Wendelken Finds NPB Success with Old-School Method

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Yokohama Stadium

Baseball continues to move toward a high-tech, data-driven game that seems to require as many keystrokes as pitches to complete nine innings.

And while the Yokohama DeNA BayStars provide players with plenty of sabermetrics to find success, first-year import reliever J.B. Wendelken likes to count on good old-fashioned instincts when he’s on the mound.

“I know we have a great analytics team — they give us all the information in the world, but I’m an old-school guy,” Wendelken told The Japan News recently.

“I like to throw a pitch and just see how the hitters react and I kind of go with my gut and what I think would be the next pitch to attack with,” said the right-hander, who has a 1.44 ERA and WHIP of 1.02 over 32 appearances this season.

“[I like] being a good reader of hitters and trying to understand the game, and realize how these guys are. And staying in the zone is key, I think that’s leading to a big part of it,” said Wendelken, whose opponents’ batting average splits are at .173 against left-handed hitters and .154 against righties at the All-Star break.

“A lot of these situations I come into, I can’t just leave balls in the middle of the zone, I have to actually pay attention and be on my p’s and q’s when I come out.”

Nippon Professional Baseball features a lot of speedy left-handed hitters who are adept at slapping pitches to left field or just putting the ball in play and making a mad dash for first, putting everyone on the infield under pressure.

“The key is just to be aware of it,” the Savannah, Ga., native said of the Ichiro Suzuki-type hitters. “I got caught sleeping one time [when a player] was bunting, and I told myself I ain’t going to let that happen no more.

“You’ve got to be ready at all times. And when they do that, you kind of want to put it in on their hands, but sometimes that ain’t how the cookie crumbles, so I just make my pitch to the best of my ability. Once I let it go, it’s out of my control and I just let my guys [on defense] work.”

Wendelken, who spent time with four teams over six seasons in the major leagues, is part of a bullpen that features two pitchers in the top 10 in the Central League in holds at the break.

Right-hander Hiromu Ise is second in the league with 23 holds, while the 30-year-old Wendelken is tied for eighth with 14 as the BayStars make a push in the pennant race and look to reach the Climax Series playoffs for the second consecutive year.

The second half of the season is about to get underway, and Wendelken said pushing ahead in a crowded CL field will depend on the second-place BayStars focusing in on doing “the small things,” as the games grow in importance.

“And that goes down to the basics of just fielding ground balls off the bound and ground balls here in the infield. If we can continue to do the small things right, we can’t fail.”