Better than advertised? Dodgers' $325 million ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto dominates MLB debut

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Here he was, a few months after touring the country as the most sought-after pitcher in baseball, signing the largest contract for a pitcher in history, facing the defending World Series champions in his Los Angeles Dodgers’ debut Wednesday – and the dude didn’t even break a sweat.

So, just what was Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s feelings after overwhelming the Texas Rangers in front of 7,714 fans at Surprise Stadium?


And what was Dodgers teammate and countryman Shohei Ohtani’s assessment of Yamamoto’s performance?


Yamamoto laughed. Really, he was taken aback and honored, he said, that Ohtani decided to take the 30-minute drive in his convertible from the Dodgers’ spring-training complex to see him in action.

“What a good teammate," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s something that he didn’t have to do clearly. But he wanted to come here and support his teammate. So, for a guy like Yoshinobu to come here, and have the support of his own countrymen and his teammates, and obviously a good turnout of Dodger fans, it was pretty special.

“Really awesome."

Yoshinobu Yamamoto pitches during the third inning against the Rangers.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto pitches during the third inning against the Rangers.

Yamamoto, after dominating competition in Japan for the past seven years, acted as if nothing changed faced the Rangers.

Yamamoto, throwing a mixture of 94-96 mph fastballs, curveballs, split-fingers and cutters, needed just 19 pitches in his two-inning outing.

He threw 16 of those pitches for strikes, striking out three batters, including All-Star second baseman Marcus Semien to open the game. The only baserunner he allowed was a soft single by Evan Carter.

“He’s obviously an incredible pitcher," Carter said. “His stuff is really, really good. …He throws really, really hard. He's quick to the plate….

“His splitter is probably the best pitch, but the cutter/slider combo is going to play really well."

The pitch sequence to Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe to open the second inning actually drew gasps from the crowd. Yamamoto started him off with a 94-mph fastball that he took for strike 1. He came back with a 74-mph curveball for strike 2. And sent him back to the bench with a 90-mph splitter for strike 3.

It was the kind of first impression that players dream of, particularly when you’re in a foreign country, throwing a new baseball, and against the finest competition in the land.

“I don’t think it could have went any better than we had hoped," Roberts said. “He got to use his entire pitch mix. He was pounding the strike zone. He got a lot of swing-and-miss. He was efficient.

“So, I think for us, Shohei making his debut [Tuesday], Yoshinobu making his debut today, very, very exciting times right now.’’

Yet, as Yamamoto, 25, kept reminding everyone, it’s only spring training.

“I was trying to do my job, trying to stay calm, and then focus on what I have to do," Yamamoto said. “So, that was good. Let’s see how I do as I get more innings."

If he continues doing this during the regular season, where he went 70-29 with a 1.82 ERA in his seven-year NPB career with the Orix Buffaloes – including a 1.24 ERA in 23 starts last season – only then might Yamamoto accept the accolades.

One of the most accomplished pitchers in NPB history, Yamamoto couldn’t have looked more relaxed. He looked every bit like the three-time consecutive Eiji Sawamura Award winner (Japan’s version of the Cy Young), two-time Pacific League MVP winner and two-time Gold Glove winner.

If he can face former MVPs Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman in batting practice in the back fields of the Dodgers’ spring-training camp, he figured, then why should he be unnerved by a team getting fitted for World Series rings?

Still, despite the sheer dominance on display, Roberts can understand why Yamamoto felt more relief than euphoria.

“Obviously, there's a lot of fanfare and expectations," Roberts said, “he’s still human like all of us. But for him to be able to channel that, compartmentalize all that, and still go out and do his job, it’s really impressive."

Yamamoto was so locked in during the game that when he struck out Leody Taveras to end the second inning after throwing just eight pitches, he stood on the mound, forgetting how many outs there. It wasn’t until he saw his teammates running off the field with Ohtani jokingly waving him in that he joined them in the dugout.

So, just what did Ohtani say to him?

“You know, we play three outs here in the major leagues," Roberts said, laughing.

Surely, there will plenty more tests for Yamamoto. He pitched just once a week in Japan, making just 23 starts for Buffalo last season. The baseballs used in MLB are larger than the ones in Japan, and don’t have a tacky substance. The travel is also much more extreme than in Japan. And he happens to be just 5-foot-10, 176 pounds.

Still, after watching Yamamoto’s dominance, it’s easy to see why he attracted at least five offers worth $300 million or more before signing a 12-year, $325 million deal with the Dodgers.

No one was talking about his height after watching his performance Wednesday, with folks instead inquiring about his unique training regiment, abandoning weights in favor of javelins and soccer balls.

And for the Rangers, well, they’re just grateful he’s in the other league.

“You just know," Carter said, “he’s going to have a really good career."

Yep, in case anyone had any doubts until Wednesday.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Yoshinobu Yamamoto shines for Dodgers in MLB debut after huge contract