Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Japan home run king Hotaka Yamakawa learning hard lessons against MLB pitching

by Jim Allen

Kyodo

Hotaka Yamakawa may be Japan’s premier home run hitter, but this past week has taught him how much more he has to learn.

After leading both of Japan’s elite leagues this year with 47 home runs, the 26-year-old Seibu Lions first baseman was looking to put his stamp on some major league fastballs during the current Japan All-Star Series.

But after an 0-for-4 night in a friendly against Taiwan on Nov. 7 and another 0-for-4 performance in Friday’s Game 1 against the MLB All-Stars, Yamakawa was crestfallen.

For Japanese batters, getting hits against MLB pitching can be a validating experience, but Yamakawa was not feeling any such joy, even after a lucky hit in a 1-for-6 Game 2 performance. The upside was some good swings and something close to good contact.

“It’s frustrating if you can’t hit at all,” he told Kyodo News on Sunday after taking extra batting practice. “Game 2 was an improvement over the others, but things are not going to be right unless I can produce swings like I’m capable of in a hurry.

“Everyone is cheering me on and encouraging me, but my only thought is that I owe everybody an apology.

“In Japan, we get used to seeing every pitcher during the season. I dislike facing pitchers for the first time. On top of that, the major league pitchers have good late movement on their fastballs and it’s clear I have a lot to learn about getting the barrel of the bat on the ball.”

In Game 1 he was gearing up for fastballs only to miss badly on breaking balls and changeups that dropped out of the zone. After extra work recognizing those slower pitches, staying back on them and going to the opposite field, Yamakawa hit a booming pinch-hit double in Sunday’s 7-3 loss.

“The one thing these games have driven home to me is how immature my talent is,” he said. “I hit 40 home runs this year, so I know I have power. But you know what? I hit most of those without hitting the ball on the button.”

As scary a hitter as he was this year, the thought of Yamakawa making more and better contact to all fields should be a sobering one for Japan’s pitchers over the coming years.

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