The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hanshin Tigers’ Joe Gunkel strives to be cut above the rest
Hanshin Tigers hurler Joe Gunkel made a shift in approach in the offseason, deciding to mix in a few more cut fastballs. The change is now helping him carve up Central League lineups this year.
The right-hander, who helped the Tigers top the Hiroshima Carp 7-3 on Sunday, is 5-0 in his first six starts this season and part of the reason the Tigers are in first place at the start of May.
“My cutter has been a good pitch for me this year,” he told The Japan News on Thursday in a telephone interview.
“In years past, it’s kind of just been like a third pitch — something a little extra to throw a guy off. This year, I’ve been attacking both right-handers and left-handers with my cutter.”
Gunkel, who made the jump to Nippon Professional Baseball last year with no major league experience during his time with four big league organizations, said he has also been sharper with his command, including his forkball, and he is also limiting his mistakes over the plate.
The 29-year-old’s ERA is 2.29 and he has already racked up 29 strikeouts in 35⅓ innings. Gunkel, who was 2-4 last season in 28 appearances (56⅔ innings pitched), said a strong preseason this spring earned him a spot in the rotation.
“Thankfully, I had some success last year and I’ve started the year out well here, so it’s been a pleasant experience, for the most part — minus coronavirus,” he quipped.
But much of the talk involving the Tigers has been about slugging rookie Teruaki Sato, whose grand slam helped Gunkel pick up the victory on Sunday. And just like his pitches, Gunkel was polished in his response about all the fanfare surrounding the team’s first pick in last year’s draft.
“He’s got some big-time power, and if a pitcher makes a mistake, he makes them pay,” said Gunkel, who added that the 22-year-old slugger is handling fame well.
“He gets a lot of attention and sometimes that’s tough for a young kid — being on the front page of the paper every day. But he’s very humble and he’s very hardworking, so with his kind of mindset, I think he’ll turn out to be a pretty special player.
“I think the more he sees this pitching, the more comfortable he’s going to get with it — his discipline in the strike zone will get better.” (May 3)