For many years, Junichi Tazawa has been an over-performing, under-appreciated cog in the Red Sox' bullpen. He's never been the guy for the Sox--there's always been a Jonathan Papelbon, Koji Uehara, or Craig Kimbrel to take the top spot in the pen from Tazawa. Even in 2012, when everything was burning to the ground around him, there was a horribly incompetent Bobby Valentine there to put Andrew Bailey and Alfredo Aceves first. And for whatever reason, its seemed like he could go 10 scoreless innings, give up one run, and be labeled a waste of space for his one mistake. About the only time Tazawa has really gotten his due is when he was used as the Miguel Cabrera specialist in the 2013 ALCS.
Dating back to late last year, though, the criticisms have started to have a lot more merit to them. In both 2015 and 2016, Tazawa has started strong. He held opponents to a .570 OPS in the first two months of 2015, and a .500 OPS in 2016, with a 5:1 K:BB in each season. But once the schedule reached the middle months, he's started to struggle, and gotten progressively worse as the year has gone on.
In 2015, Tazawa mostly made his way through June as well, but already the signs of decline were showing in two games on June 12 and 17 which saw Tazawa record two outs while giving up seven hits and six earned runs. In July opponents would hit to an .830 OPS against him, then 1.084 in August, and finally a four-run disaster on September 11 lead to the Sox choosing to shut him down for the rest of the year.
In 2016, the fall actually started earlier. This time June was the month where his OPS against jumped up over .812 on the back of 4 home runs. It stayed over that point in July in Tazawa's few appearances surrounding his injury, and thanks to these last two horrible outings, Tazawa now has a .959 OPS against dating back to the beginning of June. His walks have spiked, he's giving up homers left and right, and his ERA is quickly climbing towards that 4.14 mark he finished 2015 with.
It's not just the results that are concerning, either. Looking at Tazawa's velocity, he typically peaked at or just over 95 in 2014. In 2015, we start to see more games coming in below that bar, particularly towards the very end, where he failed to hit 95 in his last five games. This year, we've only once seen him actually reach that point. And once again, in his last handful of games, we see his range dipping to a lower average than earlier in the year.
The fastball isn't really the problem for Tazawa--it's the (likewise slower) forkball that it's failing to set up that's getting crushed most often--but it's just the easiest place to see the trend with Tazawa. And it's really not one any Red Sox fan would be surprised to see. For years now the Sox have relied heavily on Tazawa to shoulder a heavy burden for their shallow bullpens. We've long expected that there would be a price to pay for that down the line.
Well, here it is. Tazawa is, if not out of gas, then running on fumes. He seems to lack the endurance to pitch effectively into the last months of the season, and right now, that's where the Red Sox find themselves. It's August, and for all the world Tazawa seems likely to get worse from here, not better.
And, really, it's not like the Red Sox don't have other options. They've exiled Heath Hembree to the minors despite his managing a 2.41 ERA on the season. And while he did seem to be flagging at the time, he's done nothing but spit fire in the minors, throwing five one-hit innings while striking out nine batters. He's at times looked like a legitimate set-up man this year, and certainly deserves another shot. It's just been a question of finding a spot for him in the bullpen.
Well, sad as it might be to say, it seems like Tazawa's spot might be the one. It sucks if it's come to that, especially when you consider how complicit the Red Sox are in getting to this point, and right before Tazawa becomes a free agent no less. But baseball is a business, and often a harsh one at that. It's not about what you've done before. It's about what you've done lately and, even more so, what you can be expected to do from here. For Tazawa, the forecast just doesn't look terribly good.