Junichi Tazawa and Expectations

Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE

Junichi Tazawa was one of the few bright-spots for the Sox in 2012. Will he be able to keep up his performance next season and remain one of the elite relievers in baseball?

The other day, Jonathan Mayo and MLB.com revealed their annual Top-100 Prospect List, and the Red Sox did quite well. Blessed with one of their best farm systems in years, Boston saw six players from its organization named to the list, including Xander Bogaerts landing at the twenty-spot. While having these types of high-ceiling, or close-to-the-majors prospects is hugely valuable, they’re not always the only players to contribute to the team. Last season, one of the best pitchers, never mind just relievers, on the team was mostly unheralded before breaking out in 2012.

Before the 2009 season, the Red Sox signed Junichi Tazawa to a three-year, three million dollar deal out of Japan. While there was some talk of the pitcher previously coming to a deal with the Yankees before that, no foul-play was ever officially found. In his minor-league career, Tazawa had many solid, if largely unnoticed, performances. After a solid first year in America, which saw him pitching in Boston, Pawtucket and Portland, he suffered an elbow injury in 2010 and was not able to return until 2011, when he got his second small taste in the majors. At this point, Tazawa was on the team’s radar, but never to be anything special. In 2011, mid-rehab, his role was switched from being a starting pitcher, to all of a sudden coming out of the bullpen.

Last season, Tazawa began the year in Pawtucket, still coming out of the bullpen, but was up in the majors by the twentieth of April. However, after pitching 6-1/3 scoreless innings in a short stint in Boston, he was sent back down to Pawtucket until mid-July. Upon returning, Tazawa became arguably the best overall player on a struggling Red Sox team, providing dominant performance after dominant performance out of the bullpen. In total, the right-hander threw 44 innings for Boston in 2012, putting up a crazy 9.0 K/BB ratio, along with allowing just a single home run in that time. That translated to a highly impressive 1.82 fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which paved to way for his 1.42 ERA, and ridiculously impressive 305 (!) ERA+.

It’s impossible to deny that Tazawa was great last year, as he was one of the roster’s very few bright spots in a highly forgettable season. In fact, among the 166 major-league relievers with at least 40 innings, his brilliant K/BB ratio ranked first, while his FIP finished fourth-best with his ERA coming in the three-spot, behind Craig Kimbrel and Fernando Rodney. With that type of performance, expectations are unsurprisingly high. With so few players to be excited about last season, it’s only natural to expect a lot from one of the few players who performed well. However, it’s not likely for Tazawa to repeat his 2012 performance, and he probably won’t be an elite reliever in the near-future.

The most striking part of Tazawa’s success in 2012 was his ability to limit walks. While he’s always been pretty good at keeping his number of free passes down, he never did so at the level he showed a year ago. After a walk-rate sitting in the mid-to-high two’s per nine innings in the minors, and one that sat in the low-three’s in two short stints in the majors, the Japanese right hander limited batters to 1.02 walks per nine, tops among the 166 relievers with 40 innings. One big reason for this can be attributed to better stuff and command, indicated by his sudden ability to induce many more swings, while not increasing his ability to hit the zone too drastically over his last extended stint in the majors, 2009. He also raised his swinging-strike rate from four-percent in 2009, all the way up to 14-percent last season. While we saw great improvements on this front last season, expecting him to be so elite at limiting walks in 2013 may be a bit much, as there is likely some mild regression back towards his typical levels due.

One other area where it could be foolish to expect a repeat-performance from Tazawa is his home run-suppressing. Last season, Tazawa was great at this part of his game, with his one home run allowed in 44 innings gave him the fifth-best HR/9 among relievers in 2012. Despite pitching in the AL East, in some great hitters-parks, he was still able to give up a home run on just three-percent of his fly balls. Even without looking at any other numbers, it’s highly likely that this number will rise in 2013, strictly from a reversal of good fortune.

Tazawa did make some adjustments that can account for some of these things, though. Since converting to the bullpen, Tazawa has seen a steady uptick in his velocity, going from 89 MPH in 2009, all the way up to 92 MPH last season. Additionally, he’s improved the balls in play he allows as well. After being an extreme fly ball pitcher for much of his career, 2012 saw him give up many more ground balls, keeping his fly ball- and line drive-rates under control. These ground balls led to a decent amount of hits -- he surrendered .300 batting average on balls in play last season - but they were mostly singles, and caused him little damage. After last season, it’s easy to expect more greatness from Tazawa in 2013. He should be able to live up to most of the expectations, though it would be a bit much to expect him to be as dominant as he was a year ago.

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