The mastering of American mechanics

Much of Akinori Iwamura's first season in the United States will be spent learning how pitchers differ from those in Japan.

By Eduardo A. Encina
Published April 5, 2007

A search for Akinori Iwamura's name on YouTube reveals a 5 1/2-minute video clip showing each of Iwamura's 32 home runs last season with the Yakult Swallows.

In the clip, balls fly off Iwamura's bat to all fields - a much different display from his first 1 1/2 months in spring training, when the new Rays third baseman seemed to pull everything with his open stance and high leg kick.

As he begins his first season in the majors, Iwamura realizes hitting is much different here than in Japan. He knows his rookie year in American baseball will be a seasonlong test of making adjustments and learning how to read pitchers. Most important, it might be a seasonlong test in patience for all parties involved.

"He's been successful in the past," Maddon said, "so I want to really watch him and be patient. I don't want to say anything to him that creates too much thought because he just needs to play right now. That's my biggest concern, not to get too analytical with him because we don't have enough background on him."

Iwamura, 28, began the spring in a 1-for-22 slump, and a majority of the outs were on grounders to second base. When he swung, he dived out of the batter's box and down the first-base line, seemingly trying to pull everything. His swing was wild and awkward.

"At the beginning of spring training, I was concentrating more on the outside corner, but right now, I have set my own range instead of chasing the ball outside," Iwamura said though interpreter Maya Koyanagi.

"So I'm a lot more comfortable than I was in the beginning of spring training."

The Rays remain cautious against making significant changes in Iwamura's stance and mechanics. But they believe a slight tweak in his step toward the plate will help him adjust to big-league pitching.

Like many Japanese hitters, Iwamura lifts his leg high as he steps into the pitch, not like the slide step that most big-league hitters use. The Rays believe a compromise between the two is the key.

The high leg kick, used as a timing mechanism, leaves Iwamura out in front of most pitches, Rays hitting coach Steve Henderson said.

"He's got to let the ball get to him," Henderson said; "just wait for the ball to travel to him instead of going after it. We're just trying to get him to stay there in the box a little bit longer."

"The high foot in the air movement leads to going to the ball instead of staying behind the ball," Maddon said. "I'd like to see him play with the middle of the field.

"I think he's made some nice adjustments over the past couple of weeks. I think it's just a matter of time before he gets more comfortable."

Already, Iwamura has tempered the exaggerated leg kick, and it has shown some rewards. He hit an opposite-field single and walked in four plate appearances in the season opener Monday in New York. He had two hits in each of the Rays' final two preseason games, including a pair of hits to centerfield Friday against the Reds.

Henderson said that equally as important is seeing as many pitchers as he can so he can learn to make adjustments. Maddon made an effort to get Iwamura as many at-bats as possible in the spring.

Iwamura agreed, saying he has already started to close his stance slightly or choke up on his bat against different pitchers.

Then there's a shorter spring training here that has allowed Iwamura about two fewer weeks to get his timing back. And there is the pressure to be successful and the mass of Japanese reporters who analyze his every move.

Mechanics aside, Iwamura said comfort comes with time.

"In the beginning, I was worried about how I would do," Iwamura said. "Now I'm comfortable facing pitchers and I'm better prepared for different pitches. I'm not trying to chase the ball. I'm more myself."

"I want to go into every at-bat with a fresh mind."

Eduardo Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.