamada became the 17th player in NPB history to homer in four consecutive at-bats. He led the league with nine home runs and 22 RBIs, and his six stolen bases tied for the CL lead.
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