photography by Michael Woodall

Yoshihisa Hirano

Written by Judy Harper Category: Spotlight Issue: April 2018
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Japanese pitcher Yoshihisa Hirano brings his nasty splitter and steely mound demeanor to the D-backs.

D-backs Hurler

To bolster their bullpen over the off-season, the Arizona Diamondbacks found some talent back east – far east. Signed out of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) League, Yoshihisa Hirano throws a fastball that sits in the 90-94 mph range, sports a nasty splitter and has a steely mound demeanor that should serve the 34-year-old rookie well as he vies to replace departed closer Fernando Rodney this spring. A native of Kyoto, Hirano spent his 12-year Japanese baseball career with the Orix Buffaloes, but also has international experience, having competed in the World Baseball Classic last year as a member of Team Japan. The 6-foot-1 right-hander excelled in the tournament throwing the Major League Baseball regulation ball, which is slightly larger than its NBP counterpart, giving him a boost of confidence to make the leap to MLB. “Please call me Yoshi,” he says before deferring to interpreter Kelvin Kondo – his batterymate for his first PHOENIX interview.

What is your earliest recollection of playing baseball as a child? When did you realize you might be able to make it a profession?
I started playing catch with my father when I was 9, and then played in middle school and high school. When I was a kid I always dreamed of being a pro, but it really got going in college when I realized, “I think I can do this.”

How does the ball differ in the MLB from Japan?
In Japan, the ball does not slip as much. The ball here feels a little bigger when you grip it.

Do you have to work on your mound presence, or does that menacing face come naturally?
I don’t try to make that face when I pitch. It just comes out naturally when I am in the zone.

You are the only guy in the majors who has pitched to Japanese star Shohei Ohtani, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels in December. Any insight for your teammates on how to pitch to him?
When I faced Ohtani in Japan, I used a fastball and splitter and was successful with that combination. But Ohtani has gotten better through the years and is a really good hitter, so I’ve had to make adjustments.

Do you have any superstitious pre-game rituals?
Not really, but when I pitched well in Japan I would always drive the same route to my house. If I had a bad game, I would take a different route home.

In Japan, I hear there are women with pony kegs on their backs serving beer in the stands, making our beer guys look a little wimpy, eh?
That is true. We have beer girls with backpacks that carry the beer kegs. Some people come to the games just to see them. They also serve sake at the games.

What about ballpark food – is it sushi and rice, or hot dogs and popcorn?
I’m really not sure what they serve except to the players, but I feel it is the same as here – hot dogs and pizza. They also serve udon, which is like a hot noodle soup. And there’s more tea and water instead of soda.

Any thoughts about the pool at Chase Field?
I watched the [wild card] playoffs last year and saw the guys jump in the pool [when they clinched]. I want to do that with my team this year.

What has been the most surprising thing about the U.S.?
One thing I noticed is it’s a lot easier to buy a car in [America]. Space is a problem in Japan, and you have to provide documents that prove you have a parking space or you can’t buy a car. It’s a real process in Japan. It was a nice surprise to go to the dealer, buy a car and take it home the same day.