Wladimir Balentien switched things up a little this spring.
While the Tokyo Yakult Swallows star still got in his swings in the batter’s box, he spent more time than usual running around the outfield. Even though the slugger still intends to take plenty of long, leisurely trots around the bases, he wants to be smarter, and quicker, on the basepaths when the ball is still in play.
Balentien insists he’s not picking up any new tricks, merely reminding everyone he hasn’t forgotten the old ones.
“This year, I’ve been working on something different,” Balentien told The Japan Times. “Probably everybody has been looking and been like, ‘what’s he doing?’ I’ve focused more on baserunning this year and on defense. Because I think to win ballgames, you have to play good defense. So I’ve been putting in a lot of work on those two things.
“Hitting-wise, I’m just trying to continue to do what I’ve been doing the last seven years. I think not much has changed hitting-wise for me.”
Balentien, who has 217 NPB home runs, is known for his power numbers, but says the other parts of the game are equally important.
Per measurements done by Data Stadium, Balentien had a — 3.0 ultimate zone rating (a sabermetric stat used to measure fielding) last year, fifth among the seven left fielders to play at least 400 innings. This year, he wants to contribute more in the field.
“I’m not a bad defender and I’m not a bad baserunner,” Balentien said. “It’s just sometimes you focus more on one thing and you don’t focus on the other one. That’s what happened to me. I’ve been focused more on my hitting. I think right now, to have been here so long, and have everybody know what I can do, I think the best thing for me now is to show them I can still play defense and help the team on the defensive end.”
He says he’s been pleased with the results of his new approach.
“So far, things are going well,” he said. “I like the way I’m moving out there. My legs are feeling good, and I’m just ready for the season.”
Balentien’s increased focus on defense and running hasn’t changed his preparations at the plate. In 13 spring games, the 33-year old hit .405 with six homers in 37 at-bats. He’s reached 30 home runs in all six NPB seasons in which he’s played at least 100 games, crediting his consistency to an ability to make adjustments.
“I think it’s just getting more mature as a hitter,” he said. “Understanding Japanese baseball and understanding the way they pitch to me and being able to make adjustments. If you’re not able to make adjustments day to- day and week to week, it’s difficult. It’s difficult to maintain your consistency if you’re not able to make adjustments day to day at this level.”
Balentien is hoping to help the Swallows bounce back from a last-place finish in 2017. The team entered spring camp with a new manager, Junji Ogawa, and a cadre of new coaches, including new head coach Shinya Miyamoto, a former Yakult great. The Birds went through long days of intensive practices during spring camp and have altered their daily practice routine a little as well.
“The chemistry on the team right now is good,” Balentien said. “Players, coaches, everybody is on the same page and working fine together and just waiting for the season to start.
“We had a lot of injuries last year. I think having all those guys back, and I hope we can continue the season with all those guys healthy, it will be a different season for us this year.”
The 2017 season was difficult for Yakult, and Balentien is ready to do his part to help spark a turnaround in 2018.
“I think just be consistent, try to get my 30 home runs, but this time help my team,” he said. “I hope each home run I hit will give us the lead or tie the game or something like that. To be able to do that, and drive in more runs, I think if (second baseman Tetsuto) Yamada can get it together with me, our team will be way better than last year.”