By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Just over six years after Yoshinobu Yamamoto watched a playoff game from the raucous Dodger Stadium stands and decided he absolutely had to play in the major leagues one day, the right-hander pulled on his white No. 18 jersey and a blue cap in the center field pavilion.
The consensus best pitcher outside North America reached one of his goals Wednesday, joining the Dodgers on a 12-year contract that’s reportedly the largest and longest ever guaranteed to a major league pitcher.
But the 25-year-old ace of Japan’s top league won’t be satisfied without many chances to experience the Los Angeles playoff atmosphere he absorbed as a teenager watching Kenta Maeda on the mound at Chavez Ravine in 2017.
While he plays alongside Shohei Ohtani with his star-studded new club, Yamamoto also intends to inspire any dreaming youngsters in the Dodger Stadium stands.
“From today moving forward, I promise to all the fans of LA that I will focus my everything to become a better player, and to become a world champion as a member of the Dodgers,” Yamamoto said through his interpreter. “I will stop simply admiring the players that I have looked up to, but rather strive to become the player that others want to become.”
Yamamoto has been Japan’s most dominant pitcher over the past few seasons, and he was coveted by teams across the majors after he elected to leave the Orix Buffaloes this offseason.
The big-budget, pitching-poor Dodgers landed Yamamoto to cap their prolific winter spending spree after signing two-way AL MVP Ohtani to a $700 million contract and inking right-hander Tyler Glasnow to a $136.5 million, five-year deal after his acquisition from Tampa Bay.
“This has been a monumental offseason for all of us,” manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s a privilege to be here, but I don’t think the expectations have changed. The roster has been bolstered with some good young players, but our goal is always to compete for championships.”
The Dodgers have big expectations for Yamamoto, a 5-foot-10 right-hander with the potential to become a major league ace after a stellar start to his career in Japan. The Dodgers didn’t disclose the value of the deal, but several media reports have tagged it at $325 million.
After winning three straight Most Valuable Player awards in the Nippon Pacific League, Yamamoto seems more than ready to start his new chapter. Showcasing a confident smile throughout his first public appearance in Los Angeles, Yamamoto opened his news conference by speaking in English.
“I am beyond ecstatic to become a member of this historic franchise,” Yamamoto said. “I cannot express how much it means to be able to call Los Angeles my new home.”
Yamamoto went 16-6 with a 1.21 ERA while striking out 169 and walking just 28 this year, winning the Japanese pitching triple crown by leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. His six-pitch repertoire includes a dependable splitter, an effective four-seam fastball and a vicious curveball, all thrown with excellent command.
He has thrown two no-hitters in the past two years, and he has a career 1.72 ERA. Yamamoto is exceptionally good at limiting his opponents’ power, allowing just 36 homers over his seven seasons in Japan—including two in 164 innings last season.
While the Yankees and the Mets were among several clubs seriously pursuing Yamamoto this month, he admits he had strong feelings about the Dodgers even before the free agency process began. He said Los Angeles` addition of Ohtani helped his decision, but only because it made this perennial contender an even better team.
“Their success as a winning franchise was the most important thing to me,” Yamamoto said.
The Dodgers courted Yamamoto with the full force of their deep resources and global ambitions, but also through personal interactions with Roberts and the team’s current core, including Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, Bobby Miller and Ohtani.
“(I could) feel that clubhouse atmosphere even within the meeting, and that really resonated as well,” Yamamoto said.
Los Angeles’ three new players are joining one of the most consistent winners in recent major
league history. Los Angeles has had 13 straight winning seasons, made 11 consecutive playoff appearances and won at least 100 games in five of the past six full major league campaigns, winning three NL pennants and the 2020 World Series title.
But the Dodgers were in significant need of pitching after a dismal series of injuries and setbacks this season for a roster that still somehow won 100 games on the shoulders of Betts and Freeman.
Injury-plagued Clayton Kershaw was the only starting pitcher who threw more than 125 innings or posted a qualifying ERA lower than 3.75 for the Dodgers, who were swept out of the division series by eventual NL champion Arizona.
The contracts given out by the Dodgers to Ohtani, Yamamoto and Glasnow are potentially worth well over $1.1 billion, and Los Angeles also will owe a posting fee around $50 million for signing Yamamoto. But the two Japanese stars generate significant international revenue that will offset the cost of the deals for a team that is already one of the majors’ richest with its local television deal and bountiful gate revenue from the highest attendance in MLB in every full season since 2012.
Yamamoto’s English has strengthened even during his brief time in North America this month, according to his agent, Joel Wolfe, who noted that Yamamoto’s sister is an English teacher. Roberts, who was born in Japan, intends to improve his own communication skills on this adventure with his two new stars.
“(Yamamoto) is going to challenge me on my Japanese, and I’m going to challenge him on his English, and hopefully we’ll meet somewhere in the middle,” Roberts said with a smile.