Blue Jays: What’s working against Shun Yamaguchi in rotation battle?

DUNEDIN, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Shun Yamaguchi #1 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches in the first inning of a Grapefruit League spring training game against the Atlanta Braves at TD Ballpark on February 24, 2020 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Shun Yamaguchi #1 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches in the first inning of a Grapefruit League spring training game against the Atlanta Braves at TD Ballpark on February 24, 2020 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /
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The Blue Jays got their first look at Shun Yamaguchi, and while there are encouraging signs, he has a lot working against him in the battle for the rotation.

It wasn’t the way he wanted to start his professional career in North America, but fortunately for Shun Yamaguchi, Spring Training games are pretty quickly forgotten.

The 32-year-old made his Grapefruit League debut on Monday, and unfortunately it didn’t go quite as well as planned. The right-hander reached his pitch count before getting out of the first inning, allowing three earned runs on three hits and a walk. Despite the rough start, Blue Jays’ manager Charlie Montoyo didn’t sound worried after the game, saying, “He’s adjusting. You can tell he’s going to be good.”

What I didn’t fully realize was the full extent of the challenge for pitchers coming to North America after having pitched in Japan. I was aware of the difference in pitching schedule, as starters typically only start once a week there, less than in MLB, but I didn’t realize some of the other challenges that Yamaguchi will have to overcome.

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They were well detailed in a piece from Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling on Monday as well, starting with the difference in pitching schedules that Yamaguchi would have to adjust to. According to new Blue Jay reliever Rafael Dolis, who also pitched in Japan last year, “In Japan, you do more side work, more training, more throwing. You just do more of everything.”

That also included starting his training regimen earlier than what is usually practiced in North America, as Japanese pitchers usually start getting into serious training mode about two months ahead of time, where things are done a little closer to six weeks in North America. And while that might sound like a small thing, for a 32-year-old who has had certain routines throughout his career, it’s an adjustment. At the same time, there is a lot of science that goes behind all of this stuff, so there will have to be a team effort between Yamaguchi and the Blue Jays’ training staff in order to find what works best.

Beyond the actual training, one of the things that I learned from Davidi’s article was that the MLB baseball is actually a little bigger than the one used in the Nippon professional leagues in Japan, and the seam structure is also a little different. With a skill as precise a pitching, it’s no wonder what Yamaguchi struggled to get his breaking ball under control during his first appearance.

He’ll have to adjust to throwing less pitches during his spring outings than he’s used to, and Zwelling rightly pointed out that there’s a fairly big different between pitching in the heat of a Florida afternoon as compared to a “climate controlled dome” in Japan as well. They’re all factors and challenges that the veteran will have to overcome, which is why the Blue Jays may need to exercise some patience with him.

The good news is that the Blue Jays have a lot of suitable candidates for the fifth job in their starting rotation behind Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson, and Matt Shoemaker, so if Yamaguchi needs to start the year in the bullpen then it’s not the end of the world. Even if he does look ready to take a job in the rotation, he’ll also have the challenge of beating out the likes of Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, and more for the gig a well.

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Thankfully, he should have the proper time to adjust, and when he does, the Blue Jays should have a pretty good pitcher on their hands, whether he’s a starter or a reliever.

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