What’s Wrong With Setup Man Junichi Tazawa?

Over the past two months, the Boston Red Sox have been an absolute joy to watch. However, the Boston’s bullpen has been anything but good. Ian York takes a look at the usually reliable setup man Junichi Tazawa to see what’s wrong with the pitcher.

Junichi Tazawa has been a good-to-excellent setup man for several years, and for the first half of 2015 he was his usual, steady, reliable self. Unfortunately, in the second half of the season, Taz has enthusiastically joined the overall bullpen collapse, with a 2-6 record and no less than seven blown saves in his 32 games since June 12.

His loss of effectiveness is easily seen when looking at his rolling 10-game average earned-run per innings pitched and WHIP numbers (the horizontal lines represent his overall season averages):

His numbers started to deteriorate around the mid-point of his season, and have then crashed in approximately his last fifteen appearances. A turning point may have been June 12, when he gave up four hits and four earned runs to five batters, recording no outs. (From here on I will use June 12 as the start of the “second half of his season”, although it is not exactly halfway.)  Unsurprisingly, in that period his record is 0-4 with five blown saves. The fact that he appeared in the 9th or 10th inning seven times in that span has many questioning whether this may be purely a psychological issue, with the added stress of acting as closer weighing on him. However, his problems really started well before his use as a closer.

Another obvious possibility is that Tazawa may be either injured, or simply worn out from his heavy pitching load. With 58 ⅔ innings pitched over 61 appearances this year, he is in the top 10% of relievers this year (42nd for innings pitched out of 539 relievers), and over the past three years he has thrown 3,092 pitches (including post-season games), putting him 17th among 186 relievers in that period.

On the other hand, most of the other relievers ahead of him on the pitches-thrown list have not shown any significant decline this year, suggesting that there is nothing intrinsically dangerous about this level of work. Of course, every player is different, and perhaps Tazawa’s usage is too much for him. (Keep in mind that Tazawa had Tommy John surgery in 2010. However, he has been very robust since then.) Are there any signs that Tazawa’s abilities have declined recently?

We can start with his pitch mix. Tazawa throws a fastball and forkball as his major pitches, and also uses a curve and a slider:

There are minor fluctuations in pitch usage, but no more than expected for a pitcher who typically only throws 10-20 pitches per appearance.

In the second half of the season, Tazawa has had trouble with both left-handed batters (who hit .263/.368/.632 against him in the first half and .365/.542/.907 in the second), and righties (from .180/.228/.408 in the first half to .405/.526/.930 in the second). Among his pitches, the worse decline in effectiveness has been for his fastball. His rarely-used slider has also been hit harder in the second half of the season, but his curve has become more effective.

Pitch type Half Number thrown Number hit Hit percent
Fastball First 236 10 4.2%
Second 350 32 9.1%
Forkball First 79 5 6.3%
Second 117 11 9.4%
Curve First 34 2 5.9%
Second 54 1 1.9%
Slider First 39 0 0%
Second 40 4 10%

To tease out the effectiveness of each pitch type, the following chart looks at individual pitches (again, as rolling 10-game averages, to avoid minor fluctuations), for velocity and break length:

First, and most importantly, there is no significant loss of velocity that might suggest an injury. It is interesting that his forkball, slider and curve all lost break at around the time his performance began to drop, but the difference in break is only about an inch or so for each; it is hard to believe that is enough to account for the difference in outcome, especially since those pitches are not the biggest source of trouble for Taz.

Although Tazawa has several quality pitches, none of them are overpowering; his strength has traditionally been his excellent location. This year, his fastball location to right-handed batters seems to have slipped in the second half:

Instead of tending to place fastballs on the upper-outside corner to RHB, in the second half he has thrown many more fastballs down the heart of the plate. For Tazawa, fastball placement lower in the zone may be doubly bad, because he relies on the separation between his forkball, at the bottom of and below the zone, and his fastball. If he is now throwing fastballs with less separation from his forkball (and, perhaps, if his forkball is breaking slightly less than usual), batters may be able to tee off on him.

Tazawa himself, as noted by Gordon Edes, recently blamed his problems on “missed location of my fastball.” Looking at all the data here, that seems as reasonable an explanation as any. We see no obvious signs of fatigue, and little sign of any particular pitch being less effective. If so, Tazawa may be able to become his usual effective self with a minor mechanical adjustment. That would be good news for the Sox, because losing one of the better setup men in the business would be a major blow to an already weak potential 2016 bullpen.

Ian York has written about Koji Uehara, an impressive start by Eduardo Rodriguez, Joe Kelly’s approach in certain counts, the effect of better bullpens on offensive strategy, Rick Porcello’s resurgenceMatt Barnes’s first start, the much improved Jackie Bradley Jr, and Wade Davis.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

Check out Brandon Magee’s AA Pitching and Defensive Shaq Thompson All-Stars.

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