Shogo Akiyama called it the biggest change he’s made in his career – and without it, he’s not sure if he was going to be a successful Major League Baseball player.
After a frustrating first half of the 2020 season, Akiyama adjusted the timing of when he picked up his front foot to begin his swing. Throughout his career in Japan, he picked up his front foot when the pitcher raised his leg to start his delivery.
That became a problem because of the increase in velocity from Japan to MLB. About midway through the season, he waited until the pitcher lowered his back leg in his delivery. It decreased how much weight he shifted in his swing.
Akiyama had a .192/.280/.247 slash line in August and a .317/.456/.365 slash line in September.
“I was able to see the ball better in the second half after that,” Akiyama said Monday through team interpreter Luke Shinoda. “It was the biggest change that I’ve ever had to do in my career, but I’m glad it turned out well.”
Maybe more than any other player on the Reds’ roster, Akiyama was affected by the shortened season. He lost a couple of weeks of spring training. He didn’t have a 162-game season to experiment with changes in a new league. It was his first time living in the United States and it was during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
How did he evaluate his 2020 season?
"Nothing satisfying as far as numbers for last season," he said.
As Akiyama prepared for his second year in the Major Leagues, he spent the offseason refining his swing.
“Definitely I felt that change in velocity that wasn’t there in Japan,” Akiyama said. “During the offseason, I was swinging and imagining as if the velo was there from a Major League level pitcher. Through workouts, I value each swing more with power compared to where I used to focus on the contact and shape of the swing.”
Akiyama, who will turn 33 in April, will have to fight for at-bats in the outfield with Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel and Nick Castellanos. Akiyama received only 23 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers last year, but he wants to be an everyday player.
“I’d like to see him get that opportunity to play more, to face left-handers,” Manager David Bell said. “We know he can do it. He’s done that in Japan. As far as the position breakdown, I don’t know that it matters that much just because he’s such a good outfielder, he can play all three positions."
Bell emphasized that the 2020 season was a short time period for evaluating players and that Akiyama will continue to improve. He expects him to hit for more power after Akiyama ended the year with zero homers in 155 at-bats.
“I do think there is power in there, for sure,” Bell said. “He’s shown that and I think that’ll show up more and more over the course of a typical season. He does provide a unique or different kind of player to our lineup in a lot of different ways. He definitely has bat-to-ball ability and consistently puts the ball in play, uses the whole field.”
CONTRACT STATUS: Bell is entering his third year with the Reds, the final guaranteed year of his managerial contract. The Reds hold a club option for a fourth year.
The Reds have a 106-116 record under Bell, which includes a playoff berth last season. The Reds were swept out of the postseason without scoring a run against the Atlanta Braves.
Bell said he wasn't worried about the status of his contract.
"I think one advantage of being around the game forever is that I've really grown to appreciate every minute, every moment that I have," Bell said. "Very blessed and grateful for every day to be able to do this job and be able to be around our players and definitely do it here in Cincinnati. That's truly, 100% truthfully my focus.
"I'm very happy to be able to say that because it's really enjoyable and I love it. It's a great responsibility. Thinking beyond that in any way is just not fair. It's certainly not any fun."
MILEY READY: Left-handed starter Wade Miley was limited to 14 1/3 innings last season after he landed on the injured list with left groin discomfort and a left shoulder sprain.
He changed his offseason routine this winter, throwing less than he normally would, and he looked for ways to stay healthy for the upcoming 162-game season.
“The groin is something I’ve dealt with since 2018,” Miley said. “Why it’s not healing completely or whatever is going on with it, I’m not really sure. I’ve spent a lot of time with a physical therapist in the offseason, more than I would in the past. Hopefully, we have corrected some issues and can move forward.”
There’s a competition for the final two spots in the rotation – behind Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle – but Miley is a leading candidate to win a spot because of his track record and $8 million salary. He’s made at least 29 starts in each season from 2012-17, but he’s missed time in two of the last three years.
“The key for Wade is just staying healthy and working super hard to stay healthy,” Bell said. “We know he can pitch.”