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Tigers rookie Takayama having early success in NPB

by Jason Coskrey

As Deanna Rubin, proprietor of the website Marinerds and an avid follower of high school and college baseball in Japan, pointed out Tuesday, Shun Takayama, the Hanshin Tigers’ rookie outfielder, didn’t just come out of nowhere.

He was a hit machine as a high schooler at Tokyo’s Nichidai Daisan, for whom he homered and drove in five runs in the 2011 Summer Koshien final, and in college for Meiji University. There was, after all, a reason the Tigers were so pleased to have acquired him in the 2015 draft, and that Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka was so outwardly excited when he thought Yakult had won Takayama’s rights.

So, with that in mind, it’s not too surprising to see Takayama have early success.

At the same time, while Takayama, 22, was expected to have some level of polish, certainly more than fellow 2015 first-rounder Louis Okoye, who was drafted out of high school by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, he’s still turned heads. The Tigers plugged the rookie into the leadoff role from Day 1, and his approach at the plate has been solid and produced good results.

“When I’m at the plate, I’m just trying to give it my all,” Takayama told The Japan Times Thursday at Tokyo Dome.

The rookie has shown a mature approach at the plate and isn’t overextending himself, instead approaching his at-bats focused on doing what’s needed rather than going for the big splash each time. While he hasn’t been perfect, and been prone to strike out, he’s been very, very good.

“He’s got a good idea at the plate,” said Tom O’Malley, one of the Tigers’ hitting coaches and a former Central League MVP and batting champion. “He’s got the natural ability. A lot of times with young hitters, you see them swinging at a lot of bad pitches, but he’s got discipline, he makes things happen. He’s not a type that walks, but he puts the ball in play and makes good contact.

“Especially with as young as he is, he’s been awful impressive. I know what he did in college, but this is a little different level. But you can tell, he knows what he’s doing at the plate. I think the more he learns the pitchers, the more he gets an idea of the patterns, he’s going to be a tough out, I mean, he is now.”

Takayama had 53 plate appearances during the spring and hit .327 with a .744 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Since Opening Day, when the games, and the stats, began to count, he’s hit .316, with three doubles, a triple and a home run in 12 contests (entering Friday). His OPS is .784 over that span.

“He’s got some skills, that’s for sure,” O’Malley said. “He’s got good bat control, he’s got a little pop in his bat. He’s fun to watch. He’s not your prototypical leadoff hitter, but he gets on base. He’s been a big asset so far.”

Of course, “so far” hasn’t been that long. Takayama is competing against professional players and coaching staffs now. Professionals make adjustments, and opposing teams will search for any weakness to be exploited.

The young star will have to make his own tweaks in order to remain far enough ahead of the curve to continue to be effective. That said, he already seems to have the necessary tools.

“I’ve seen him hit balls like Ichiro,” O’Malley said. “A couple of them have bounced, and he’s put them in play. So obviously he’s got great hand-eye coordination. I’m not trying to compare him to Ichiro, but I’ve seen some of his swings have been similar. He’s got some pop in his bat too. He’s got a lot of good attributes.”

Takayama is off to a good start, and with another solid-looking youngster, 20-year-old Shintaro Yokota, hitting second in the order, not to mention 21-year-old pitching ace Shintaro Fujinami, the Tigers’ youth movement is giving fans something to be excited about.

Even if Takayama doesn’t seem all that excited himself just yet.

“My goal this year is to just continue to become a better hitter and player,” Takayama said.

It’s that type of attitude, combined with the physical gifts, that has O’Malley seeing a bright future ahead for the rookie outfielder.

“He doesn’t get too high or too low,” O’Malley said. “He’s got a good temperament. You have to have that. But he’s still got the confidence to be able to go out and do what he knows he can do.”