SAPPORO ― Ever since being the No. 1 draft pick in 2017, Kotaro Kiyomiya has been under intense pressure to become the next big slugger in Japanese professional baseball.
With a powerful build, the 184-cm, 98-kg Kiyomiya hit a record 111 home runs in high school and was selected by a total of seven teams in the 2017 NPB amateur draft.
The Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters won the lottery for the right to negotiate with the Tokyo native and have been hoping ever since that Kiyomiya would be the second coming of Hideki Matsui.
Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out that way for a variety of reasons. But the hope is that Kiyomiya, who turns 23 on May 25, will now be able to flourish under first-year manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo.
In his rookie season in 2018, Kiyomiya had a .200 batting average with just seven home runs, 18 RBIs and 32 hits over 53 games. He was also forced to start his rookie season late due to an abdominal inflammation.
The left-handed-hitting first baseman then fractured his right hand ahead of the 2019 season.
He managed to play in a total of 81 games in 2019 when his numbers were only slightly better. He batted .204 and had 51 hits, seven homers and 33 RBIs.
The 2020 season was a bit of a setback. Kiyomiya appeared in 96 games but batted only .190 with seven homers, 22 RBIs and 43 hits.
He didn’t play in a single top-team game last season. Instead, he played in 106 games for the Fighters’ Eastern League squad and hit 19 homers with 60 RBIs and a .199 batting average.
Kiyomiya is the son of Japanese rugby union coach Katsuyuki Kiyomiya.
Famous Face as a Little Leaguer
The younger Kiyomiya has drawn international attention since the 2012 Little League World Series where, at the age of 13, he used an 80-mph fastball as pitcher to lead Japan to a 12-2 win over the high school team representing the United States.
Because of the distance of the mound to the plate at the LLWS, Kiyomiya’s 80-mph fastball was said to be going the major league equivalent of 104 mph.
His performances in the US led some to label him a future Japanese Babe Ruth. Some even said there was a physical resemblance between the young Japanese player and “The Bambino.”
His legend grew when he went to Waseda Jitsugyo High School, where he set the unofficial home run record.
Getting Chances to Bat Cleanup
This season, Shinjo has used Kiyomiya seven times in the cleanup spot. He has performed well at first base and moves remarkably well for a big man.
On Sunday, April 10, Kiyomiya batted fourth. He hit a nice double off the wall in right field to drive in a run but was promptly picked off at second.
After the game he commented on his performance and hinted at being frustrated at not being able to drive in more runs.
“I had a lot of chances but I couldn’t take advantage,” Kiyomiya said after the game. “It’s difficult to get runs for our team right now. If I could hit more it would take some pressure off the pitchers and allow them to enjoy the games more. I want to become a strong clutch hitter.”
He hit his first homer of the season on March 26 in the ninth inning at Fukuoka Dome, a towering solo blast into the right-field seats that made it 6-3 for the Hawks, which is how the game ended.
His second homer came on April 6 in a 3-2 win over the Chiba Lotte Marines. Batting cleanup, Kiyomiya connected for a solo shot in the fourth that made it 2-0 before the Fighters would go on to a 3-2 win at Sapporo Dome.
“His swing looks better than it used to,” Shinjo told reporters. “I want him and all the other batters to feel they can relax at the plate.”
With any young player there is always a grace period in which they are allowed to develop.
Kiyomiya has three seasons under his belt and the feeling is he will need to put up good numbers sooner rather than later.
Kazuma Okamoto had three seasons of limited play with the Yomiuri Giants before blossoming into one of the best bonafide home run hitters in Japanese baseball.
The Fighters were patient with Shohei Ohtani. Granted he was doing double duty as a pitcher and batter, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Ohtani hit 22 home runs. Prior to that his best season was 2014 when he had 10.
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows selected Munetaka Murakami in the same 2017 draft where Kiyomiya got all the media attention.
With 107 home runs over three seasons for the 22-year-old infielder, it’s clear the Swallows, last year’s Japan Series champions, got the better of the draft so far.
After three strikeouts in four at-bats in a 4-3 loss to the Seibu Lions on Wednesday, April 13, Kiyomiya’s batting average dipped to .188. He does have three doubles to go along with his two homers, but the team will be hoping he gets on a roll soon as Shinjo is giving him every chance to prove himself.
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Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here.