Akiyama intriguing with approach, on-base skills

March 9th, 2020

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- At a young age, Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama realized the type of hitter he would need to be to succeed as a professional. Akiyama simply seeks to get on base any way possible.

And counter to the recent trend in Major League Baseball, Akiyama has disdain for striking out and not putting the ball into play.

“When I was younger, I watched Ichiro and Hideki [Matsui] play and I also wanted to hit a bunch of homers as a kid,” Akiyama explained via translator Luke Shinoda. “But I knew that it wasn’t my style. I changed my focus to be able fit my own play style.”

The Reds signed Akiyama -- the franchise’s first Japanese big league player -- to a three-year, $21 million contract in January with the intent that he could create more scoring opportunities from the top of the order. The No. 1 spot in the Cincinnati lineup was ranked eighth in the National League last season with a .329 on-base percentage and 107 runs scored, so there was room to improve.

Cincinnati’s overall offense was ranked 12th in the NL in batting, on-base percentage and runs scored, inspiring the decisions to sign power hitting free agents Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos to large contracts.

Over nine seasons with the Seibu Lions in Japan, Akiyama was a .301 career hitter with a .376 on-base percentage and set the Nippon Professional Baseball single-season record with 216 hits in 2015. But his ability to get on base over his last five seasons was often well above his career mark.

2015: 675 plate appearances, .419 OBP

2016: 671 PA, .385 OBP

2017: 659 PA, .398 OBP

2018: 685 PA, .403 OBP

2019: 678 PA, .392 OBP

“I’ve always thought about not striking out after the count is two strikes,” Akiyama said. “Instead of trying to hit the ball, I just try to make contact if it comes into the strike zone. I always change my style of hitting depending on the count. Whatever way I can make contact with the ball, that’s all I can try to do.”

On Monday, Reds manager David Bell stopped short of saying Akiyama would be his everyday leadoff hitter.

“I would say, ‘playing a lot’ and being a big presence on our team, a significant player that’s going to get a lot of playing time,” Bell said. “That’s how we would like for it to play out. With our outfield depth being a strength, I don’t know if any of our guys will have to play every day.”

However, Bell did say that if Akiyama and first baseman Joey Votto are both in the lineup, that he would bat them first and second in the order. Votto has a .421 career on-base percentage.

“I like that option,” Bell said. “When they’re both in there, they are two guys who are going to see a lot of pitches. They’re not afraid to go deep in the count. Definitely, there’s a track record of getting on base. It would be great if it works out that way. It makes a lot of sense.”

Akiyama, who will turn 32 on April 16, is batting .346/.370/.385 (9-for-26) in nine games this spring. He feels that pitchers are still experimenting with their pitches against him.

“During Spring Training games, I haven’t been able to work the count as much as I wanted to,” Akiyama said. “I’ve been able to get some hits, but they weren’t ideal hits. My goal every day is to be able to get a single, get on base and that’s what I’ve been focusing on every day.”

Bell praised Akiyama’s professionalism, preparation and the quality of his at-bats.

“We heard many, many good things about him and they’ve all been kind of right and in a lot of ways, what I expected to see. It’s all very positive,” Bell said. “He does have a great skill of putting the bat on the ball. It’s shown up in his stats -- the high averages, the amount of hits he gets. All that is as advertised and a big reason why we’ve brought him in. Everything we’re seeing leads us to believe he’ll be that guy for us.”