There are many who already think the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Tetsuto Yamada is the best all-around player in Japan.
His historic three-home run (in three straight at-bats) night in Game 3 of the Japan Series on Tuesday probably turned a few more people into believers.
“I had goose bumps,” Yakult manager Mitsuru Manaka said following the game. “It was a great performance by him.”
Yamada’s night, the first of its kind in Japan Series history, was the type of anomaly that only comes around every so often. That said, his numbers over the regular season show it wasn’t exactly a total fluke either.
“When he’s feeling good, he’s unreal,” Swallows closer Tony Barnette said. “His bat speed, the way he squares balls up, the way they jump off his bat, it’s impressive. You’re witnessing a young guy who is piecing it together, and he’s on his way to — he’s already a great player — having a hell of a career if he stays healthy and keeps doing that.”
Yamada had a 2015 the likes of which is seldom seen in Japanese baseball. He led NPB with 38 home runs and his 34 stolen bases tied him with Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Takuya Nakashima for the most in Japan. His 39 doubles were also an NPB-best.
Yamada was second in the Central League in both batting average (.329) and RBIs (100) and finished third with 81 walks. His 1.027 on-base plus slugging percentage was second only to the 1.101 OPS put up by the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita among all NPB batters.
Yamada was also one of two players, Yanagita being the other, to finish with at least a .300 average, 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, called a “Triple 3” season in Japan.
His performance this season didn’t just come out of nowhere either.
He played in 94 games in 2013 and hit .283 with three home runs, 26 RBIs and nine stolen bases. His breakout year occurred the very next season, when he appeared in 143 games and hit .324 with 29 home runs, 89 RBIs and 15 stolen bases.
His defense at second base is also rapidly improving, making him truly the total package.
The 23-year-old Hyogo Prefecture native’s numbers are the result of the work he puts in. Yamada is usually one of the first players on the field before batting practice. Often he’ll don some variation of a camouflage-patterned workout shirt (it was gray camo on Tuesday) and take soft toss from a Yakult coach. Then he goes through his regular batting practice machinations.
He’d gone 1-for-7 over the first two games of the Japan Series, but said he didn’t do anything differently in practice before Game 3.
“I really haven’t changed anything since the first game,” he said. “I’ve felt good since the first game.”
In the first inning on Tuesday, Yamada saw four pitches from Softbank’s Kenichi Nakata before taking him deep to center on a 2-2 slider.
Nakata threw him a second-pitch 140-km fastball in their next meeting of the night, and Yamada deposited that beyond the wall in center as well.
“It was a 1-0 fastball, and I was looking for a fastball,” Yamada said. “I hit it well.”
When Yamada came up in the fifth, Softbank manager Kimiyasu Kudo pulled Nakata in favor of hard-throwing righty Kodai Senga.
The right-handed hitting Yamada homered off him as well, turning on a 148-km inside fastball and sending it into the seats in left.
“In a 3-1 count, he was throwing really fast,” Yamada said. “So I thought it’d be OK to miss it, but I wanted to swing hard at least.”
Yamada had a shot at a fourth homer in the eighth, but struck out swinging to end a five-pitch at-bat against Hawks reliever Ryota Igarashi.
“I was aware, but they were using slide steps and things like that, so I figured it’d be difficult,” he said.
As great as Yamada was in Game 3, it was only one game and the Swallows have to beat the powerful Hawks three more times to claim the title.
The Swallows know it won’t be easy, and Yamada is expecting the Hawks’ best in Game 4.
“Well, we play one game at a time,” he said. “Even if you hit well today, tomorrow is a different game. They’ll come at you in different ways and mix up their pitches.”