Kota Yazawa’s tough 2-way street

When the Nippon Ham Fighters signed Nippon Sport Science University two-way player Kota Yazawa, their top draft choice last autumn, expectations were high that the team, armed with the experience of Shohei Ohtani’s development into a two-way star, would have a viable roadmap for the youngster’s first pro season. If they did, it didn’t work.

Yazawa, who is shorter, smaller and four years older than Ohtani was in his first year out of high school, found himself practicing to excess and losing muscle mass.

“I was putting in a full practice as a position player and then doing my pitching work,” he told Doshin Sports. “No matter how you cut it, it was too much, and I was barely hanging in. It’s important for me to add muscle, but having been given too much to do, I was losing weight.”

After hurting a finger in the Fighters’ game on June 3, Yazawa was deactivated and reported to the farm team in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture.

“When I got to the farm, I put my concerns into words, and the staff was like ‘We thought so, too,'” Yazawa said. “From there we went to work on making my training menu more efficient, omitting things where we could.”

“For example, is it necessary to take BP two hours before game time? If we can arrange it better, then I can spend my time more productively. I was told there would be a way to prepare well.”

The difficulties started, Yazawa said, the first day of camp. With so much on his plate, he asked why he needed to play catch twice, and was told that “is what pro ball players do.”

“It didn’t make sense to me,” said Yazawa, whose questions finally led the Fighters to establish a “two-way player conference” involving himself, the analytics staff and trainers, since he is not currently expected to be a starting pitcher but has been playing in the outfield, so a new approach was necessary.

When Ohtani started, my first thought is that his quest to do both well would require him to cut through Japan’s mantra of high-volume never-ending repetition like a knife and boil his workouts down to the most essential elements.

Asked about that in the spring of 2016 and a year later, he denied taking any shortcuts. While this may have been his making use of Japan’s “tatemae” convention, telling obvious white lies to avoid speaking an uncomfortable truth or exposing an exception to dogma, I have since concluded that Ohtani was probably telling it straight.

It makes sense that the 18-year-old Ohtani, who was willing to do whatever his team told him and had no personal need to insist on being a two-way player in the first place, would just follow the program. It also makes sense that a player who had mapped out his own two-way path before turning pro and who was four years older would question authority.

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