Yoshinobu Yamamoto already impressing Dodgers teammates

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 13, 2024

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It took only one bullpen session for Yoshinobu Yamamoto to capture the imagination of his new team. It impressed Gavin Lux, who settled into the batter's box to track pitches when Yamamoto first got off the mound from the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training complex on Friday afternoon. It impressed fellow starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who stood nearby. And it impressed those who weren't even there to watch it.

"I heard it was nasty," one coach said. "I heard he was just dotting everywhere."

Yamamoto obtained the largest contract ever given to a starting pitcher this offseason, a 12-year, $325 million deal that came on the heels of three consecutive MVP awards in Japan. Any concerns about transitioning from Nippon Professional Baseball to the major leagues were upstaged by the alluring traits that made Yamamoto the most coveted arm in this year's free agent market: That he's only 25, that he's extremely dedicated, that his repertoire is devastating, and that his command -- the way he "dots" the corners of the strike zone -- is so advanced.

His new teammates have already been drawn to his distinct workout regimen, focused on flexibility and devoid of traditional weights. Some of them have also joked about learning to throw his javelin. But it's Yamamoto's upper-90s four-seam fastball -- thrown with lots of backspin and very little downward action, providing the illusion that it is continually rising as it crosses home plate -- and devastating splitter that have turned headsat Dodgers camp. That he unleashes such hellacious pitches at 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, while delivering them with what amounts to a slide step, has only added to the fascination.

"I've seen people like that," said Glasnow, who's listed at 6-8, 225 pounds. "I just think he's really wiry and really strong. I don't know if size necessarily matters. I think he can just collect himself very efficiently and there's no wasted movements in his mechanics. With a leg kick or not, I think about the way he distributes his weight and I don't know if he necessarily needs a leg kick. He just moves so well. You can just tell he's so athletic, so I'm not surprised at all. I think once I saw him throw I was like, 'Duh he throws a hundred.' He's just so explosive."

Only three pitchers listed at 5-10 or shorter -- Whitey Ford, Steve Stone and Mike Marshall -- have ever won a Cy Young Award. But Pedro Martinez, Bartolo Colon and Tim Lincecum combined for six Cy Youngs from 1997 to 2009 at 5-11. And Lincecum has been volunteered as a reasonable comp for Yamamoto by several Dodgers coaches and players largely because of the way they both generate momentum with their lower half.

"It comes out of his hand really good; he spins it great," fellow starting pitcher Walker Buehler said of Yamamoto. "I'm just kind of curious to get my eyes on the whole picture of it."

More than 70 photographers, videographers and fans lined up along a rope to watch Yamamoto merely play catch with Buehler on Friday. Two days later, Shohei Ohtani stood behind Yamamoto, his locker neighbor in spring training, as he navigated through his second bullpen session.

The Dodgers hope to line Yamamoto up to start at some point during their two-game opening series in South Korea on March 20 and 21, but it's too early for their rotation plans to be solidified.

Yamamoto said he has noticed "more flexibility" through his first spring training in the United States, as opposed to the tighter schedules he experienced while training with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan. He began getting acclimated to the smaller, slicker major league baseball during the World Baseball Classic last March and trained with it this offseason. As spring training progresses, he'll prepare himself to start slightly more often than once a week.

"I don't have the experience throwing on shorter rest," Yamamoto said through an interpreter. "But I did everything I could do in preparation -- adjusting mechanics and a lot of different other things."

The Dodgers won't abide by a strict six-man rotation this season, largely because they don't want to restrict themselves to a seven-man bullpen. But they seem determined to use the off days in their schedule and the depth in their minor league system to consistently give Yamamoto at least five days off -- as opposed to the traditional four -- in between starts. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said the starting rotation is "going to be fluid."

A lot of it will hinge on how Yamamoto adapts.

"There's life assimilation," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "There's assimilation at the park, between starts. There's figuring out the right rest and how to adapt more to a major league schedule that we can't know the answer to right now. We have to be around him, watch how he's recovering and do it in the most thoughtful way we can because obviously he's going to be a big part of what we do in 2024 and he's going to be a big part of what we do for a lot of years. We're viewing this year as one to get him acclimated and figure it out. We don't know exactly what that means yet. But we're going to be partners with him in figuring it out."

Yamamoto's numbers in Japan were almost incomprehensible, the last three seasons specifically. He posted a 1.42 ERA in 557 2/3 innings from 2021 to 2023, accumulating 587 strikeouts and 110 walks. He faced 659 batters this past season and only two of them hit home runs. Dodgers vice president of player personnel Galen Carr and the team's international scouts had spent years raving about Yamamoto to the Dodgers' decision-makers. Friedman took two trips to Japan to see him in person in 2023.

"It's easy to appreciate what he has accomplished," Friedman said, "but it takes it up a whole other level when you watch the way he competes, when you see his routine and just what a freak athlete he is."

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