Minor League Sports

More than a translator: Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Kai-Wei Teng has mentor, friend in "Jay"

Taiwanese prospect off to solid start in Minnesota Twins system

(from left) Kernels pitcher Kai-Wei Teng from Taiwan talks with his translator Jen-Chieh Hsu at the bullpen prior to a Midwest League game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
(from left) Kernels pitcher Kai-Wei Teng from Taiwan talks with his translator Jen-Chieh Hsu at the bullpen prior to a Midwest League game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — It was a side pitching session with a lot of eyes watching.

Kai-Wei Teng of the Cedar Rapids Kernels threw for about a half hour in the bullpen early Wednesday afternoon, well before his team’s game against Wisconsin at Veterans Memorial Stadium. It’s customary for guys to do that between starts, as they work on things.

Yet this had a little different feel.

Pitching coach Virgil Vasquez and assistant pitching coach Jared Gaynor watched intently, as did Minnesota Twins assistant roving pitching coordinator J.P. Martinez. Video intern Joey Casey and Trackman operator Luke Statler made sure the team’s Rapsodo and Edgertronic systems were functioning properly.

They are high-speed cameras that captured every movement Teng — and the baseball — made. Biomechanics are huge in today’s game, even at the minor league level.

Then there was Jen-Chieh Hsu. Or “Jay,” as everyone calls him.

Whenever Vasquez or Martinez wanted to instruct Teng about something, or just communicate with him, Jay was right there to make sure Teng understood. He is the 20-year-old pitcher’s translator, mentor, older brother, father, guardian.

Pretty much all those things.

“Where he goes, I need to go,” Hsu said.

Hsu is twice Teng’s age, also from Taiwan, but with more experience being in the United States and with the ability to speak English. He studied at Missouri State University, has acted as a translator for other Taiwanese players, including Oakland Athletics reliever Wei-Chung Wang.

When the Twins signed Teng to a contract the winter of 2017 that included a $500,000 bonus and another $80,000 for future college schooling, Hsu was hired by Teng’s agent to help guide him through his first years of pro ball in America.

“People might think my job is only to translate,” Hsu said. “But, for me, already coming to the States, I can use my prior experience being with the Brewers and the Pirates to tell him what I had before, what I saw before to help. I can transfer that (information) to hopefully help him feel more comfortable here. It’s helping him understand what the coaches say, or if his teammates are joking (when they say something).

“My job is a translator, but I think it is more being a mentor to him.”

Teng began his career last season, showing well with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Twins. He started this season back in Fort Myers, Fla., at extended spring training but got the call early this month to come to Cedar Rapids and the Midwest League.

He is 2-0 with a 2.57 earned run average in four games, three starts, striking out 23 in 21 innings. He has good size at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds and a four-pitch mix (low-90’s fastball, curveball, slider and changeup).

Teng is an interesting prospect.

“I feel I have pitched just average,” he said, through Hsu. “It feels like I have one good game, then one so-so game. So I want to try to make things more consistent.”

“I think he’s pretty intense, think he’s got really good game makeup,” Martinez said. “Obviously he’s got four pitches that are all really good. A little carry to his fastball ... He’s got really good body awareness, too. Very coachable, with the adjustments that we need him to make. He usually picks those up pretty quickly. The first couple of years he was really young. Now he’s starting to turn into a dude, a man, and we’ve really kind of seen him take off.”

Hsu and Teng are inseparable on and off the field, even living with the same billet family here in town. During games, when Vasquez needs to come to the mound for a meeting, Hsu is allowed to join him.

No one knows how long this mentorship will last. Teng joins Latin teammates for regular English classes under local woman Abby Pumroy and is getting more and more comfortable with the language and his surroundings.

“At first, I didn’t know a lot of stuff,” Teng said, through Hsu. “There was a language barrier, English is a language with which I am not familiar. So last year, I only wanted to talk to Jay because it was easier to talk in Chinese.

“But I told Jay this year I would try to hang out with teammates. Maybe, hopefully, sometime I can go out with my teammates. I will try to do that. That would be good for me.”

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Teng is from the same hometown and school in Taiwan (Taichung) as former Kernels pitcher Chih-Wei Hu, who has pitched in the major leagues and who is now in Triple-A in the Cleveland Indians organization. They communicate regularly, and Hu even sent Teng a customized glove the other day that Teng was proud to show off.

Teng has a lot of people behind him, obviously. No one more than Jay.

“Kai-Wei has started to speak some English,” Martinez said. “So it’s a good balance between autonomy and Jay being there when we need to make sure we get the right thing across. I’ve seen Kai-Wei embrace speaking English a little bit more, then Jay is always super helpful and has become very interested in all the things we do on the pitching side: the bio program and the arm care pre and post (game).

“I don’t know that he’s at a pitching coach level, but he is definitely super helpful when it comes to Kai-Wei.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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