Mariners fans, and avid baseball fans in general, are keeping a close eye on the newest Japanese ballplayer to come to America, Kenji Johjima. Unlike all his predecessors, Johjima is a catcher, which makes his transition particularly tough. Like Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, Johjima has to make the adjustment as a hitter, which is difficult enough. In addition, he must also learn how to handle his own pitching staff despite the fact that none of the Mariners pitchers speak Japanese fluently. Word is many general managers thought Johjima faced an impossible task and thus did not even consider signing him, despite his obvious talent (Johjima had averaged .300 with 30 homers his last five years in Japan, and also won numerous fielding awards in his career too). However, Mariners GM Bill Bavasi felt Kenji Johjima’s talent, leadership, work ethic, and positive demeanor would be up to the challenge and he signed the Japanese star.
Though three games don’t make a season, Bavasi has to be smiling right now. Kenji Johjima did everything against the Angels. At the plate, he hit a home run the other way in just his second major-league at bat to tally the first Mariner run of the season. His home run sparked the offense as Seattle tied the game at three, though they eventually lost 5-4. Then for an encore, Johjima took an 0-2 offering the next night and crushed it to left field for yet another home run, this time in a 10-8 Mariners victory. As a hitter, Johjima has had little trouble adjusting to this point.
However, perhaps more impressive has been Johjima’s work as a catcher. Kenji has shown a ton of natural leadership and already exhibits a strong rapport with the entire pitching staff. He is very active behind the plate, bounding and bouncing to wherever he needs to set up and he uses hand gestures quite frequently to make it clear what he wants the pitcher to do. When a pitcher is struggling, Kenji is not afraid to go to the mound and discuss what is going wrong either. In fact, based on the body language and gestures Kenji has used in a few mound visits, it even appears that he has picked up on a few mechanical problems and alerted the pitcher to what he is doing. Most impressive to me though is the pitching staff’s confidence in him, as I saw few pitchers shake off the pitches he called for against the Angels. They should have confidence in him too as, with the exception of one Vladimir Guerrero blast (and to be fair, who outside of Vladimir Guerrero takes an off-speed pitch on the low-outside corner of the plate and pulls it over 400 feet?), the Angels only pounded balls that missed Kenji’s target.
Seattle’s catchers last year were nothing short of abominable as a group, so Kenji Johjima is going to have to struggle mightily to be any worse. However, even through just three games, it is obvious that he is a massive improvement. While it is unfair to expect Kenji to keep performing at his current torrid pace, especially at the plate, it is fair to say that Japanese catchers can make the jump to Major League Baseball, and even make it seamlessly. Kenji has taken all the air out of his naysayer’s sails and will continue to prove he belongs in the big leagues with every pat of his catcher’s mitt and every nod of his pitcher’s head.