Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Hirokazu Sawamura.
The Question: Can Hirokazu Sawamura move quickly up the depth chart?
Among the other questions on the Red Sox roster, one of the biggest is going to be how the ninth inning is handled, both in terms of who is named the closer as well as how they perform. It’s almost certainly between Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino, with the former likely having the upper hand at this point. It’s not as though whoever doesn’t get the job will just be cast aside, though. Both of these guys are going to be pitching in big spots all season. On the one hand, that’s not a bad thing because they are among the best in the game at missing bats. On the other hand, surrounding those strikeouts figure to be a whole lot of walks, which is never fun to watch late in games. And, more generally, both of these guys have a tendency to run very hot and very cold. They could really use a steady presence back there, even if they aren’t at the top of the bullpen depth chart.
Enter: Hirokazu Sawamura. The 32-year-old righty (he’ll turn 33 just a couple days after Opening Day) signed with the Red Sox not too long before camp after spending the rest of his professional career prior to this pitching in the NPB in Japan. Most of that career was spent with the Yomiuri Giants, the biggest team in that league. His career began in 2011 as a starter, but by 2015 he was moved to the bullpen where he served as the team’s closer. He was largely fantastic in that role for two years, and still pitched well for the next couple of seasons after that while being more of a set-up arm.
Although we talked about Barnes and Ottavino as the big-stuff guys at the top of this post, we should be totally clear that Sawamura is not some soft-tosser who pitches to contact. He very much boasts some impressive stuff that can miss bats, regularly striking out over a batter per inning over his career with the Giants. The righty brings heat with a fastball that can sit in the mid-90s while reportedly getting as high as 99 last season, and adds to that a splitter that serves as his primary out pitch and a hit-or-miss slider. So that’s important to keep in mind when we look ahead to his season that he will very much fit the archetype of the modern reliever that can absolutely miss bats.
The question here is going to be about consistency and control. For much of his career, Sawamura has been able to show off both of those things. He’s never really been a control artist, especially after converting to relief, but he settled in with a roughly nine percent walk rate since he first became the closer for Yomiuri. But last season things took a dive south in his overall performance to start that season. He walked 11 batters in 13 1⁄3 innings before being traded midseason, at which point he turned things around in a big way.
Of course, the issues have been on the forefront again this spring, as Sawamura has had a rough time in his first two outings this spring. In those appearances he has recorded only four outs, walking six batters while striking out three. It probably goes without saying (though we’ll say it anyway) that this not cause for major concern. Not only is it two spring training outings, but it’s also his first time pitching in the States after a slightly delayed arrival to camp. He has admitted to being overly amped for these outings, and it’s showed. That’s a perfectly natural reaction, though.
Presumably, and hopefully, those nerves will settle in short order and at that point he’s someone to look at as the Red Sox are searching for that third reliable late-inning arm. Ryan Brasier likely would have been the favorite for that role, but he’s almost certainly not going to be ready for the start of the season. Darwinzon Hernandez is the young arm most would like to see emerge into that role, but he has his own major control issues to work through before he can be trusted there.
Sawamura, at least in the short-term, would seem to be the best option if he can prove he can handle it. He has experience pitching late in games at a very high level on a very high stage. He has the stuff to handle this role. And he has shown the control, albeit somewhat inconsistently, to counterbalance the other two big arms late in games. He’s going to be one of the most interesting players to watch for the early season for the Red Sox, and while the stuff should be exciting I’ll mostly be watching to see if he can provide a steady presence, throw strikes and grab a firm hold of the seventh inning role coming in before Ottavino and Barnes.