At first glance, he seems like any other teenager playing professional baseball. He likes Chipotle and has always looked up to Derek Jeter. He celebrates a hit during batting practice by cheering along with his teammates. He smiles and laughs and fits in with the other young members of the Lake County Captains squad.
You’d never know that Yu-Cheng Chang doesn’t speak much English. It’s not until you sit down with him and his translator, Yung Chun, that you realize just how removed Chang is from the rest of his teammates by a linguistic barrier.
However, you also realize just how much that doesn’t matter.
Chang started playing baseball in Taiwan when he was seven years old. As he grew older, he got more exposed to baseball internationally. In middle school, after dinner, his coaches used to turn Major League games on for the team to watch together. Chang’s older brother, Jin-De Jhang, was signed by the Pirates in 2011, bringing American Major League Baseball even closer to home for Chang.
Although Chang does not find his playing style to be akin to any shortstop playing in the big leagues right now, he said he always admired Derek Jeter.
“Not just on the field and for his defensive skills,” Chang clarified, “but also for his interactions with fans and for being optimistic and such a greater leader of his team.”
Chang was signed by the Indians for $500,000 in 2013 out of Taichung Agricultural High in Taiwan. At that time, he was 18 years old and one of the top Asian amateur players.
Chang played his first season with the Indians in 2014, when he spent 42 games with the Arizona League Indians. While there, he posted a .346 batting average in 181 plate appearances with six home runs and 25 RBI. He had an OPS of .986 and stole six bases.
Chang was the second-best hitter in the league last season, only trailing fellow Tribe draftee and current Captains infielder Bobby Bradley.
Chang skipped over the Mahoning Valley Scrappers and went straight to Lake County this season to play his first full season of professional baseball.
“I didn’t feel surprised [to make the jump],” Chang said. “The organization told me to be prepared to come here and face the challenge at this level, so I feel ready to go.”
Chang typically plays in shortstop, though he is not built like a traditional middle infielder. He is long and lean at 6’1” and 180 pounds. He said that he played shortstop in Little League, but made the switch to the outfield once he got to middle school. However, in his last year of high school, scouts told Chang that he would have more value as a shortstop, so he moved back to the infield.
Manager Shaun Larkin said that, despite Chang’s size, he’ll play shortstop for the Captains until, frankly, he can’t.
Overall, Chang is pleased with the way his defensive work is shaking out on the field.
“My body movement and glove work has been smoother,” Chang said. “I still feel like I need to work on the backhand grab.”
Chang has committed six errors in 17 games at short for the Captains this season and has turned 12 double plays.
Offensively, his momentum from last season has continued. Chang is hitting .254 with 15 hits, four doubles, and a triple this season. He said he is striving to be more consistent when facing breaking pitches, and his goal is to work to see the ball better.
Chang is also working this season to continue to improve his English as he continues to get acclimated to life in the United States. He said he can currently understand some simple conversations – like where to go, what to do, or how to purchase items – and can easily state his feelings about the weather in Northeast Ohio: “Cold. Not good.”
Last season, the organization gave Chang three English classes a week, and he will likely fall into a similar pattern this year. Chang said that his favorite American food so far is Chipotle, and that Panda Express does a fairly good job at cooking Asian food that could remind him of home. The training complex in Arizona, Chang said, sometimes had good Asian food, as well.
Chang is also working to bring some Taiwanese culture to his teammates, as he is teaching them to say phrases such as “how are you,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.”
Despite the language barrier, however, there are still certain parts of the game that Chang and his teammates don’t have to work understand across the language gap:
“[In Taiwan] we have our own term, but if you say ‘home run,’ everybody understands.”
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer