Japanese pitcher Yamaguchi eager to fulfil MLB dream with Blue Jays

TORONTO — Shun Yamaguchi shifted his dreams to Major League Baseball when he saw fellow Japanese players like Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki enjoying success in North America.

As the son of a professional sumo wrestler, Yamaguchi was determined to focus on baseball from that point on rather than follow in his father’s career path.

But there was also a more modest reason for choosing baseball over sumo.

“As I got older, I started thinking about showing my butt (in public), so I think that’s why,” Yamaguchi said through a translator Wednesday, prompting laughter from reporters at his introductory press conference at Rogers Centre.

Yamaguchi, a 32-year-old right-handed pitcher, is set to make his MLB debut this year after 14 seasons playing in the Japanese league.

He agreed to a two-year, US$6.35-million contract with the Blue Jays late last month after being posted by his Japanese team the Yomiuri Giants this off-season, making him available to all MLB clubs.

Yamaguchi appeared excited and comfortable in his new No. 1 Toronto uniform Wednesday, opening his press conference by introducing himself to reporters before handing translation duties to Blue Jays pacific rim scout Hideaki Sato.

“Hello, bonjour, konnichi wa, nice to meet you,” Yamaguchi said with a smile.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said he was drawn to Yamaguchi’s lengthy resume in Nippon Professional Baseball, where the pitcher began his career as an 18-year-old in 2006 with Yokohama.

Yamaguchi went 15-4 with a 2.91 earned-run average last season, walking 60 and striking out 188 batters over 170 innings with Yomiuri.

“All of the work that our professional scouting department did … pointed to his elite competitiveness,” Atkins said. ”We just continued to hear about that from his peers, from his coaches, from his teammates and it resonated with us, so that gives us a great deal of confidence.”

Atkins said Yamaguchi, who has experience as a starter and reliever, will be competing for a rotation spot at spring training, giving him the opportunity to join Hyun-jin Ryu, Chase Anderson and Tanner Roark — who are all new to the team this year as well.

Yamaguchi said he’s aiming to win a starting role. But he knows a spot in the bullpen is a possibility.

“Sometimes you have to be flexible,” he said. ”And when that happens, I’m ready for that too.”

Yamaguchi owns a 64-58 career record and a 3.35 ERA over his 427 total appearances for Yokohama, DeNA and Yomiuri. He started his career as a reliever, moved to the high-leverage closer role, then shifted to the rotation permanently in 2014.

“For me, when I made that transition to be a starter, that was when I lost the job as a closer, so it was kind of like getting a fresh start to rebuild my career to be successful,” he said. ”And I worked really hard so I could, and I think that was the reason why I was successful as a starter.”

Yamaguchi is set to become the sixth Japanese-born player to play for the Blue Jays, and the fourth pitcher to do so, joining Mike Nakamura (2004), Tomo Ohka (2007), and Ryota Igarashi (2012).

While he remarked on the cold Toronto weather — it was a relatively mild, 4 degree Celsius January day — Yamaguchi said he was looking forward to starting his MLB career in Canada.

“I think what makes it so special is … the Blue Jays are the only team that plays in Canada, not on the U.S. side, I think that makes it so much different than other teams,” Yamaguchi said. ”And I’m really honoured to play for this team that plays in the country of Canada.”

Yamaguchi said he had not yet spoken to other Japanese players who had made the transition to the North America, but doesn’t foresee much of a difference — at least when it comes to the fundamentals of the game.

“In Japanese, we say ‘yakyu,’ in English it’s a baseball. It’s the same sport, but it’s somewhat different,” he said. ”And Major League Baseball is the No. 1 in the world. So for me to play for Blue Jays and play the highest level baseball in the world, I think it means a lot.

“And I would like to help the Blue Jays out any way I can to win the championship.”

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