After spending four years pursuing his dream of pitching in the major leagues, SoftBank Hawks lefty Tsuyoshi Wada believes Japanese baseball needs what he discovered in the States: an appreciation for the two-seam fastball.
After two seasons coming back from Tommy John surgery, Wada spent two more in the Chicago Cubs organization where he split his time between Triple-A and the majors before returning to Fukuoka last season.
In the U.S., the slicker major league ball allows for more horizontal movement than Japan's tackier ball. Wada was surprised by how much movement he could get on a two-seam fastball, a bread-and-butter pitch in America that is rarely thrown by Japanese pitchers here.
"(In the States, I adopted) a two-seam fastball and a cut fastball, pitches that can move," the 36-year-old said last month in an interview with Kyodo News. "I thought that when I did return to Japan, those would be useful. If you can throw a good (four-seam) fastball, you can get by with just that, but as you get up in years, you just can't do that. Over there, it was obvious I needed movement, and when I tried it, I was surprised by how much I could make the ball move."
"Of course, some of that is due to the different ball (in the majors), but you can still get some movement with a Japanese ball."
And that, he believes, is a path Nippon Professional Baseball needs to go down -- especially after Japanese hitters failed miserably to handle good two-seam fastballs in March's World Baseball Classic. For the second straight tournament, Japan failed to reach the final and manager Hiroki Kokubo said part of that was due to lack of familiarity with the two-seamer.
"In the WBC you might remember how concerned the Japanese team was with dealing with that movement. So perhaps, what the NPB needs is more pitchers who employ those pitches," Wada said.
"Because the two-seam is not going to give you a lot of movement here, pitchers abandon it. But then when the WBC comes, opposing teams quickly see our hitters can't hit two-seamers, and perhaps that's why we Japanese think the WBC is so hard."
"So I've been thinking it would be better if our hitters were more used to it here. Of course, I don't know if that is true or not. After all Japanese baseball, American baseball and the WBC are all different."
Wada is well aware that some superstar pitchers have gotten by without grade-A four-seam fastballs in the majors, but he knows from experience there is more to success in big leagues than playing skill.
"If you are throwing 160 (kilometers per hour) that's another story, but pitchers who throw between 145 and the low 150s are everywhere in the majors," Wada said. "A lot of those guys depend on a two-seamer and have ERAs from 3.0 to around 4.0 and that's considered to be pretty good."
"There have always been major leaguers who have really succeeded with less than the best stuff: Mark Buhrle, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and so on. Control is important, movement is important, changing speeds is important. If you can do that, I feel you can get major league hitters out. But what really hit home to me is the need to maintain your physical strength."
"To clear the hurdle of pitching on four or five days rest and on very tight schedules, the know-how in the majors is the best. If you lack the skill needed to clear those physical hurdles, your other skills don't mean a thing."
It is something the lefty knows too much about, having spent much of his time in the States rehabbing. Last season, he led the Pacific League in wins but missed the end of the season with elbow discomfort.
This year, all appeared to be right, but after winning his first two starts Wada felt stiffness in the elbow. He required surgery and missed nearly five months.
"Last season I was unable to make my last start in a close pennant race," he said. "This year, too, I've barely pitched, yet the team is here (in first place). I'm really happy and feel grateful to be here."
Not only did he make a speedy recovery, but according to Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate, Wada's fastball is better than it's been since he returned to Japan.
Although Wada believes the lessons he learned in the U.S. aided his comeback, he said his experience abroad has enriched his life outside the lines.
"For a long time now, foreign players have been coming to Japan. They have had to be careful about so many things. When I went to the States, I was in the same boat, and many players over there were sympathetic. They looked out for me and could understand what I was going through," Wada said.
"And when I came back to Japan, I'd see foreign players and think, 'That's something I can do (for them).'"
"In my first stint in Japan, I was somewhat conscious about the foreign players' situation but I didn't look too carefully into it. But now, I want to go up to them and talk, go out to eat with them and have conversations. For my life, this (lesson) was a big thing."