NEW YORK — After spending parts of three seasons in the major leagues, Frank Schwindel took his talents to Japan in 2023. There, the former Cub played for the Orix Buffaloes — and had a locker next to Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s.
Schwindel would lean on an interpreter so that he could talk to the Buffaloes’ ace. Yamamoto, meanwhile, would practice his English while asking Schwindel about his time in the big leagues. The pitcher wanted to know about the differences between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball, and he would quiz Schwindel on his favorite cities to play in.
As a New Jersey native who shined at St. John’s, Schwindel acknowledged that his childhood skewed his opinion.
“I told him I was biased because I grew up a Yankee fan,” Schwindel told the New York Daily News.
Schwindel added that he “loved” the few opportunities he had to play at Yankee Stadium, and he spoke of the team’s storied history. But Schwindel didn’t solely focus on the Yankees and New York City when talking to Yamamoto. Instead, he shared his experiences in Chicago, Kansas City and Oakland, and he made sure his teammate knew that he could find quality Japanese food all across America.
That is where Yamamoto is heading, as the Buffaloes are widely expected to post the right-hander this offseason. Already the winner of three Triple Crowns, three ERA titles, two Pacific League MVPs, two Sawamura Awards — Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award — a Japan Series championship and an Olympic gold medal, the five-time NPB All-Star has more than proven himself in his homeland.
Only 25 years old, Yamamoto is poised to be one of the most sought-after free agents in baseball this winter. His services could cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million after he went 16-6 with a 1.21 ERA this past season.
The Yankees, among others, are expected to seriously pursue Yamamoto, as they have made multiple trips to watch him in action. That included an early September expedition by general manager Brian Cashman and senior adviser Omar Minaya. Yamamoto threw a no-hitter in front of the Yankees’ front office duo — and about 15 other teams’ representatives — that day.
“I heard he’s really good,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after Yamamoto’s no-hitter. “He’s a decorated guy that I think gets posted this winter. So I know he’s on a lot of people’s radar.
“I would imagine there’s some interest.”
The Yankees, in need of starting pitching, have also sent professional director of pro scouting Matt Daley and vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring to see Yamamoto. Meanwhile, assistant general manager Jean Afterman helped bring Japanese stars like Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka to the Bronx in the past.
With the Yankees and others at least doing their due diligence on Yamamoto, The News decided to do the same by reaching out to Schwindel and a couple of others who have played with and against him in Japan. All agreed that he will thrive in the States while shedding light on his work ethic, talent and personality.
“Obviously, to be that successful in Japan, it’s not an easy feat,” said Padres righty Nick Martinez, who played in the country and against Yamamoto from 2018-2021. “So that speaks worlds to how he trains and how he prepares.”
Plenty of modern pitchers use a weighted ball program to improve their arm strength, but Yamamoto’s includes a fun twist.
When he and Schwindel were not chatting by their lockers, Yamamoto would sometimes throw a souvenir-sized basketball against a nearby wall. Schwindel would watch and listen as the ball pounded against the surface and rolled back to Yamamoto.
“He’d be launching it against the wall, and it would come back to him,” Schwindel said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, but he definitely knows what he’s doing.”
While the mini basketball struck Schwindel as unusual, it’s not even the most unique training tool Yamamoto uses.
Martinez mentioned that the Japanese superstar also throws plastic javelin-like darts to fine-tune his mechanics. Martinez saw Yamamoto throwing the pointed object in the outfield once, so he decided to ask him about it before giving it a shot.
“I tried throwing it and my technique was so bad that the javelin only went about 90 feet,” Martinez recalled. “Then he threw it and it went about 150 feet. So it’s all about technique, and he’s saying if I can master this technique, then my release points for all my pitches are going to be the same and it’s gonna be harder for the hitter to pick up what I’m throwing.”
Indeed, deception is a key part of Yamamoto’s game. But so is his command and his “electric stuff,” as Schwindel described it multiple times.
What makes Yamamoto ‘special’
After nine seasons in the majors and two stints with the Yankees, Phil Coke’s baseball journey took him to Japan in 2017. There, he watched Yamamoto as a rookie.
“For being as young as he was, he stood out because of his ability to command,” Coke said. “He had really good feel and command for his pitches and was able to execute in situations where most young athletes may have struggles. He was very convicted with each pitch, and he was able to throw everything for strikes with pretty solid accuracy.”
Yamamoto has since expanded his repertoire to eight or nine pitches, according to Martinez, and he can still throw his entire arsenal for strikes. “That’s what makes Yamamoto special,” said Martinez, who noted that his offerings include curveballs, sliders, cutters, change-ups and fastballs that can touch 100 mph despite a slender build.
There’s also a forkball. “I don’t think it’s hittable,” Schwindel said.
Schwindel remembers being surprised anytime Yamamoto surrendered a hit this past season. Martinez’s former Japanese teammates could relate.
“I would ask our guys what makes him so hard,” Martinez said. “They’d be like it’s very, very hard to pick up what he’s throwing. He’s able to throw every pitch for a strike and manipulate the ball in every direction.”
In addition to throwing so many different pitches from similar release points, Yamamoto also has a distinct delivery that adds deceit. Made possible by the javelin training and an extensive stretching routine — “One of the most flexible guys I’ve seen,” Schwindel said — Yamamoto will pause when his front leg reaches its peak. He’ll then reach behind his back with his throwing arm before exploding his body and limbs toward the batter.
“He’s very deceptive,” Martinez said. “He’s very technical in his mechanics.”
As an American playing in Japan, Coke had to overcome a language barrier in all aspects of life while overseas. Sometimes, those challenges gave him a glimpse of Yamamoto’s comical side.
“He was really funny,” Coke said. “Everybody over there had a phenomenal sense of humor in the clubhouse, whether they were trying to speak English or trying to get you to speak Japanese.”
Schwindel added that Yamamoto is an “awesome teammate” who likes to joke around in the clubhouse, though he’s “pretty much all business” outside of it.
“He takes baseball so seriously,” Schwindel said. “He’s definitely a competitor and puts baseball first.”
Once Yamamoto transitions to the majors, the sport and daily life will come with some obstacles, such as language, culture and adjusting to a new city. That’s in addition to getting to know new teammates and coaches while also adapting to a different ball, a more demanding travel schedule and hitters that put greater emphasis on power than their Japanese counterparts.
The expectation is that Yamamoto will navigate all of that while performing at the highest level.
That’s easier said than done, and not every Japanese star makes the switch seamlessly. However, those who spoke to The News believe Yamamoto will follow in the footsteps of Tanaka, Yu Darvish and Kodai Senga — other Japanese pitchers who recently found success in the majors.
“I think he can make a very similar impact,” said Martinez, who played with Senga in Japan and shares a clubhouse with Darvish. “To say that he will have those numbers, I’m not sure. But I think he will have a very similar impact. In my opinion, he’s coming into this league ready to pitch, just like those two guys did.”
The big question now is where Yamamoto ends up.
The Athletic’s Will Sammon reported that Yamamoto wants to pitch in a big market, making the Yankees a realistic destination. Then again, the Mets could be, too. Plenty of other teams — perhaps some better-suited to contend right away — will surely be vying for the pitcher.
Wherever Yamamoto signs, those who have seen him predict he will become a main attraction.
“I’m happy for him no matter where he lands,” Coke said. “If he ends up being a Yankee, I think that he could be a really complimentary piece based on how he’s been performing over in Japan. And as long as his performance transitions easily, he’s going to be one of those guys that people are really excited to go see play.”