The Red Sox’s new Japanese closer(?)

Fenway Park is not as bright as it once was.

After years of dominance, eternal battles and victories against the hated NY Yankees, Boston is not the juggernaut we were all used to. That is what time does to a baseball team: sometimes stars align, a talented young core is completed by rock-solid veterans, franchise players are signed long-term and acquired from other teams and voilà, you got yourself a dinasty.

That’s how I would describe the Red Sox in the 2010s: 90+ wins as clockwork, a terryfing lineup with no holes to be exploited and a starting rotation with 3 or more quality arms to deploy, leaving the burden of closing down things to a pair of trusted pen guys.

What did it amount to? A couple of WS titles, thank you so much!

In 2018, a 108 win season culminated in a playoff stroll over the Yanks, Houston and the Dodgers, Boston relied on bountiful bats (Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and hero Steve Pearce) while shutting down the opposition on the mound thanks to the likes of Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi and deadly-weapon Craig Kimbrel closing the deal.

And how about the 2013 Red Sox? A season for the ages, a resurrection for a city devastated by the Marathon bombings: David Ortiz’s speech on the first game after the tragedy will always give you the chills. Big Papi plus Dustin Pedroia and old sluggers a la Mike Napoli, Johnny Gomes and Shane Victorino provided one of the scariest lineups in the last decade; a three-headed monster of John Lackey, John Lester and Clay Buchholz (plus Jake Peavy for good measure) made for a star-level rotation and the pen…that’s where we start.

You may now faintly remember but Boston always had a knack for Japanese pitchers: in 2007 (another WS winning campaing) the Red Sox won the sweepstakes for Dice-K, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Seibu Lions and Japan’s ace, while also bringing in from NPB an unknown reliever, Hideki Okajima, which ended up an All-Star and one of the best pen arms that season.

The same pattern was repeated in 2013, as another couple of Japanese imports anchored the bullpen. First, 7th-8th inning setup man Junichi Tazawa, a rare case of player going from HS in Japan to the States skipping draft and NPB, to such dismay in his motherland that a (now-gone) Tazawa rule was introduced to ban pitchers that take the same route from playing in the NPB for years.

Then the man, the myth: starter turned closer Koji Uehara. His 2013 season is the stuff of legends: a small guy barely throwing 90 mph with his fastball proceeded to compile one of the best seasons in baseball history for a reliever relying on a splitter/fork in the mid to low 80s that no-one could touch. I mean you tell me: 0.57 WHIP in 74+ innings, 1.09 ERA, 38.1% K rate while walking nobody, a streak of 37 retired batters. Him jumping down the mound, high-fiving catcher David Ross and getting lifted to the sky after closing the WS title is one of the most memorable images in recent Boston sports’ history.

Koji gently reminding you his 2013 season ERA

Those were the times for Red Sox fans, as it all went downhill in a hurry, between trades (bye bye Mookie), injuries (Sale baby comeback please) and declines (J.D. where are thou?). Nowadays, with ex Ray Chaim Bloom at the helm as GM and only Sale and Xander Bogaerts as stalwarts, the Red Sox are in a legitimate, yet unspoken, rebuilding, something that quite frankly stinks for a franchise with such history, and John Henry’s deep pockets for that matters.

Yet, as the 2021 season started, a remnant of days gone by appeared on the mound: from the Boston pen a new Japanese player made his debut, unleashing a weapon the States were not ready for.

Please welcome Hirokazu Sawamura and his 93 mph splitter:

Yep, you read it right. As you can imagine the pitch is downright filthy and one of the main reasons the Red Sox picked up Sawamura from the FA crop.

For those who enjoyed the last few years of NPB, Nippon Professional Baseball or the Japanese Major League if you want, Sawamura is not that much of a surprise, rather a known quantity with all his highs and lows.

After being drafted by the Yomiuri Giants in 2011 he was immediately penciled into the rotation and answered with an 11–11, 200 IP season at a sterling 2.03 ERA, gaining an All Star berth and a much deserved ROY. To that followed a couple more seasons as a starter, 10–10 in 2012 with a 2.86 ERA and a lackluster 5–10 in 2013.

After an injury shortened 2014, 5–3 on a 3.72 ERA, he resurfaced in 2015 as the Giants’ closer, and a great one: 36 saves and a magnificient 1.32 ERA relying on a power fastball-split combo, more success in 2016 with 37 saves and a 2.66 ERA then… one of the freakiest injuries ever in 2017.

After complaining of pain in his right shoulder, our Hiro was treated with acupuncture, a classic oriental procedure, on advice of the team, and that didn’t really do it: he was diagnosed with “long thoracic nerve paralysis”.

As this article explains in detail, whoever treated him made some kind of mistake, for that the Giants apologized to Sawamura and the man lost the entire 2017 season trying to recover.

