The starting rotation gets almost all of the attention when it comes to analyzing pitching. But it is important to remember that the relievers can also have a significant impact on a team’s championship aspirations. Junichi Tazawa has been one of the most reliable relievers in baseball the past couple years. Ian York looks at his repertoire to see why he has been so successful.
A few days ago, one of the Red Sox announcers referred to Junichi Tazawa as a “veteran relief pitcher”. That was somewhat startling, but Tazawa did indeed join the Red Sox in 2009, so 2015 is his sixth year in the majors, not even counting the year he lost to Tommy John surgery in 2010. In those years, Tazawa has quietly been a very good to excellent setup man, while receiving little attention for showing up and doing his job effectively every couple of days. In 2015, the 29-year-old Tazawa has continued to perform well while remaining under the radar.
Tazawa pitched in 71 games in both 2014 and 2013, and is on track for 79 games in 2015 with 22 appearances in 45 games. His 164 appearances since 2013 have him tied for 9th in baseball, while his 151.1 innings pitched place him 21st amongst relievers. (That’s not counting a further 13 games (7.1 innings) he pitched in the 2013 post-season.) Of the 24 relievers who have pitched over 150 innings in that period, Tazawa is 10th in K/9 rate, 6th-best in BB/9 rate, 11th in ERA, and 13th in FIP. (Koji Uehara ranks in the top three in each of those categories, which helps explain why Tazawa gets so little attention for his performance.) He has a career ERA+ of 132, with an impressive 228 ERA+ in 2015 to date, trailing only Uehara (229) on the Red Sox.
Tazawa throws four pitches. He relies mainly on his four-seam fastball (FF), which has good but not extraordinary velocity (averaging 93-94 mph) but exceptional command. He also uses a forkball (FO) as contrast to the fastball, and a curve (CU) and a slider (SL) that he mainly throws to right-handed batters:
His forkball acts much like Uehara’s devastating splitter, dropping relative to his fastball and drawing many swings and misses on pitches below the zone:
Taken together, Tazawa’s forkball and fastball are a deadly combination. Aside from the speed difference, the two look very similar until they are halfway to the plate, but in the remaining two-tenths of a second or so their paths diverge significantly:
The slider and, especially, the curve draw more called strikes as they break into the strike zone for right-handed hitters. The slider also draws swinging strikes and weak contact leading to outs:
The curve and slider blur together, with the slider functioning as a faster curve with less break; Tazawa can throw breaking pitches anywhere from 70 to 82 mph, with a break ranging from 10 to 17 inches:
Tazawa joined the Red Sox as a starter, but has been solely a relief pitcher since returning from his Tommy John surgery in 2011. Based on his consistent performance in the past few years, he could probably act as a closer for many major-league clubs, but on the Sox that role has been filled by Koji Uehara. With a salary of just $2.25 million in 2015, Tazawa represents excellent value to the team.