The “Macho Man” Cometh: Japanese Slugger Yoshida Masataka Powers into Major Leage BaseballSports
The “Macho Man” Makes His Mark
Japanese baseballer Yoshida Masataka has a picture-perfect swing: smooth and powerful. In his first season in US Major League Baseball, he has been using it with devastating effect for the Boston Red Sox, tallying up hits and RBIs at breakneck speed. As early as June, he was batting .318, placing him in the top five in the American League and raising the prospect of a run for the batting title come the end of the season. This is only natural for a man who has emerged as one of Japanese professional baseball’s top batters.
Although a demure 173 centimeters tall, Yoshida packs a punch, as he demonstrated with his first MLB home run on April 3, a blast that easily cleared the famed Green Monster at Fenway Park. Local fans were astounded by his power, but Japanese are well acquainted with his prowess at the plate from his time in Nippon Professional Baseball with the Orix Buffaloes, where he won back-to-back Pacific League batting championships in 2020 and 2021.
What Yoshida lacks in stature he more than makes up for with brawn, something he has achieved through hard training. Scenes of him waving inflatable golden dumbbells after smacking a home run have become commonplace at Red Sox games. The performance is a holdover from his time with the Buffaloes. In his native Japan he is referred to as “macho,” meaning muscular, and while with Orix he began celebrating homers with his now trademark dumbbell performance in the dugout.
Yoshida’s compact size has drawn detractors who like to compare him against larger hitters, but time and again he has silenced doubters with his power. One early instance was during his rookie season with Orix in 2016. That year a strained oblique suffered during training camp left his status in doubt for the season opener. Yoshida managed to return for the final three games of the preseason, and during an early at-bat he cooly hammered a massive home run against former MLB pitcher Fujikawa Kyūji that landed in the upper decks of Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, stunning fans and players alike and sealing his spot on the regular season lineup.
For his part, Yoshida gives little thought to his small stature when it comes to crushing the ball. Asked at the time how a relatively small player could so easily hit a home run off one of the best pitchers in Japan, Yoshida chuckled that “I’ve never been any other size. I just focus on keeping my swing fast and steady and impacting the ball with everything I’ve got.”
Yoshida says that the basis of his powerful swing dates back to his elementary school days. He started playing baseball in the first grade and early on developed the habit of practicing his batting form every day. Rather than simply doing a set number of swings per day, though, he would imagine hitting different types of pitches and would contemplate how best to adjust his swing for each.
“I never gave myself a set number of swings to do,” he explains. “Rather, I would keep practicing until I was satisfied with my performance.” Some days he would stop earlier than normal, while others he would put in overtime. “I knew I would get bored practicing and eventually quit if I just followed a set routine.”
Learning Training Techniques from a Gold Medalist
After Yoshida signed with Orix, few fans doubted that he would make an impact with the team. His professional career has not been without setbacks, though. He suffered from lower back issues during his first two seasons with the Buffaloes that regularly kept him out of the lineup.
He had surgery on his lower back during the off-season after his second year, prompting him to start taking better care of his body and paying more attention to his diet. To put less strain on his lower back, he began lugging around a custom-made chair with him when eating out or on the road. Returning to health in his third season, he quickly became one of Orix’s most dependable players.
Another factor in his turnaround was that he started training with Murofushi Kōji, a gold medalist in the hammer throw at the 2004 Summer Olympics and current commissioner of the Japan Sports Agency.
Yoshida had long looked up to Murofushi, having as a child watched his appearances on a popular Japanese sports variety show. The contestants on the program were top athletes in different sports, but Murofushi consistently outshined his opponents. The young Yoshida was captivated.
“I was interested in the show because it featured a lot of baseball players,” Yoshida recounts. “Watching Murofushi, though, I was impressed by his power and speed. It clearly set him apart from the others.”
When Yoshida joined the professional ranks, he started looking into different training styles. Coming across a training video that Murofushi produced, he was inspired to study the physical and mental training techniques and self-management methods of the world champion. He decided to reach out to Murofushi at the end of his rookie season, writing rewriting a letter in his hotel room during Orix’s training camp in Kōchi Prefecture and having friends proofread it to make sure there were no mistakes.
Murofushi was moved by the passion and enthusiasm Yoshida displayed in the letter and agreed to teach him some of his training techniques. Yoshida has turned to Murofushi for training guidance in the off-season ever since.
Murofushi challenged Yoshida with a diverse variety of training methods. In one exercise, he hung throwing hammers on both sides of a barbell to make it slightly unstable, and for another he utilized paper balloons. Murofushi’s methods were designed to improve strength while also creating a better sense of balance and making muscles work more efficiently. The sessions contributed to Yoshida’s improved play on the field and helped keep him injury free.
Pursuing Precision in his Swing
While gradually building his physical strength, Yoshida also focused on honing his batting technique. He stresses that he concentrated on his swing rather than worrying solely about getting hits. “You can connect solidly with the ball and still get out,” he explains. “Focusing on hits will only take you so far, and you’ll end up hitting a wall at some point over the long season.” Yoshida says that to avoid this he set his swing as the standard for determining whether his batting approach was working. “I need to be satisfied with my swing first and foremost. I know everything is in order when I’m hitting home runs.”
Yoshida started watching videos of his batting each day to check his form and identify points that needed improving. At Orix, he worked with the team’s data analysis crew to study the images in detail, including looking at the angles of his swing compared to different types of pitches and individual pitchers as well as the trajectory of each ball he hit. In this way, he sharpened his form to best be able to react to whatever ball came his way. “Nail the first pitch” became his mantra.
These efforts helped Yoshida claim the NPB batting title two years running, in 2020 and 2021, and propelled Orix to back-to-back Pacific League pennants starting in 2021 and the NPB championship in 2022.
Yoshida boasts a career batting average in Japan of .327. With his power and eye for choosing pitches, he had remarkably few strikeouts in the NBP, just 300, compared to 421 walks. These and other stats caught the attention of MLB teams. Taking advantage of Japan’s posting system, Yoshida realized his long-held dream of playing in the United States, signing a five-year contract with the Boston Red Sox. At $90 million, it was the largest contract offered to a Japanese player so far.
At this year’s World Baseball Classic, Yoshida showed his resilience by adjusting his batting style against the wide variety of pitchers he came up against, many of whom he was facing for the first time. In 32 at-bats in seven games, he had 13 hits—a WBC record—and only one strikeout, making him an integral part of Japan’s championship run at the tournament.
With a WBC title to his name, Yoshida started his first season in the MLB with high expectations from Boston fans. He has more than lived up those hopes so far, putting in a performance at the plate that has people talking of him as a leading candidate for rookie of the year. Although Yoshida is just starting out in the MLB, his ambition and drive to improve are sure to propel him to the highest levels of the game.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Yoshida Masataka pumps inflatable golden dumbbells to celebrate his first Major League Baseball home run at Fenway Park in Boston on April 3, 2023. © Kyōdō.)