April 13, 2024

Mookie Betts smiled and enthusiastically clapped his hands. Catcher Will Smith removed his mask and gave a nod of approval. Freddie Freeman raised his eyebrows and exhaled in amazement.

“That,” Freeman said, “was incredible.”

Each of the reactions were in response to Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Dodgers’ new $325 million Japanese star who threw his first live batting practice of the spring Saturday morning.

As advertised, the 25-year-old right-hander displayed pinpoint command, pounding batters with fastballs and breaking pitches to either side of the plate.

He flashed notable velocity, telling reporters his fastball was sitting around 96 mph in his 27-pitch session.

Most of all, in front of a crowded backfield at the team’s Camelback Ranch facility, Yamamoto showcased the tantalizing potential of his deceptive delivery, wide-ranging arsenal and steady execution.

“I’m glad he has Dodgers across his chest,” Freeman said. “Because that was very impressive.”

Since arriving at camp last week, Yamamoto has been making a strong first impression in his first Major League Baseball spring training.

Coaches have praised his early bullpen sessions and marveled at his behind-the-scenes routine —- which on Saturday included a warmup drill in which Yamamoto threw his personal javelin around on an open field outside the Dodgers’ clubhouse building.

Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto works out at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 14.

Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto works out at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 14.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“He’s very intelligent, very curious, and he’s going to be prepared and understand how to attack major league hitters,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I’m very confident that he can be a frontline starter.”

Teammates have echoed similar sentiments, noting myriad differences between Yamamoto — a three-time MVP in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league — and most American pitches.

“There’s just a lot of moving parts,” Freeman said. “A lot of guys are going to have trouble early on getting used to that.”

It starts with Yamamoto’s graceful footwork, which out of the wind-up includes a back-step with his left foot and a pirouette-like spin on the rubber with his other. The pitcher also has a “head turn,” as Freeman described it, and an unusually long pause after coming set, each of which can impact a hitter’s rhythm and timing in the box.

Then, when Yamamoto does uncork a throw, the ball can dart in any number of directions.

Against Freeman, Yamamoto buried fastballs and cutters inside — “0-0 cutter to me, and he missed by an inch at 92 [mph],” Freeman said — before dropping splitters and curveballs the other way.

Betts struck out looking in his at-bat, after swinging through an up-and-in fastball the pitch before. Freeman also got rung up, making contact only on a couple of foul balls he shot the other way. Jason Heyward was only tracking pitches Saturday but saw an array of fastballs, splitters and cutters.

Latest from spring training

And when Max Muncy, who hit a soft pop up in his at-bat, was asked which pitches Yamamoto threw to him, the veteran third baseman laughed.

“What didn’t he throw?” Muncy answered rhetorically. “He didn’t miss a beat. It was cool. Very impressive.”

Indeed, for the quality of Yamamoto’s pitches Saturday, Dodgers personnel were equally struck by his quiet composure.

Like the batting practice sessions of fellow Japanese star Shohei Ohtani this week, Yamamoto’s outing Saturday was the highlight of the day.

During his warmup in the bullpen, Yamamoto was surrounded by several executives (including president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman), an army of coaches and any teammates who weren’t busy elsewhere around the complex.

When he took the mound, fans flocked behind the home plate screen while camera crews and reporters tracked his every throw.

“It’s practice and not in-game situations, but it’s still nice to be able to focus and execute,” Heyward said. “I feel like there’s a lot going on on the outside, with excitement, for good reasons, which is very cool to have. But for him to be able to do his thing and lock in and make really good pitches, I think it was nice.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts looks on as pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto works out at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 14.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts looks on as pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto works out at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 14.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Yamamoto was also largely pleased with his pitching Saturday. He agreed that his fastball command was sharp. He said his cutter was surprisingly better than it had been in previous bullpens. He relished the opportunity to face established MLB stars such as Betts and Freeman too.

“It was good that I was able to pitch against top-level major league hitters,” Yamamoto said in Japanese. “It had been a while since facing hitters, so I was looking forward to it. I wanted to calm down and focus.”

There are still plenty of uncertainties surrounding Yamamoto’s transition to American baseball.

The Dodgers are planning to ease him into what will be a more frequent MLB pitching schedule (in Japan, Yamamoto pitched only once per week). He will have to learn a new set of opponents and adjust to MLB’s slicker balls (in Japan, NPB pitchers use balls made with a tacky cover). And his size remains a question, causing some baseball evaluators this winter to wonder about his long-term durability (the Dodgers even included clauses in his contract that would push back his potential opt-out years if he ever has Tommy John surgery).

But, months after signing him to the largest contract for a pitcher, none of those concerns were evident Saturday.

Instead, at the end of his session, a string of teammates approached him — almost akin to a post-victory handshake line — to offer compliments and congratulations.

Their exact message?

“Nice pitching,” Yamamoto recounted in perfect English while flashing a sly grin.

Freeman went a step further.

“I went up to him and said, ‘Please say incredible in Japanese,’” he said. “Because that was incredible.”

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