D-backs RHP Yoshihisa Hirano aims to win closer role
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Over the last five seasons playing in Japan and working predominantly as a closer, right-hander Yoshihisa Hirano saved 143 games, including a career-high 40 in 2014.
Closer is certainly a position of need for the Arizona Diamondbacks heading into the 2018 season, and Hirano hopes to win the job in spring training.
“Ultimately, hopefully, that will be goal, but I’m willing to pitch in any situation that Torey (Lovullo) tells me to,” he said, referring to the D-backs manager.
With Lovullo in attendance, along with general manager Mike Hazen, the D-backs formally introduced Hirano at Salt River Fields on Monday, the day before pitchers and catchers report for spring training.
The D-backs signed Hirano to two-year contract back in December.
“The D-backs were the first team that made me an offer,” he said, through interpreter Mack Hayashi, the D-backs director of Pacific Rim operations. “And when me and my family came over to visit Arizona in December, general manger Mike Hazen and field manager Torey Lovullo was there and greeted me and my family very warmly and made my family feel like (we were) home now already, and that was the reason why I chose the D-backs.”
For 12 seasons, Hirano has pitched in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League, all with the Orix Buffaloes. His career began as a starter and then later shifted to a reliever. The bullpen is where Hirano has enjoyed most of his success.
He was named the league’s Most Valuable Middle Reliever in 2011 and has been pitching out of the bullpen since 2010.
The D-backs have eyed Hirano for the last seven or eight years, according to Hayashi.
Hirano said he finally felt comfortable enough to make the jump to the United States when he played for Team Japan in last year’s World Baseball Classic. Using MLB baseballs and pitching in MLB stadiums — Angel Stadium of Anaheim and Petco Park — he went 1-0 with a 3.38 ERA in six relief appearances.
Hirano is 33, though he pointed to Kazuhiro Sasaki and Koji Uehara as two examples of Japanese pitchers who came to the majors at an older age.
Sasaki was 32 when he signed with the Seattle Mariners in 2000, while Uehara was 33 when he joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2009.
“I’m actually not conscious about my age,” Hirano said. “There’s been a lot of pitchers from Japan that have jumped over to the big leagues at my age and some of these guys are pitching well into their 40s. So, I still don’t feel that I’m on the downside of my career. Hopefully, I can continue the success that I had in Japan at this age as well.”
Hirano primarily throws a fastball and splitter, and he has worked in a slider on occasion.
Asked why pitching in late-game situations suits him, Hirano began with a joke.
“Maybe my face, how I look might be the reason why it looks that way,” he said, smiling. “But seriously, it just comes naturally for me.”
Hirano is expected to compete with right-hander Brad Boxberger and returning setup man Archie Bradley to be the D-backs’ new closer. That competition will likely last for much of Cactus League play.
Of more immediate concern for Hirano, however, is getting to know his teammates, something that he acknowledged won’t be easy given the language barrier.
Hirano is slowly learning English, and he showed off some of his early lessons at the start of Monday’s press conference.
“Hello. My name is Yoshihisa Hirano. Please call me Yoshi,” he said. “Thank you for coming today. I’m happy to be a member of the D-backs.”