When the Red Sox jumped at the chance to sign Masataka Yoshida, they did so with the belief that he was an elite hitter — perhaps the best to come out of Japan since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Just over five weeks into his MLB career, Yoshida has demonstrated why the team reached such a conclusion.
The 29-year-old Yoshida will carry a 16-game hitting streak into Atlanta Tuesday, during which he has posted a remarkable .438/.479/.750 line with nearly as many homers (5) and walks (5) as strikeouts (6). He’s making hard contact from line to line, while mocking questions about his ability to handle MLB fastballs by hitting .463 with a .732 slugging mark against them during the streak.
In his first year in the States after a storied career for the Orix Buffaloes, Yoshida ranks in baseball’s top 20 in batting average (.321, ninth), OBP (.403, 13th), and OPS (.939, 16th). He has taken up residence in the second spot in the Red Sox lineup, an acknowledgement of his performance as a major contributor to the team’s offensive surge.
“I’m feeling really good,” Yoshida acknowledged through interpreter Keiichiro Wakabayashi.
The performance is impressive enough in its own right, yet the hitting streak is even more striking for what preceded it. Through the first three weeks of his MLB career, Yoshida ranked as one of the least productive hitters in the big leagues.
On April 18, the longtime Nippon Professional Baseball star went 0 for 5 against the Twins, his fourth straight hitless game. His average stood at an anemic .167, and he wasn’t driving the ball.
Yoshida’s 58.8 percent ground-ball rate was the fourth-highest in the big leagues, and he was swinging and missing far more often (8.9 percent of the time) than expected. He had to make adjustments.
Doing so can be difficult for any player, yet Yoshida confronted challenges — new culture, new league, unfamiliar pitchers, unfamiliar language — beyond those that struggling players typically face. For the Sox, there was an element of the unknown about how he would work through adversity. Three weeks later, the team has more insight into the matter.
“Awesome,” hitting coach Pete Fatse said of Yoshida’s work to get through his struggles. “He’s a savant. He’s just really good at knowing himself. He’s very good.”
After the Sox signed Yoshida, they tried to lay the groundwork to help him through precisely such struggles.
Manager Alex Cora and the team’s hitting coaches had an hour-long Zoom during the offseason with Orix staffers to discuss Yoshida’s approach, his offseason keys, and the biomechanics of his swing.
“It helped give you a good starting block,” said Fatse. “You’re not looking at this huge picture. You’re looking for things we can target.”
Once Yoshida arrived in spring training, he and Sox staffers and teammates built relationships that went beyond the baseball field.
“If you don’t reach the person first, it’s very hard to reach the hitter,” said Red Sox assistant hitting coach Luis Ortiz, who briefly played in Japan in 1997. “You just start seeing that human element of it and create that trust that, hey, we want the best for you. We want you to be very successful.”
With trust, the Sox could work with Yoshida to identify an early-season swing flaw. He’d become closed off in the batter’s box, a position that affected his ability to recognize pitches. Ortiz suggested a drill in which Yoshida wore blinders to limit his peripheral vision in the batting cage so he could identify a position that would improve his ability to read the ball out of the pitcher’s hand.
The result was a slightly more open front foot, which has improved Yoshida’s hitting vision.
“One big factor why I’m hitting well is I can see the ball and then I can pick the balls that I need to swing at,” explained Yoshida.
The team also recognized one of the elements that Orix people had mentioned in the Zoom meeting: Yoshida’s hands had gotten too high entering into his swing. That left him swinging down on the ball, catching it late, and beating it into the ground. He moved his hands in the load position from the top of his head to just above his shoulders, creating a cleaner, quicker path to the ball.
The results — the 16-game hitting streak, 30 swings without a single swing-and-miss in May — suggest promise that Yoshida and the Sox staff can communicate to help him make the adjustments to contribute. How have they bridged the language gap?
While Yoshida conducts most of his conversations with the help of his translator, he also has shown an eagerness to speak with teammates and coaches in English, with rapidly expanding comprehension. How did he and the staff work to address his first US slump?
“Using the universal language of hitting,” mused Ortiz. “We use the translator, Kei, a lot. I played in Japan a little bit so I’ve got a little Japanese in me that I can use, but basically, it’s just using video and visuals and words, everything that we need to do to get him to see some of the things that we think will help him. It was really easy.”
Part of the reason was Yoshida’s openness to change. He’s observant about teammates’ routines and unfamiliar practices, and willing to alter how he’s gone about his preparations in pursuit of improvement.
For instance, he’d rarely hit off high-velocity machines in Japan, but as he tries to prepare to face many pitchers for the first time, he has incorporated the Sox’ Trajekt pitch-replication robot into his routine.
“He’s being open to some developmental risks in a new culture, a new way of playing,” said Ortiz. “He came with a very good foundation, so there’s not that much that we need to do, but every single day is a different challenge that he hasn’t experienced before when he’s facing a pitcher. But, the next day he’s making adjustments so fast. He remembers. It’s not an accident that he’s as good as he is.”
For Yoshida, the ability to work through slumps offers both purpose and a source of pride. As such, he expressed enthusiasm for the first chance to do so with the Red Sox staff while bridging the language gap.
“There’s no answer batting-wise,” he said. “I believe I need to work on it to find a better way every single day. That’s what I’m focused on right now. We’re making great, great conversation every single day.”