For three seasons now, Junichi Tazawa has held a central role in the Red Sox' bullpen. With pinpoint control, a low-90s fastball he pounds down in the zone and a splitter that garners plenty of whiffs, Tazawa has been one of the American League's most consistent relievers since arriving in Boston's bullpen midway through the 2012 campaign.
Still, something about the right-hander leads him to be constantly overlooked, even by Red Sox fans who see his impressive ability first-hand on a near-nightly basis.
There are plenty of reasons why Tazawa might not get the accolades other elite relievers do. He doesn't pump his fastball into the upper-90s like many of today's top bullpen arms. Unlike his late-innings counterpart Koji Uehara, he doesn't feature a single pitch with which he continually baffles hitters (even if Tazawa's own split-finger offering is no slouch). He has also never been in a position to pick up saves for the Red Sox, given how well Uehara has held down the closer's role in recent years.
Yet perhaps the biggest reason why Tazawa is so underrated begins with his remarkable consistency. Tazawa is so steady and dependable for the Red Sox that his performances are often taken for granted. He arrives from the bullpen, takes the mound, and with few exceptions, gets the Red Sox offense back in the dugout with little fuss or fanfare.
Since joining Boston's bullpen full-time in 2012, Tazawa has thrown 185 innings and posted a 2.54 ERA, which translates to a 160 ERA+. He has struck out 191 batters and walked just 35 over that stretch, giving up 17 home runs. According to FanGraphs, Tazawa's 5.43 strikeout-to-walk ratio since the start of 2012 is the fourth-best of any reliever in baseball (min. 120 IP). That mark is better than the strikeout-to-walk ratios of Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel and David Robertson during that span.
So far this season, with much of the Red Sox roster struggling for consistency, Tazawa has been usual steady self, even if his odd problems against the Blue Jays continued Tuesday night when Josh Donaldson took him deep for a solo home run. Through 10 outings, Tazawa has allowed just two runs, striking out 10 batters and walking one. With Uehara's early-season injury and the Red Sox throwing a number of new reliever acquisitions into the fire this April, Tazawa has proven to be a calming influence in some critical moments.
Indeed, Tazawa's strong start to the 2015 campaign has served to underscore how vital he remains for the Red Sox. Uehara is still the man to take the ball in the ninth inning, but at the age of 40, it's not hard imagining a scenario in which he suffers an injury this season.
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Outside of Tazawa and Uehara, in fact, the Red Sox aren't exactly stocked full of relievers with late-game experience or success in the big leagues, especially with Edward Mujica showing no signs of reclaiming his prior form. Alexi Ogando has certainly made a strong impression in April, yet he comes with an extensive injury history all his own.
This makes Tazawa particularly important to Boston's fortunes in 2015. With his long track record, John Farrell has shown big faith in the 28-year-old this season, using him as a traditional set-up man where he can be deployed in high-leverage situations. The Red Sox have used Tazawa in the eighth inning in seven of his 10 appearances so far, and he's pitched in back-to-back games on three occasions already. Farrell will certainly have to be careful not to over-use Tazawa as the season goes on, as tempting as that will be at times.
The good news is Tazawa has been highly dependable from a health standpoint, even if we acknowledge that every pitcher could go down with an injury at any time. The righty hasn't hit the DL since 2011 when he returned from Tommy John surgery. From 2012 to 2014, he averaged 68 appearances and 72.1 innings per season (including time spent in the minors).
All of which reinforces just how consistently excellent Tazawa has been for the Red Sox. Considering how much Boston has been forced to rely on their bullpen in the early going (and how flimsy their relief depth appears), Tazawa is likely to throw plenty of important innings again this season.
Even if he continues to fly under the radar, then, that doesn't change how critical Tazawa will be to the Red Sox' fortunes in 2015.