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Yamaguchi getting a 'grip' on MLB differences

@baseballexis
March 10, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. -- Baseball is a game of adjustments, and Shun Yamaguchi has been constantly making them this spring. Joining the Blue Jays in the offseason -- for two years and $6.35 million -- after 14 professional seasons in his home country of Japan, the 32-year-old right-hander has had to

TAMPA, Fla. -- Baseball is a game of adjustments, and Shun Yamaguchi has been constantly making them this spring.

Joining the Blue Jays in the offseason -- for two years and $6.35 million -- after 14 professional seasons in his home country of Japan, the 32-year-old right-hander has had to find ways to cut his learning curve as he simultaneously prepares for his first Major League season.

“There are quite a few differences between Japanese and American baseball,” said Toronto reliever Anthony Bass, who spent 2016 in Japan’s Pacific League. “But first and foremost, the baseball is different. It comes out of the wrapper in tinfoil, and it’s already tacky.

“The fields in Japan for the most part are turf and a lot are indoor stadiums, so that’s different. And the style of play they play is trying to get on base any way possible, whether it’s walking, beating the ball into the ground, using a lot of speed. A lot of their hitters are pretty fast, so they try to get on base.”

Yamaguchi, who is a contender for Toronto’s fifth rotation spot but might slot in as a reliever when the team breaks camp, has spent every day of Spring Training getting acquainted with the baseballs he will be using in the Majors. But he admits that his education will continue when he travels to the new locations and the varying climates he will experience for the first time.

“I’m making adjustments, and it’s getting better every day,” the righty said through interpreter Yuto Sakurai. “It also depends where in the States you pitch and on what type of weather we have. So I have to keep throwing in games to find [strategies], because it obviously has an effect on how the ball moves.”

Yamaguchi’s primary focus has been on his grip, as he continues to search for the spin he had in Japan. Facing the Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Toronto’s 4-2 win on Tuesday, the hurler made progress over his three innings, allowing one run -- a Kyle Higashioka homer -- on two hits with one walk and two strikeouts.

“It’s all about [him getting] used to the baseball,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It’s a process. The only way you’re going to get used to it is by facing hitters, and he’ll be all right. ... Today his fastball was coming out of his hand a lot better, so that’s great. He really looked good today. He made a mistake on a fastball up. ... It just wasn’t as up as he wanted and that’s why he gave up the home run, but other than that he was good today.”

Yamaguchi considers himself a ground-ball pitcher, despite racking up 194 strikeouts over 181 innings for the Yomiuri Giants last season, but he is working to use the upper part of the strike zone more because of the tendency for hitters here to use uppercut swings more than in Japan. The results have been mixed, with five homers allowed while looking for some swing-and-miss, but it’s a work in progress.

“Obviously it’s best if I can get groundouts with my pitching style,” Yamaguchi said. “Last outing against the Phillies, I noticed the batters were swinging for the fences. The bat is coming from below [with more uppercut paths through the zone], so in that sense, I might have to think about going up in the zone and trying to get more flyouts instead.”

Though Yamaguchi is hoping to yield more consistent results going forward, he doesn’t yet want to make significant changes to the pitching philosophy he brought with him to the Blue Jays.

“I’m not going to change my pitching style -- I’m still a [ground-ball] pitcher,” he said. “But obviously depending on the situation, I do want to go up in the zone. [But] I want to make sure that I get a swing from a ball instead of being a strike. ... Those are some of the adjustments that I want to keep making moving forward.”

Alexis Brudnicki is a Canada-based Baseball Development and Special Projects reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.