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Dodgers’ Yoshinobu Yamamoto tackling challenges of new league, new team

Yamamoto's unique stature and uncommon routine make him stand out from the crowd. But the Dodgers are confident his success in Japan will translate to MLB

Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto throws during the first day of spring training baseball workouts at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto throws during the first day of spring training baseball workouts at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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GLENDALE, Ariz. – Shohei Ohtani is a known commodity, a six-year MLB veteran with a Rookie of the Year, two MVP awards and a host of honors for his two-way prowess.

But the Dodgers’ other big signing this offseason is more of a mystery. Right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto is the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, signed to a 12-year, $325 million contract before he has even thrown a pitch in the major leagues.

“Certainly I don’t think anyone expected this coming into the offseason,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of the massive contract it took to land Yamamoto. “I think it’s just part of timing. It’’s part of demand. I think it just lined up perfect for both of us.

“We’ve had eyes on him for years. Now with the metrics and things like that, the way his body moves and the four pitches that he has and commands, betting on the guy and the person – all that stuff makes us feel really confident in the investment. … We saw a player that we really wanted.”

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu trains during the first day of spring training baseball workouts at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The player they are now seeing in camp for the first time does not fit the usual profile of an elite starting pitcher. For one thing, the 25-year-old Yamamoto is listed at 5-foot-10 – but appears smaller when standing with the rest of the Dodgers’ pitchers. No other pitcher on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster is listed under six feet tall and Yamamoto’s likely rotation-mates to start the season are 6-foot-8 (Tyler Glasnow), 6-foot-5 (Bobby Miller), 6-foot-4 (James Paxton) and 6-foot-5 (Emmet Sheehan).

“Everybody is bigger than me,” Yamamoto acknowledged with a smile through his interpreter Sunday.

Yamamoto stands out from the crowd for his unique routine as well – starting with throwing a javelin to build arm strength.

“Obviously a lot of players already know about it,” Yamamoto said. “I’m getting a lot of attention for that.”

His workouts focus on mobility and flexibility, eschewing weight training. The routine has allowed him to generate a fastball that approaches 100 mph despite his stature and stuff that Gavin Lux deemed “nasty” when he stood in the batter’s box during Yamamoto’s bullpen session on Friday.

“The one thing about Yoshi is he does things kind of different,” Roberts said. “The javelin is something he feels comfortable with as far as the prep work of getting him ready to throw. It’s certainly worked. 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.

“I don’t think he touches a weight. …. When you see him he’s not a very physical guy. But he’s got a lot of body control, body awareness.”

The results in Japan couldn’t have been better. Yamamoto comes to MLB off three consecutive MVP seasons and three consecutive Sawamura awards (the Japanese league’s equivalent to the Cy Young), giving the Dodgers confidence that he can make the jump.

“He’s got a really good foundation as a jumping off point,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “He’s incredibly talented. The arm talent is very unique. His ability to command the baseball is very unique.”

But there are also those unknowns.

Yamamoto pitched once a week in Japan. Though the Dodgers will monitor his workload carefully in his rookie season, the right-hander will pitch more frequently than he has in his life. And the ball used in MLB is slightly different than what Yamamoto has been throwing in Japan.

“I don’t have the experience throwing on shorter rest,” Yamamoto said. “But I did everything I could do in preparation – adjusting mechanics, and a lot of different other things. So I will keep adjusting as needed.”

While Ohtani has had six seasons to acclimate to life in the United States, Yamamoto is making those adjustments for the first time. Veteran Miguel Rojas did what he could to make both Yamamoto and Ohtani feel at home in their new clubhouse.

“I know what it’s like to come from a different country, join a new team,” Rojas said. “So I wanted to do something to make them feel welcome.”

Yamamoto and Ohtani found bottles of wine in their lockers following Sunday’s workout, courtesy of Rojas – cabernet sauvignon from Quintessa as recommended by Freddie Freeman, Rojas said.

Yamamoto posted a photo of the wine on his Instagram account along with the note Rojas attached — “Welcome to the family. I’m super excited to be ur teammate and play behind you!!!”

“The vibe of the team and the clubhouse is amazing,” Yamamoto said. “That makes it easier for me to focus on what I need to do.”

ROTATION TALK

Roberts said the Dodgers have not decided which pitchers will start the two games in Korea on March 20-21 but it is likely that they will line up other pitchers to “piggyback” with them, expecting the starters won’t be fully built up by then.

“Probably, yeah. I think that’s fair,” Roberts said. “Yeah, guys to take down a couple, two, three innings behind the starter.”

The Dodgers have already made it clear that Walker Buehler will not open the season in the rotation, joining at a later date to limit his workload in his return from a second Tommy John surgery.

That will create an opening in the starting rotation likely through at least April. Roberts mentioned Sheehan, Gavin Stone and MIchael Grove as candidates for those starts.

“Those guys are guys that earned the minutes,” Roberts said.

Swingman Ryan Yarbrough will also be built up as a starter this spring, he said.

ALSO

Right-hander Joe Kelly and catcher Will Smith were not in camp this weekend for personal reasons. Both are expected back quickly. Kelly is on the schedule to throw a bullpen session Monday.

Non-roster invitee Dinelson Lamet has not reported to camp yet. The right-hander was signed to a minor-league contract earlier this week.

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