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How worried should the Red Sox be about Junichi Tazawa?

Junichi Tazawa has been really bad lately. Should we worry about his production in 2016?

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

I’m about as big of a Junichi Tazawa fan as there is in the world. Since I’m about to write a whole bunch of words about him and his future, I think it’s necessary to get that out of the way. For a long time now (or at least since 2012), he has been one of the best relievers in all of baseball. If you’ve been paying attention, you know this by now. He’s an elite strike thrower who excels in K/BB-centric numbers.

Lately, things have been off. Tazawa has looked like a completely different pitcher over the last few weeks, and not in a good way. He was supposed to be a perfect backup for the 40-year-old Koji Uehara, but his struggles reveal yet another weakness on this Red Sox roster. It also has a lot of people worried about Tazawa moving forward. Considering how good he’s been in the past, should we really be worried about him, or is this just a blip in a great career?

Tazawa’s bad stretch has been more publicized in August, but it really started dating back to July 11. Although he didn’t give up a ton of runs in that month, he was allowing a lot more base runners than usual. Overall, he’s thrown 16-1/3 innings during this stretch, allowing 12 runs (6.61 ERA) and a .380/.392/.648 slash line. He does have a solid 10/2 K/BB ratio, but most of those strikeouts came in July. His K/BB in August is 3/2. So, yeah, he’s been bad lately, and it’s basically impossible to sugarcoat it.

Relievers struggle sometimes and then bounce-back. That’s just the nature of playing a position that deals solely in small sizes. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to be worried about Tazawa moving forward. The biggest reason to worry about him is his workload in the last few seasons. Since becoming a fixture on this roster in July 2012, the now-29-year-old has appeared in 223 games. That’s an average of almost 12 appearances a month with no injury breaks mixed in there. Dating back to 2013 — his first full-season — he’s thrown in 196 games, more than all but 10 relievers in that time. Going by innings, only 15 pitchers have gotten more work than him in over the last three seasons. To put it simply: Tazawa has been worked to the bone by this Red Sox team, and it would seem like that should catch up with him at some point. It’s only natural to be worried that’s what is happening whenever he hits a rough patch like this.

The good news is the number one red flag you look for with injury and fatigue isn’t there with Tazawa. While you’d expect a tired pitcher to see a sharp decline in his velocity, his is right where it usually is. If anything, it’s actually ticked up ever-so-slightly in his last few outings. He did have a few outings in which his average velocity went from 94-95 to 93-94, but there’s nothing overly alarming here. So, that’s encouraging to see.

The problem has been that Tazawa is just not fooling anyone right now. While he’s typically so good at throwing strikes, striking batters out and avoiding free passes, he hasn’t been able to do any of that lately. For one thing, opponents are whiffing on just nine percent of their swings since the start of his bad stretch in July 11, down from 12 percent in the first half of the year. Generally speaking, he’s just been more wild. It seems like he doesn’t have the same idea of where his pitches are going as he usually does, which is obviously concerning. Check out his zone plots from before the bad stretch, and during it.

There’s a really stark difference between those two plots. While you rarely see Tazawa throw balls out of the strike zone, there’s been a lot of them over the last six weeks. That’s not going to fit with his pitching style. To succeed, he needs to throw strikes, and when he doesn’t we see what he’s doing right now.

For what it’s worth, we’ve seen these kind of stretches from Tazawa before. He was really bad in July and August last season as well, and had a rough stretch in May and June back in 2013. Each time he’s had a stretch like that, people wonder if it’s the end of his unexpected run as an elite reliever, and each time he bounces back to his old self. That should at least make you feel a little better

With that being said, with each new bad stretch comes an even harsher workload we’re dealing with. Eventually, a slump really will be the end of the Tazawa that we all know in love. To avoid that heading into 2016, where he should play a key role in a rebuilt bullpen, they should try to shut him down for the remainder of his season. It would be great to get his offseason started sooner and get him more rest in a lost season.

Of course, getting a player to agree to that is much easier said than done, especially one that is still in arbitration. The more realistic strategy, and one that needs to be implemented, is an easier workload. He can’t be used as a 70-appearance-per-season pitcher for the rest of 2015. You can still give him his work, but even cutting his usage by around 50 percent should pay huge dividends in 2016. We’re at the point that it’s fair to worry about Tazawa going forward, but we’ve seen this before and the Red Sox need to take all of the necessary steps to ensure he’ll bounce back once again.