PHOENIX — He may not be the biggest signing of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ billion-dollar offseason, but there might not be anyone wearing a Los Angeles uniform who shoulders as much pound-for-pound pressure as Yoshinobu Yamamoto and his listed 176-pound frame.
He is the splashiest addition to a rotation that crumbled down the stretch last October. Yamamoto signed a 12-year, $325 million deal, earning a premium as the most desired pitching arm on the market but who arrives with a host of questions as to how his skills will translate.
The Dodgers’ — and the sport’s — fascination with Yamamoto is far from a new phenomenon. Long before he graced the international stage at last spring’s World Baseball Classic, his name (along with that of fellow Japanese phenom Roki Sasaki) circulated around the halls of Dodger Stadium “for years,” as Max Muncy said this month. Los Angeles sent a hearty contingent to Japan ahead of last year’s tournament in large part to get better looks at the right-hander, whose combination of age and production in Japan made him an enticing target for teams this winter.
That confluence of factors contributed to the tag he must now carry: He owns the richest contract ever doled out for a pitcher before throwing so much as a single pitch in the major leagues.
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The figures are eye-popping and put a focus on a transition that will already be under intense scrutiny. There are questions about his stature (he is generously listed at 5-foot-10), his unorthodox training methods and, mostly, the MLB learning curve after his years of dominance with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Orix Buffaloes.
What comes this spring is an intersection of intrigue and expectation, with even a simple bullpen session drawing a viewing party that included general manager Brandon Gomes, manager Dave Roberts, pitching coach Mark Prior and fellow free-agent splash Shohei Ohtani, among others.
“Certainly I don’t think anyone expected this coming into the offseason,” Roberts said of Yamamoto’s megadeal. “I think it’s just part of timing. It’s part of demand. I think it just lined up perfect for both of us.”
The Dodgers are paying Yamamoto to be an ace, so they’re watching him like one. Signing him to such a deal at just 25 years old, much earlier than the typical free agent, means the club is paying a premium for what should be his most productive seasons.
President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, this offseason’s architect, dismissed the notion that the contract would expedite the expectation for early results, saying, “(the deal), for me, is over.”
“I think it’s really about setting up and putting him in the best environment to thrive,” Friedman said. “That’s what we’re gonna be focused on. What falls out of that, we’ll bet on.
“The arm talent is very unique. His ability to command the baseball is very unique. So it’s a lot of just normal assimilation stuff. There’s life assimilation. There’s assimilation at the park, between starts. … 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 one to get him acclimated and figure it out.”
The club’s investment in him reflects their belief. But what can they actually expect out of him in 2024? The talk is modest, for now.
“There’s going to be a learning curve as far as the league learning him and him learning the league, and things like that,” Roberts said.
There will be hurdles, from adapting to a slicker baseball (though Yamamoto said he has some experience with it from the WBC) to pitching on a more regular schedule after often pitching once a week in Japan. Yamamoto said adjusting to that schedule will be a work in progress. Roberts said the club has no plans to limit his workload to ensure he won’t wear down on a regular schedule, though that will be flexible.
His training methods have already been the subject of fascination, with Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler among those to quip that they’d like to experiment with tossing around the javelin Yamamoto uses in his throwing progression. Roberts remarked he hasn’t seen Yamamoto touch a weight as the pitcher focuses more on “body control, body awareness.”
The size generates curiosity, too, with the 6-foot-2 Buehler joking that standing next to his new teammate made him “look really fat.”
Yamamoto, who now shares a locker with the stocky, 6-foot-4 Ohtani and a rotation with the gangly 6-foot-8 Glasnow, among others, laughed at the comparisons.
“Everybody is bigger than me,” he said through his interpreter, Yoshihiro Sonoda.
Yamamoto is hardly imposing in person, speaking with ease Sunday as he embraced the horde of reporters following his every move. And yet, as players watched him throw on video and now in person, his new teammates have come to the same conclusion of awe. His command of his explosive arsenal has drawn rave reviews throughout the club’s evaluation.
“The one thing about Yoshi is he does things kind of different,” Roberts said. “It’s certainly worked (for him). I think there’s going to be a lot of things that he does that we haven’t done here that we might learn from him too.”
The Dodgers are trying to make this transition more seamless. Yamamoto noted the added flexibility of this spring format compared to those he experienced with Orix. He is allowed the freedom of time and space to work out and do his mobility exercises as he desires.
As Miguel Rojas arrived at camp Sunday, he consulted Freddie Freeman for a recommendation. Sure enough, come Sunday morning, both Yamamoto and Ohtani found bottles of Quintessa Cabernet Sauvignon waiting in their lockers with a custom note.
“I just want them to feel welcome,” Rojas said.
It’s a gesture that will help make this spring a little easier. But whether it’s 38 days from now in Seoul, in Los Angeles, or otherwise, the true test of how Yamamoto will adjust will be answered once he gets on the mound.
(Photo of Yoshinobu Yamamoto: Rick Scuteri / USA Today)