What’s Wrong with Tetsuto Yamada?

As of last off-season, Tetsuto Yamada was the best Japanese position player prospect for MLB purposes since Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui.  In his age 22 and 23 seasons, he hit .329 and .304 with on-base percentages of .416 and .425, blasted 38 home runs both seasons and stole a total of 64 bases in 70 attempts.   His age 21 season was almost as good, and he’s a middle infielder to boot!

In fact, Yamada was on pace to have an even better season in 2016, but nagging minor injuries slowed him down late in the season.

This year, however, Yamada has had something of a lost season.  He’s currently batting only .225, dead last among the 30 qualifiers in NPB’s Central League.  He’s still hitting for power and drawing walks, so his .759 OPS is not atrocious.  Still, it represents a tremendous drop from his output the three previous seasons.

I’ve waited all year long for Yamada to get hot, but it hasn’t happened.  He’s played in all 93 of his team’s (the Yakult Swallows) games, so if he’s still hurt, it has to be the type of lingering minor injury that hasn’t effected his ability to play every single game.

If NPB pitchers have found a hole in his swing, it was a long time coming — one has to think that they would have found it sooner, since he’s now in his fifth season as a starting player.  My go-to site for NPB baseball news in English, Yakyu DB, has been engaged in something of a conspiracy of silence about Yamada’s 2017 season, since I haven’t even been able to find even one mention of Yamada this season.

I tend to think that opposing teams have been steadfastly pitching around him, and he’s had a hard time adjusting to it.  Even hitting dead last, he was leading his league in walks until very recently when he was passed by Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, another top Japanese MLB prospect who is not playing as well as did in 2015 or 2016 but who has gotten hot recently.

The Swallows have been awful this year, holding the Central League’s worst record only two years after finishing with the league’s best record.  The Swallows’ hitting is poor, and the only other truly dangerous hitter on the team, Wladimir Balentien wasn’t hitting with his usual power until about two weeks ago.  As of today’s game, Balentien has hit home runs in five consecutive games and now has 20 HRs on the season after having only 10 or 11 fifteen days ago.

The upshot is that Yamada has probably been feeling a tremendous amount of pressure, as the team’s brightest star, to help his team win.  The fact that he’s played every single one of his team’s games in spite of his struggles suggests his team believes they can’t give him even one game off to clear his head and rest his body.

NPB pitchers have also had no reason to throw Yamada any more strikes than they absolutely had to, and Yamada has probably been swinging at pitches he shouldn’t be swinging at in order to make something happen for his team.

Now that Balentien is finally slugging again, it’s possible that Yamada may start seeing better pitches and will hit better in the Swallows’ remaining 50 games.  However, no matter how hot Yamada might get, his final season numbers are going to seem very anomalous with his career to date.

The thing is, Yamada only just turned 25 thirteen days ago.  So long as his 2017 season isn’t the result of a physical problem, this lost season could actually be good for Yamada’s development as a player.  There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth during and immediately after Bryce Harper‘s 2016 season, but a year later he’s right back to where he was in 2015 when he was the National League’s undisputed MVP.  As a recent gatorade commercial points out, players and people generally tend to learn more from their failures than their successes.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, NPB

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