Keep on Challenging – The Pitching Philosophy of a Young Ace
(The original Japanese text is by Kenta Aoshima and was published in a J:COM special baseball insert in March 2014. Find the Japanese original below.)
“I’ll wear these things ‘till I wear them out!” (Translator’s note: This is play on words that also means “I’m going to give it my all.”)
Rookie pitcher Shintaro Fujinami captured the fans’ hearts as he spoke in a thick Osaka dialect during a postgame interview last season after his first victory as a pro. Nobody knew that the “things” he was referring to were the red-coloured tights he wears under his uniform. Apparently red has been his colour of choice ever since his third year of high school, when he pitched his team to back-to-back national championships in the spring and summer Koshien tournaments.
He may not have won Rookie of the Year, but there’s a reason he was able to pile up ten wins (versus six losses) just a year after graduating from high school. Tigers’ manager Yutaka Wada lauds his pitcher, saying:
“He’s incredibly gifted at making mid-game adjustments. He’s got the poise of a seasoned veteran. But just when you start to believe that, he busts out impressions of the veterans. He’s really something special.”
He’s incredibly tactful with the media, too. Though they know him on the surface as a charming young man who loves reading, very few know the fiery red passion burning deep in his heart. This young ace’s dual nature is the best thing about him. We asked him about his philosophy of pitching.
“Before games, I get as much data on the opposing hitters as I can. But I never make my game plan based solely on what I know about them. If the game plan went perfectly, I’d be throwing perfect games every time up! Circumstances change from pitch to pitch. So I’ve got to change what I’m doing, too. That’s baseball.”
What are you doing in the bullpen before your starts?
“Just figuring out how I feel what which pitches feel good. My cutter is basically my most reliable pitch. Even on bad days I can make adjustments to make it work. The change up and two-seamer don’t always feel right. So I kind of put them aside for the day.”
What do you talk about with the catcher after your bullpen session?
“I ask him what he thinks of my stuff. He’ll tell me that my cutter’s looking good or my forkball is dropping well, stuff like that. We decide which pitches to focus on. It’s important that we’re feeling the same way about the pitches.”
So with a fastball and six off-speed pitches, Fujinami chooses his arsenal and heads for the mound.
“Even if the batter is glaring at me, I refuse to make eye contact. He doesn’t matter to me. Of course I check to see if he’s standing at the front or back of the batter’s box, that’s about it. I pretty much focus on the signs the catcher is giving me and my pitching form.”
Last season, Fujinami was able to shut down his opponents’ sluggers, including the Giants’ Shinnosuke Abe. The only hitter to bat over .300 and hit 2 home runs off of him was Yokohama’s [Tony] Blanco. Tell us about Abe.
“He can hit even the best pitches hard, so even if you keep the ball to the outside he’ll hit you. So I give it my everything against him. I try to jam him by throwing hard inside. Even if I’m off a little, hopefully I can beat him with speed. If you don’t throw hard against him, you can’t stop him.”
What was it like facing Blanco?
“He hit two of my pitches to right center. One of the things the foreign batters do well is stretching out and making good contact with high outside pitches. So if you throw good stuff inside, or even down and outside, you should be able to shut them down. My lack of strength became apparent when I faced him. But his hits came off my fastball. This year I hope to mix things up and throw off his timing with some off-speed pitches.”
Is there any hitter that you look forward to facing?
“No one in particular. I want to get every hitter out. But my intensity might change depending on the hitter. That’s what pitching’s all about. You don’t need to try to strike out a guy that you can get out with one pitch. Throw him a two-seamer and make him hit a soft grounder to one of the infielders. If I could do that to every hitter though, the game would be over after 27 pitches. Obviously that will never happen.”
What is the core element of the art of pitching?
“Even the best pitchers give up hits. It all comes down to how you throw with runners on base. Once a guy gets into scoring position, you bear down even harder. Baseball is a game of percentages. How can you keep your strand rate as high as possible… that’s the battle. You’ve got to be meticulous and cautious with every pitch in those situations. Keep telling yourself that you can’t miss, and you throw that best pitch you’ve been holding back all game. So you can’t show the other team your best stuff until you’re in those situations. You hide it. I always try to keep that level of intensity when I’m playing. Baseball isn’t a game of ‘nice pitches’. If I could end the game throwing nothing but 100-mph fastballs low and outside, I would, but strikes are strikes, whether foul balls or swings and misses. The important thing is what you will do next. I don’t think about just pounding the strike zone with my best pitch every time. Throwing pitches that make the guy think, ‘I thought I could hit it, but I missed’ is good enough. Then throw your best pitches when you need them most. What do I have to do to win? That’s what’s always on my mind.”
What’s your goal for this season?
“I want our team to win the championship, but personally I want to build on what I did last year and win more than 10 games. When I step on that mound, my first goal is to throw a perfect game. If I give up a walk, I’m going for a no-hitter. If they get a hit, I’m going for a complete game shut out. If they score, I still want a complete game. I want the best possible result. And I want to win, no matter what. That’s the kind of pitcher I want to be.”
Apparently it’s not easy to beat this youngster.