Wladimir Balentien could’ve been written off as a one-year wonder after hitting 31 home runs in his first season in Japan, way back in 2011. Or as just a flash in the pan after doing it the next season. No one could deny Balentien his due after he shattered the NPB record with 60 home runs in 2013, or after 31 the next season, and definitely not after 31 more in 2016.
If there’s one thing “Coco” Balentien has been consistently good at since joining the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, it’s putting the ball over the fence. He hit his 30th homer of this season last week, reaching that mark for the sixth time in seven years. The only season he’s finished with fewer than 30 was 2015, when he only played 15 games because of injuries.
“To be honest, in this league, it’s hard for a player to be consistent,” Balentien told The Japan Times. “The pitchers make a lot of adjustments during the year. To be able to do this for six seasons, it’s something that makes me feel proud of myself. Because of all the work I put in, the dedication and the discipline I have for the game.”
Balentien said he wasn’t always sure he would reach 30 this year after getting off to a slow start. He wasn’t seeing many pitches to hit early on and had just nine home runs through June. He got his mojo back with 11 home runs in July and hit nine more in August. He has one so far this month.
“It’s a long process,” he said. “I stayed positive and believed in myself. I know what kind of player I am, so I just came motivated everyday and tried to do my best and be the best player I could.”
Since Balentien’s NPB debut in 2011, the only other players with at least three 30-homer seasons are the Seibu Lions’ Takeya Nakamura (four), who has 25 this season, and Brandon Laird (three) of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita will join them with one more homer this season.
While foreign players usually dominate the leaderboard, (the Chunichi Dragons’ Alex Guerrero currently leads the Central League with 33 home runs, while Laird’s 31 tops the Pacific League) Balentien has taken notice of some of Japan’s homegrown power.
“I think Yanagita can be a consistent power-hitter,” Balentien says. “He has a good swing, a powerful swing. Yamada has that 30-home run power in him, he’s just having a tough year this year. But he showed it for two years in a row (2015-16), so he has it in him,” he added, referring to teammate Tetsuto Yamada. “Nakamura from the Lions and (Sho) Nakata from the Fighters also.”
As for Fighters star Shohei Otani, who hit the scoreboard at Tokyo Dome during batting practice last week, Balentien has nothing but the highest praise.
“So far, in all my career, I think he’s one of the most complete players I have ever seen,” Balentien said. “All-around, hitting, power, running, pitching, it’s impressive. I think if he gave up pitching and just hit, he could easily be a 40-home run guy in this league. He’s an all-around good player. So even as a pitcher he’s good too. I’m impressed with his talent.
“He’s throwing a 100-mile (an hour) fastball, and he has offspeed pitches too. He’s a tough pitcher to face, because he has good offspeed and he throws hard.”
In his seven years in Japan, Balentien has a .274 average and 215 home runs, more than all but six active players. His weighted on-base average (a measure of overall value at the plate based each offensive outcome) is a very good .403, and his career on-base plus slugging percentage is .949.
Balentien says it’s down to hard work and dedication and the time he puts into studying film of opposing pitchers and also other aspects of the game.
He also credits the tutelage of former Swallows catcher Ryoji Aikawa.
“I think in specific there was one player who really gave me advice since my second year, who really opened up my mind to the fact what he was telling me really made sense and helped my career a lot, and that’s Aikawa, who used to be my teammate and is now with the Giants,” Balentien said.
He said Aikawa’s most important lesson was to refrain from getting too emotional.
“I was younger, you know. You get a couple of hits and your emotions go so high, and you get a couple of days and you don’t get hits and you go down,” Balentien said. “He just told me to try to always keep your emotions level. That if you keep your emotions level, even when things aren’t going well, you can get out of it. I think that helped me a lot.”