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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Hirokazu Sawamura.
The Question: Can Hirokazu Sawamura find a reliable pitch to work alongside his splitter?
The Red Sox last winter found themselves in a similar spot to where they are right now with the lockout lifted and Opening Day in sight in that their bullpen is in some serious need for late-inning help. Last season, they solved that by throwing a few darts at the board, most notably by trading for Adam Ottavino. But they also tried to hit big on a couple of free agent signings, most notably by inking Hirokazu Sawamura to a two-year deal. The righty had previously spent his entire career to that point in Japan pitching in the NPB.
He was on the wrong side of 30, and he had never pitched at the major-league level in his career, but he had success in the competitive NPB and performed well in a closer role there. He didn’t necessarily have to reach those heights in the States, but there was some reason to dream on late-inning upside for Sawamura heading into the 2021 season. He did, to be fair, get off to a good start for Boston, but injuries and other issues caused him to stall out in a way for the second half, leading to what was overall a very middling season.
With two short stints on the injured list after the All-Star break, one for an oblique issue and another for a stay on the COVID list, Sawamura ended up throwing 53 innings in that first season in the bigs, finishing with an impressive 3.06 ERA, although paired with a less encouraging 5.00 FIP. That first number puts him 33 percent better than league-average after adjusting for park effects, while his FIP came in 18 percent worse than average. Depending on how you judge pitchers, it’s possible to have wildly different interpretations of how the righty pitched last season.
But either way, it’s hard to deny he has things he needs to improve, chief of which is his command. Sawamura struggled to locate the ball all season, a deficiency which came back to bite him in the form of both walks and hard contact. On the control front, he simply hit the zone at far too low of a rate, a shade under 39 percent according to Baseball Savant. That’s compared to a league-average zone rate over 48 percent, which is a good explanation for how you end a season with a nearly 14 percent walk rate as Sawamura did last season. Now, in fairness to the Sox reliever he leans heavily on two pitchers that are often designed to be thrown out of the zone, but even with that context a 39 percent zone rate is almost shockingly low.
The thing is, often when Sawamura was putting pitches in the zone, it was getting hit hard. To be fair, it was also missing bats as he finished with an above-average contact rate on pitches in the zone and struck out over 26 percent of his opponents overall, but the contact he did allow was often smoked. Again per Baseball Savant’s metrics, he was in the bottom nine percent of all of baseball in barrel rate (the rate at which his opponents made ideal contact in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) while finishing in the bottom 20 percent in overall hard-hit rate.
It’s not hard to find the culprit here, either. That’s certainly not the splitter, which was a nasty pitch for Sawamura and was the big reason he had the success that he did. Throwing that pitch just over 39 percent of the time, the righty induced whiffs on nearly 47 percent of swings against the pitch, and when hitters did make contact it was with an average exit velocity of only 83 mph. It’s not hard to believe for a splitter that can get up to 95 and averaged 93 mph for the season, but it’s a dynamic out pitch and alone can keep Sawamura in the majors.
The bad news is it is extremely rare for a pitcher to be able to survive with only one viable pitch. It can be done if that pitch is generationally special like Mariano Rivera’s cutter, but it’s asking a whole lot. Instead, a good reliever should have two workable pitches, and Sawamura needs to find his second. Currently, he also throws a fastball and a slider. The heat isn’t lacking velocity, averaging 96 mph last season, but it’s a bit too flat of an offering and he too often catches the middle of the zone, leading to low whiff rates and hard contact. The slider generates plenty of whiffs — just about as many as the splitter in fact — but has a tendency to be hung and also had the same hard contact issues the fastball experienced.
There’s a lot of different roads Sawamura can take to try and fix this. I think the most natural one would be to make the splitter the primary pitch. It’s a bit unorthodox and using a pitch that is designed to miss the zone as a primary offering can lead to even more walk issues, but it’s just so nasty that it might work. That would, however, require his fastball to improve because he’d need something he can throw for a strike when he needs it, and at the moment those strikes are getting crushed. He could also experiment with new pitches, whether it be a two-seam to add more movement on his fastball, even if he needs to sacrifice a little velocity, or perhaps tighten up his slider into a cutter to have a little less break and potentially more control.
With a year of major-league experience now under his belt, Sawamura finds himself in a similar position now as to the one he was in a year ago. Once again, the Red Sox need late-inning bullpen help and are in search of someone to step up and take a leap forward. Sawamura has the talent to be that guy. He has a history of success in important roles at a high level of baseball, and has a great pitch in his arsenal. Now he just needs to find the complement and get his command in a place where he can find the best version of himself.
Statistics in this post from Baseball Savant and FanGraphs.