TORONTO -- In Japan, Shun Yamaguchi was known for his sense of fearlessness on the mound.
After 14 professional seasons in his home country, the 32-year-old right-hander is set to take a big league mound with the Blue Jays for the first time this year after signing a two-year, $6.35 million deal with Toronto. He will look to use the aggressiveness that led him to success in Asia and do the same for the Blue Jays.
Raised in what Yamaguchi called a “traditional old Japanese style” of upbringing, and son to elite sumo wrestler Hisashi Yamaguchi, the hurler from Miyazaki believes that’s where his aggressiveness and toughness originated. As they evolved and he put those qualities on display in Nippon Professional Baseball, they were what most attracted the Blue Jays to the righty.
“All of the work our professional scouting department did … pointed to his elite competitiveness,” Toronto general manager Ross Atkins said. “We just continued to hear about that from his peers, from his coaches, from his teammates. It resonated with us.”
After sharing a roster with Yamaguchi for the past three seasons on the Yomiuri Giants, retired Canadian right-hander Scott Mathieson was among the teammates impressed by the Japanese pitcher’s boldness on the mound, and he believes it is what will help ease the transition for Yamaguchi from the NPB to the Majors.
“He’s fearless,” Mathieson said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys get nervous, but he wants the ball, he wants to pitch. He’s always ready. He always shows up ready to play. One of the few other guys I saw in Japan who had that was [Masahiro] Tanaka, and obviously, he came here and did very well. They’re not the same pitcher, but that attitude and mentality will help him. He’s always wanted to come here to play in the Major Leagues, too, so he’s been trying to prepare for this for quite a while now.”
Introducing himself in three languages to start his introductory press conference on Wednesday, Yamaguchi endeared himself to the media with a greeting of, “Hello, bonjour, konnichiwa, nice to meet you.” He shared that his dream has been to play Major League Baseball, and that he’s excited to be able to do it for the only team representing an entire country.
“Major League Baseball is the No. 1 [competition] in the world,” Yamaguchi said through interpreter and Pacific Rim scout Hideaki Sato. “So for me to play for the Blue Jays and play the highest-level baseball in the world, it means a lot. I would like to help the Blue Jays out any way I can to win a championship.
“What makes it so special for me, the Blue Jays are the only team that plays in Canada, not on the U.S. side. That makes it so much different than other teams. I’m really honoured to play for this team that plays in the country of Canada.”
Yamaguchi will head into Spring Training with Toronto aiming to solidify a spot in the rotation, but with an understanding that his experience as both a starter and a reliever could offer some versatility to his new team.
“He can move the ball, he knows how to pitch and he’s not scared out there,” Mathieson said. “He’s very aggressive. He’ll always be the one who wants the ball out there. He can do well as a middle- to back-end-of-the-rotation starter, and he’ll have success there. But he also had a lot of success in Japan as a closer. He has over 100 saves as a closer and 64 wins as a starter. He can do both.”
The righty’s biggest weapon is his shuuto, a Japanese word used most often to describe a pitch that tails to the pitcher’s arm side, and in some instances, it refers to a reverse slider. Yamaguchi has found the most success in using the pitch “against right-handed hitters as a back-door, and then also I can use it inside. Even when I’m behind in the count, I think I can use it as a weapon in my pitch arsenal.”
Yamaguchi’s repertoire has led him to a 64-58 record over 1,080 1/3 innings in Japan. He owns a 3.35 ERA over 427 appearances and 90 starts with 414 walks and 1,053 strikeouts. In 2019, he made 28 appearances and threw 181 frames, going 16-4 with 194 strikeouts.
In 2018, he made 21 starts, nine relief outings and threw a career-high six complete games. His 144 strikeouts ranked fifth in the Japanese Central League, and his 3.68 ERA was seventh-best among qualified hurlers.
“He has a really good shuuto -- it’s like a hard sinker,” Mathieson said. “He can move the ball around, he gets a lot of broken-bat ground balls and he has command of his pitches, like all Japanese pitchers do. That will be a big thing, and that’s one thing I was impressed with. And being over in Japan, he stood out because he was a lot more aggressive and fearless compared to a lot of other players over there.
“Over here, he definitely will be more of a ground-ball guy than in Japan. His shuuto will get a lot of ground balls, and he’ll get a lot of quick innings.”