We’ve seen the Red Sox play exactly one (1) shortened series this season, but it’s already clear what the overwhelming narrative that carries through the year will be. In fact, it’s very similar to the one that dominated 2015, when everyone loved talking about that team’s lack of an ace. They got their ace in David Price, so now it’s all about the uncertainty that follows him in the rotation. Even as someone who shares this common concern, it’s tiring to hear about it so much when they haven’t even gone one full turn through the rotation.
With that being said, it’s still a concern. It’s a huge reason why building a strong bullpen was a clear priority of the front office this offseason. Even if the starters falter at a higher-than-desirable rate, the team was in good hands with a terrific group of relievers. A lot has been written about the bullpen this winter, and most of it revolves around a Big Three. It’s fair, considering how great each of Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Carson Smith are. It’s unfair because Junichi Tazawa is still a person who exists in the Red Sox bullpen, and he is also very good at pitching baseballs. Tazawa is, it seems, a perpetually under-appreciated member of the Red Sox bullpen. He’s been outstanding for the vast majority of his time as a reliever, and it’s hugely important that Boston is able to get him through the season without working him to the bone.
I won’t take too long to run through all of the reasons that Tazawa is very good. I’ve written about him approximately 4,574 times in the last couple of years and if you’re really interested you can try to dig up some of those. I will, however, take a quick second to remind everyone of his best quality: Controlling the strike zone. Specifically, racking up strikeouts without allowing walks. To wit, since 2012 when Tazawa took over a full-time relief role, only 13 pitchers with at least 150 innings in that span have a higher K/BB ratio.
Of course, at this point in time you can’t talk about Tazawa without mentioning how bad he has looked in our most recent viewings. That includes not only the home run he gave up to Mike Napoli on Wednesday but also the entirely of the second half of the 2015 season. In that second half (arbitrary end points alert) batters hit a whopping .386/.421/.636 in 95 plate appearances against the right hander.
There are two ways to look at those struggles. The first (and simplistic) way to look at it is to think Tazawa just turned into a bad pitcher. You’ll be shocked, but I’d dismiss that notion.
The way I see it, those second-half struggles reflect an overworked pitcher, which is something that Tazawa has undeniably been. Consider that in each of his first two full seasons, he appeared in 71 games. Generally speaking, about 25-35 pitchers appear in that many games per season. Furthermore, from 2013 through last season, only 17 pitchers made more appearances. That’s even more alarming when you consider that he missed the last few weeks of the 2015 season. Some pitchers can handle that kind of workload and continue a high level of production. We all wish Tazawa was one of those guys, but there’s a good chance he’s not based on last year’s performance and his relatively small stature.
All of this points to just how important that Smith injury could be if it lingers more than just a few weeks. I wrote this when the Red Sox traded for Kimbrel, but it became even more true when Smith entered the fold. To put it simply, more good pitchers means less of a use for Tazawa, which means a higher level of performance when he is used.
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There’s a solid argument to be made that he will be a more important figure in this relief corps later in the year than in the beginning. Uehara is getting up there in age, and while he’s still fantastic when he’s on the mound there’s no guarantee that he’ll make it through a full season. Even if Smith does come back in short order — which at this point it sounds like he will — there’s no guarantee he won’t re-aggravate this injury later in the year. The hope is that someone like Matt Barnes, Noe Ramirez, Heath Hembree, Pat Light or someone else will step up early in the year. Even if they do, however, they could struggle getting through their first full season. There’s little reason to doubt Kimbrel at any point this season, but having a well-rested Tazawa behind him all year would go a long way towards making positive projections about the group later in the year.
All of this is to say that the Red Sox need to figure out a way to keep him effective through the year. Obviously, most of this falls on John Farrell’s shoulders. He’s made a habit of leaning on Tazawa throughout his career, but he needs to go to his other options in the first half of the year. Whether that means making a strict rule against Tazawa pitching two days in a row or relying on gut feel, the manager needs to find a way. To go along with that, one of those young guys needs to step up. Barnes is probably my favorite to do so at this point, but anyone will do. It will be hard for Farrell to do his part if he doesn’t have another trustworthy option.
When he’s on, Tazawa is one of the more underrated special relievers in the league. He’ll never work his way to the top tier, but he’s firmly in that second, very good tier. Unfortunately, the Red Sox realized that early and sent him out in seemingly every game. This has caused him to wear down late in seasons. Farrell needs to resist that urge this year, because Tazawa could be an important piece down the stretch. Whenever possible, he needs a light workload to lean on him later. There’s no undoing the workload in the past, but the effects can be lessened this season. The questionable rotation would certainly be grateful.