Nakajima all business about playing for A's
Japanese infielder working on rediscovering successful approach at Triple-A
SACRAMENTO -- One month ago during a trip to Nashville, Triple-A Sacramento hitting coach Greg Sparks stumbled upon the batting gloves of Hiroyuki Nakajima, the A's prized signing of the 2012 offseason, and noticed something peculiar etched at the base of the gloves.
It was a day game in early May, warm and sunny, in the middle of Nakajima's first road trip back since sustaining a hamstring strain on March 26. Sparks turned to River Cats manager Steve Scarsone, who was stationed where the helmets and bats are stored on the home-plate end of the first-base dugout.
"Look at this, he's got his name on his gloves and a little guy on there and everything," Sparks said, pointing around the white and green trim to the silhouette of a player with his left knee raised in the air, tucked and turned, ready to unleash himself from a coiled configuration.
"Who's the guy?" the two asked Nakajima.
It didn't resemble the swing they had grown accustomed to seeing during Nakajima's time with the Triple-A club.
"That's me," Nakajima said through his interpreter.
"That's not you," they responded, at least not the version they had seen.
"Yes, that's me," Nakajima assured them.
But he was mistaken. Nakajima no longer resembled the emblem on his batting gloves. That Nakajima had disappeared, and along with it the production that had guided the 30-year-old Japanese import as an eight-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner in 11 seasons with the Pacific League's Seibu Lions.
The Nakajima who hit 20 or more home runs in four separate seasons and batted .311 with 74 RBIs in 136 games for the Lions in 2012 arrived to Phoenix for Spring Training in February fresh off a newly signed two-year, $6.5 million contract with Oakland. High expectations followed his every move.
"There are some things when you're here in Oakland that just feel right. This one felt right," A's general manager Billy Beane said at the time of Nakajima's signing. "The longer we went on, the more information we got, we said let's take a chance on the unknown as opposed to going down the road of the known."
But the man expected to be the team's Opening Day shortstop batted .167 with just one extra-base hit and 11 strikeouts in 17 Spring Training games, the same man with the sixth-largest contract of any player on the team -- more than ace Bartolo Colon, 2012 Gold Glove Award winner Josh Reddick and starting shortstop Jed Lowrie.
Questions regarding the legitimacy of Nakajima as a Major Leaguer were put on hold after the strained left hamstring that sent him to the 15-day disabled list prior to Opening Day. He began a rehab stint with Sacramento on May 3 and was officially optioned there 20 days later when it was up.
The conversation inside the dugout in Nashville soon followed. Nakajima, Scarsone and Sparks learned, no longer mirrored the figure on his batting gloves because of an overload of information about Major League pitching hurled at him prior to coming to America.
Nakajima was warned of aggressively diving into breaking balls and the velocity possessed by the faster pitchers in the American game. The preparation and anticipation of his new competition weighed on him.
Nakajima's delayed leg kick, the source of much of his timing at the plate, was swapped for a small lift with his front foot. The right-hander lost torque on his swing and was late on pitches, often fouling balls off to the right side.
"The emphasis was more on learning and observing the pitches, and that caused me to be more uncertain rather than swinging the bat freely," Nakajima said.
When asked why he didn't return to the stance that corresponded with his success, Scarsone recalls, Nakajima's eyes widened as if to say, "I can do this?"
"Show me that guy," Sparks said.
The silhouette of Nakajima was resurrected with an American flair, rather than trying to alter his swing completely. The leg kick returned to form a rotational type of swing reliant on the timing coming from that large stride.
"What he's doing now is unfortunately probably what he should've done from the get-go this spring," Scarsone said. "He should've just been saying, 'I'm going to show you how I play my game,' and then make some adjustments the other way instead of being something else."
Nakajima went 18-for-46 during a season-high 10-game hitting streak soon after the change. He's added four home runs and 13 RBIs as his batting average has settled to .279. Both Scarsone and Sparks stated separately that Nakajima is ready for Major League hitting.
Still, though healthy and armed with a capable bat, Nakajima has yet to join the big league club.
His delay can be attributed in part to the success of the A's, who are one game behind Texas for first place in the American League West standings. Lowrie, in particular, has thrived in the role of shortstop, batting .304, leading the most-walked team in baseball with 33 individual free passes and providing flexibility to A's manager Bob Melvin with his ability to play multiple infield positions and hit in several spots in the lineup.
Nakajima, meanwhile, has yet to prove that he can play shortstop at the Major League level. A's personnel felt he did not possess the range required of a Major League shortstop when he arrived in Spring Training, with his athleticism and agility in question.
He has played more third base than shortstop for Sacramento as of late, and his two forays at second base in late May and none since suggest the team was underwhelmed by his potential defending the right side of the infield. Really, Nakajima is only accustomed to playing shortstop, though he did briefly play third base early in his career.
The difference between the playing surfaces in America and Japan should also be considered. The AstroTurf primarily found in Japanese ballparks allows for the ball to travel faster to infielders than in America, which puts less of an emphasis on the infielders charging in and making a play on the ball.
Scarsone said that Nakajima's developed a habit of letting the ball come to him in Japan, which is problematic on natural grass fields; while Nakajima's arm strength isn't a concern -- if anything, Scarsone said, it's stronger than anticipated -- the shortstop position in America is one that demands athleticism.
"Whether he can play shortstop every day up there is a question at this point," Scarsone said. "Just based on what we've seen so far, it's not the movement you'd expect from a shortstop, and shortstop is a tough position to play. It's not just something you can hang out and not have any kind of huge athleticism. It's a very athletic position, and right now we're not seeing it."
Nakajima has participated in agility workouts with the team's strength and conditioning coach to improve his first step. The program focuses on, among other things, running technique, strides, infield work, dives -- anything to improve his range.
"He's very attentive, very open to trying new things and willing to work," Scarsone said. "He spends lots of time in the weight room and takes early batting practice. We're not having to order him to do anything. He volunteers for all sorts of extra work."
Nakajima's lack of complacency and willingness to work overtime is encouraging, especially considering his contract situation.
"The truth of the matter is, I'm receiving that particular amount of money," Nakajima said. "I do feel a responsibility to contribute as soon as possible."
The infielder says he feels prepared to face Major League competition if handed the opportunity at any moment, while acknowledging his past scuffles. Nakajima knows the best way to change the narrative is to produce on a more consistent basis.
He wants to replicate the success that belonged to silhouette on his batting gloves.
"I'm not here to play, I'm here to do business," Nakajima said. "I approach this in a professional manner and treat every day accordingly. I want to prove that I'm a different player from Spring Training."
Jeff Kirshman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.