As the Arizona Diamondbacks prepared to break camp this week, Yoshihisa Hirano’s role with his new club is not yet clear.
The former closer of the Orix Buffaloes, Hirano appears set to begin his first year in the major leagues as the late-inning setup man. Hirano, however, has been more concerned with making an impression than his role.
Asked what he thought of the strength of the Diamondbacks’ division, the National League West, the 34-year-old right-hander said he didn’t care — since he had his hands full commanding his pitches so he could get batters out.
Hirano relies on a fastball and forkball, and the new playing conditions and rhythms of American spring training have played havoc with not only his command but his timetable after 11 years as a pro in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Early in the spring, he was conflicted about how much he needs to care about results in exhibition games. Asked how much his focus was on refining pitches, Hirano was uncertain.
“If I were in Japan now, because of my experience, I’d understand more or less how much leeway I’d have to work through my adjustments, but as everyone says, your Japanese experience and track record don’t matter here,” Hirano said Feb. 28 in Scottsdale, Arizona, after surrendering two runs in one inning.
“I have to cope with how they play here. I feel that if I don’t show I can consistently get batters out when I need to, I won’t earn their trust. Since my Japanese stats don’t matter, I feel I need to get batters out now.”
That hasn’t stopped him from experimenting, however. One of those experiments has been his slider, a pitch he used just 6.8 percent of the time last year according to the Japanese analytic website Delta, but here he has been able to get foul-ball strikes with it.
“I didn’t throw my slider all that much in Japan, but I’ve been testing it out here, ‘Oh I see, he fouled that one off,’ and getting a sense for how it can work,” Hirano said. “So I have to be diligent about executing it and take it from there.
“However, this is not something I can do at a leisurely pace. I need to get batters out to make a good impression.”
New San Diego Padres pitcher Kazuhisa Makita said he, Hirano and Los Angeles Angels minor leaguer Shohei Ohtani — all coming out of the Pacific League this spring, have been comparing notes on adjusting to the slippery major league ball — especially in Arizona where the dry air makes it even harder to grip.
Because the slick American ball tends to run more — more movement toward a pitcher’s arm-side on straight pitches like fastballs and forkballs — it could give Hirano a little extra edge he didn’t have in Japan. But for that to happen, he must come to grips with the ball’s different feel.
“I have to get used to it, throw the pitches I want to throw, check that if I throw them in a certain fashion that they will do what I expect them to do,” Hirano said. “I need to do that to throw them with confidence.
“I throw the ball every day, but it still feels slippery. It does run more, but I’m not in love with it yet. I still have to consider (adjustments) a little more carefully.”
When he locates his fastball and can get good action on his forkball, Hirano can be dynamite, but if either part of that equation is missing, he will face some difficulties.
“The hits I’ve given up this spring have been on fat pitches, pitches that would have been hit in Japan as well,” he said. “The thing here is that if you miss, it’s not just a hit but a home run. My forkball can be good, but I need my fastball to make it more effective. And I need to be able to throw the fastball where I want it, and it simply hasn’t been that easy.”
It has indeed been a difficult challenge. His fastball has progressed more quickly than his forkball, but Hirano has helped his cause by not walking a batter all spring.
In his eighth exhibition game, Hirano struck out all three batters he faced. And though he said the results were more impressive than the quality of his fastball and his fork, manager Tory Lovullo, who played in Japan with the Yakult Swallows, had named Hirano as a potential closer.
But Hirano has said that even in Japan, being the closer was never a big deal to him.
“I’ve never once said that (I want to be a closer),” he said. “Regardless of what role they want me to fill, my goal is the same: to help the team win as many games as possible. I want to contribute.”