A strained relationship with the team, a closer job lost without fault and a decline in performance, with an ERA over 4 in 2018, a return to form in 2019 but a disastrous first half in 2020 (6.08 ERA) led Yomiuri to demote and release Sawamura.

He quickly found a home in the Chiba Lotte Marines bullpen, one with many question marks outside of longtime closer Naoya Masuda, trusting himself in a setup-man role and discovering his fountain of youth: a fastball ranging in the upper 90s, even 99 mph, and the patented turbo split led him to be yet again one of the best relievers in Japan, right on his last season before being an international FA.

The Red Sox jumped on him with a two-year $2.4M deal with club/player option for 2023, a negligible expense even for a team clearly trying to shed payroll the Pirates way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Sawamura turned out to be one of the steals of the offseason: his stuff his ML-caliber, his BB/9 hovered around the 3 mark in his relief career and he saw his K rate jump up in his last two seasons to a 10+ K/9. What makes him interesting is that, while he profiles as your usual flamethrower, he isn’t prone to the longball as many others: only once in his career he saw a HR/9 greater than 1 and his relief seasons are even better, 0.70 or less, per NPB Stats.

As foretold, it’s not his fastball, although 95–98 mph is rare heat in Japan, but rather because of a turbo splitter he can dial up to 94 mph, a unique pitch as testimonied by its grip:

That is nor a traditional nipponic forkball, the one every single pitcher out of Japan seems to know how to throw, and neither a classic splitter.

While his middle finger is more over the seam, Sawamura’s index is on the side but the tip of it is pulling the seam down; at the snap on release it’s the tip the last to drag onto the ball and that applies a ton of horizontal movement adding to the drop of a split-finger to create a devastating offering, one that moves as a changeup but runs as a two-seamer.

Per Alex Fast Sawamura’s split registered more than 20 inches of movement both horizontally and vertically, an abomination. Moreover, looking at Baseball Savant for all pitchers who threw a classified splitter in 2020–21, Sawamura has the FASTEST split in the Majors at an avg of 92.5 mph, followed by Jeurys Familia and Aroldis Chapman (!)at 91 mph, and one of the highest avg spin rates at almost 2000 rpms.

What about movement? Consider this: the only pitch to average more than 20 inches of break both horizontally and vertically in 2020 was Sergio Romo’s changeup, although it’s a butterfly in the low to mid 70s, not a fastball-like offspeed!

With a gigantic small sample size warning, the xStats for Sawamura’s demonic split are headed the right way: .022/.023/.158 on the xBA/xSLG/xwOBA slashline is impressive albeit in 11 pitches BUT don’t forget about his slider, an average spinner at 85 mph that has so far nullified batters and that he throws as much as the split.

The problem in Japan has always been fastball control: Hiro won’t walk many batters but he can be prone to be hit hard on the heater and the split is not that nasty if not paired with good fastball placement. There’s also to consider that his leash might be different: if he lacks control and gets hit he’s going to get a quick heave-ho in the States while in Japan he was let out to dry his inning, causing his ERA to balloon.

In his second Red Sox appearance he walked a couple but also striked out a pair, keeping his sheet intact and prying his claim for a late inning spot. One of his last pitches was complete nonsense: a 3000 rpm 95 mph splitter as per Savant, probably a mistake although Sawamura showed he can shape it varying speed (90 to 95 mph) and spin rate (1400–1700 or 2900+), something that with all probability has to do with how he grips the seams as to impart greater downward or sideways movement.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working, and whatever that pitch is, a splitter, a two-seam fastball, a splitball or any other ingenious concoction you can fathom, it’s nasty and it could be his ticket to the 9th inning.

This won’t be a good year for the Boston Red Sox: the rotation has too many holes, with Eduardo Rodriguez returning from a scary illness and Nathan Eovaldi bearing down, waiting for Sale to return and for Tanner Houck to confirm a good first impression; the lineup is short and patchworked, asking a J.D. reinassance, counting on solid utilities in Marwin Gonzalez and Kike Hernandez to provide a steady performance while betting for the ceiling on high talented yet flawed prospects such as Alex Verdugo, Bobby Dalbec and Franchy Cordero.

The pen could be a single shining light in Boston’s season: a good start by Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino could gain them trade value that Bloom would love to get from a contender while arms such as Phillips Valdez and his sinker, 20-control bazooka Darwinzon Hernandez and Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock will have all time and space to prove themselves as solid options for the future.

In this consideration Sawamura falls right in place: while he’ll get some early inning action in the first months of the season, with Otto and Barnes auditioning for a trade, he could be the one left standing for the closer job after the deadline, as he’s more experienced and solid that those young guns with his NPB resume speaking for itself.

And yes, he’s got that closer “mentality”:

While 2021 may very well be a season to forget for those few fans at Fenway, even bad years have their Hiros. May you follow the footsteps of Okajima and Uehara, Sawamura-san!

copyright: Getty Images

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.