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International Free Agent Profile: Yoshihisa Hirano

Yoshihisa Hirano, the highest-paid pitcher in Orix Buffaloes history, is looking to sign with a Major League Baseball club for the 2018 season.

World Baseball Classic - Pool E - Game 4 - Cuba v Japan
Yoshihisa Hirano
Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Born March 8, 1984, in Uji, a city in the Kyoto Prefecture of Japan known for centuries-old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, Yoshihisa Hirano grew up with back problems, making it unlikely that he would succeed in baseball as he has. He barely pitched during his time at Toba High School, but he went on to become a breakout star at Kyoto Sangyo University. As a result of his success in college, the Orix Buffaloes drafted the right-hander with their number one draft pick in 2005.

Hirano made his NPB debut in 2006 and had an outstanding rookie season by some metrics, and a poor one by others. While he tied for third most losses in the Pacific League with 11, he posted a respectable 3.81 ERA, tossed 172.1 innings, which led the team, and threw 10 complete games- second to only superstar Daisuke Matsuzaka. His 2007 season was very similar. Despite posting respectable numbers across the board, Hirano led the Pacific League in losses, thanks to playing for a poor, sub-.500 team led by gaijin manager Terry Collins.

In 2008, Hirano underwent elbow surgery and missed the entire season. When he returned to the mound in 2009, he looked rusty, putting up the worst numbers in his young career. In 2010, the right-hander was moved to the bullpen by newly instated manager Akinobu Okada. The move would prove to be the right one for both Orix and Hirano, as the pitcher found his niche and the club found a dependable reliever. Over the next three years, Hirano was both a reliable and effective reliever, serving as set-up man to closer Mamoru Kishida. He averaged nearly 80 innings per year, with an ERA around 2.00, a 2.6 BB/9 rate, and a strikeout per nine innings rate just north of 10. In 2013, Kishida was removed from the role in favor of Yoshihisa Hirano, and the 29-year-old did not bat an eye.

In 2014, Hirano signed a three-year, ¥900 million contract, making him the highest-paid pitcher in Orix history. Though he had earned his domestic free agent option, he never really considered leaving the Buffaloes. When pressed by reporters, he would not commit to staying for the rest of his career. Sure enough, during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Hirano told reporters that he was interested in playing in the United States. The right-hander earned his international free agent option in 2015, but only submitted the paperwork to exercise it in early November 2017, when his contract with Orix was expired. After the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the closer got the itch to play in America, saying, “Considering my age, I figured this would be my last chance to move (to the majors). I have worries but my desire to try my luck over there is greater.”

The 6’1”, 185-pound Hirano throws from a high three-quarters arm slot. In his earlier years, he raised his hands up almost above his head when winding up, but he has since toned that part of his delivery down. The right-hander has retained another quirk, hooking his wrist and wrapping his arm behind his back, almost showing the batter the ball before his stride forward.

Hirano is primarily a two-pitch pitcher. His fastball, which sits in the low-to-mid-90s, generally is a flat, straight pitch, though it sometimes has slight run to both sides. The pitch can be described as having late life, sneaking up on hitters in the zone, especially when he throwing with plane, down in the strike zone. His go-to out-pitch is his forkball, which is a bona fide plus pitch. The pitch sits in the mid-to-high 80s and features late dive. He is able to throw his forkball with the same arm action and speed as his fastball, allowing the pitch to fool hitters until the last moment, when it tumbles off the table. When the right-hander has a good feel for the pitch, he can locate it better and throw it to fall into the zone for strikes and fall out of the zone to catch batters fishing. Hirano throws a third pitch, a slider, but it lags well behind his fastball and forkball in effectiveness. It is more of a get-me-over pitch that the right-hander telegraphs more often than not, slowing down his arm to give the pitch its big, round shape.

Hirano often has trouble with his command, though in Japan he has generally been able to put away hitters before putting them on base. When he is unable to command his pitches, he tries to be too fine with his location, which causes his forkball to lose some of its bite. While he does not melt down, per se, he does not show the same confidence and body language when working behind in the count and with runners on base.