Hiroyasu Tanaka doesn't put too much stock in his impressive early numbers. The Tokyo Yakult No. 2 hitter, who won a Best IX Award in 2007, has been a big contributor to the Swallows' solid start.
Nicknamed Beavis after the iconic anti-hero in the MTV animated cartoon "Beavis and Butthead" for his perpetual smile, Tanaka, unlike his moronic namesake, is no loser. He takes his work at least as seriously as the next guy and is reaping the dividends at the plate this spring.
This time a year ago, Tanaka was batting .125, had been dropped down the order from second to seventh and was on his way out of the starting lineup. After three weeks on the bench last May, Tanaka began to hit and has not let up.
Even though he was named the Central League's best second baseman last autumn, Tanaka's .368 clip through his first 19 games has been a pleasant surprise.
"It's been OK. But whether it's good, bad or otherwise, what matters is what happens starting today," he told The Hot Corner last Thursday at Jingu Stadium's indoor practice facility.
"It's my fourth year [as a pro], I have to do something," he said. "I'm just trying to be more consistent."
That describes how Tanaka looks in the batter's box: calmer, steadier, more consistent--a winner in the war on exaggerated lower-body movement that has dogged many since Ichiro Suzuki made batter's box jitterbugging fashionable 14 years ago.
Ichiro's metoric success made his trademark leg swing acceptable, and lots of players began trying to time pitchers with their legs.
"The only one who used to do anything unorthodox was [Sadaharu] Oh. Now every body is doing weird stuff," said Swallows batting coach Yukio Yaegashi, whose own batting stance was fairly unique.
Yaegashi, who was a bespectacled, rotund, right-handed-hitting catcher, adopted a wide open stance before bringing his front leg into a more orthodox position as the pitcher came to the plate.
"I wore glasses, and it gave me a better field of vision," Yaegashi said.
As he spoke, Yakult's Yasushi Iihara was going through his disco moves in the cage.
"He's going to be better, but he still has a lot of work to do," Yaegashi said of the speedy utility man, who has some ability to drive the ball despite his gyrations.
Tanaka's effort has been directed toward the basic principles of eliminating unnecessary motion and getting stronger.
"I haven't really changed anything in my approach, except to eliminate this little thing or that," Tanaka said.
Hall of Fame slugger Futoshi Nakanishi, who lives near Jingu and gives master classes to every batter who cares to listen, began working more and more with Tanaka last year.
Nakanishi, who wore glasses as a player, long ago worked with Yaegashi on his successful batting stance. Last spring, Nakanishi instructed Tanaka to use a more controlled back swing to time pitches while keeping his lower body as still as he could.
"You can see how much he's improved since last year," Nakanishi said. "He used to wobble a bit. Sometimes he'd time a pitch, but his balance would be off and he'd lunge. Now when he makes his cut, it's really sharp: 'Whack! Whack' Whack! It starts with a steady stance. He's not moving forward too soon, not overcommitted."
Part of what makes it work for Tanaka is increased strength. A year after Swallows center fielder Norichika Aoki put on a few kilograms of muscle, Tanaka followed suit with an extreme weight-training regimen of his own.
"I started doing super sets, more extreme workouts less often," the surprisingly buff Beavis said in February at the Swallows' Okinawa spring camp. "I'll do six to eight repetitions in an exercise and then gut out three or four more. It really paid off."
Tanaka said Aoki, who was also his senpai at Waseda University, was a good role model.
"He set a good example for me, but I'm not going to just accept being second best, I want to surpass him," Tanaka said.
In describing his English progress, Tanaka said: "I'm ascending."
The same goes for his hitting.