Change-UpNovember 16, 2010
Japanese Pitchers & the Hot Stove
By Patrick Sullivan

I had been planning a write-up of the Japanese pitchers currently in Major League Baseball who could change uniforms this off-season but one of those players won’t be changing teams. Hiroki Kuroda will return to the Los Angeles Dodgers thanks to a 1-year, $12 million deal that was announced last night.

Kuroda’s numbers might not leap off the page but he pounds the strike zone and, when healthy, is a legitimate number 2 or 3 in a championship caliber rotation. There are 87 starting pitchers who have tossed 400 innings since 2008. Among them, Kuroda ranks 20th with a 3.18 K/BB ratio and also sports the 11th lowest BB/9.

That still leaves a number of Japanese pitchers who could impact the 2011 Hot Stove in a significant way. There’s Kenshin Kawakami, whose $6.67 million price tag is one the Braves are reportedly looking to shed. They may have a taker back in Japan, but Kawakami may be worth a look for teams here in the States. His ground ball rates are well below average, so the best fit would be on a team with superb outfield defense and deep pockets. Maybe the Yanks think about it and save themselves a Dustin Moseley start or five. Kawakami’s no superstar but he could make for nice rotation depth, particularly if the Braves would be willing to pick up a little of his salary.

With Kuroda now locked up, that leaves two compelling free agent options, Koji Uehara and Hisanori Takahashi. Here are their respective MLB numbers to date, Uehara with the Baltimore Orioles and Takahashi with the New York Mets:

Takahashi 122.0 12 8.41 3.17 2.65
Uehara 110.2 12 (0 in '10) 8.38 1.38 6.06

Takahashi had an excellent first season, and is now looking for a 3-year deal. He won’t come cheaply to whichever team inks him. Uehara, on the other hand, is the better pitcher and likely to cost a lot less. The risk lies in Uehara’s health but if a team can get comfortable with his medicals, he could offer big-time returns.

Finally, there are two Red Sox I would not be surprised to see suiting up elsewhere in 2011. Daisuke Matsuzaka can be frustrating, but he’s a perfectly fine turn-taker for any rotation. Matsuzaka has a career 5.52 ERA against the Yankees and a 5.09 figure against the Rays. For his career in Inter-League action, his ERA is 3.97. It makes sense beyond the simple quality-of-opposition adjustment, too. Matsuzaka walks too many batters and often cannot last long into games. The National League mitigates this weakness for a couple of reasons. First, facing a pitcher means less nibbling, which means fewer pitches, fewer walks, and the potential to last longer. Second, the strategic imperative in the Senior Circuit, regardless of how the pitcher is performing, is sometimes to pull the pitcher for a pinch hitter in a middle-innings high leverage run scoring opportunity. I really think Matsuzaka could thrive in the NL.

There’s also Hideki Okajima. Like Dice-K, he’s played an integral role in Boston’s run of success over the last four seasons. But despite a second half rebound last season, the long-term trend on Okajima is ugly. He’s been regressing pretty steadily. I imagine scouts could offer more insight as to why that might be the case, but it’s my belief that hitters have simply caught on. He has a unique delivery that was deceptive for a few seasons, but now hitters have a beat on him. He’s arbitration-eligible and will likely be due somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million for the 2011 campaign. Boston has not yet decided if they would like to tender Okajima or not.

There’s no shortage of compelling story-lines this Hot Stove season. Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford will be huge-impact players, and the Cliff Lee sweepstakes are already underway in earnest. But it looks like Japanese pitchers in new roles on new teams could also influence the 2011 season, something to look out for in the coming weeks and months.


Regarding Okajima, and pitchers in general, I'm not a fan of "I think hitters have caught on" as the reasoning behind a regression. People like to toss that notion out all the time without any real support for it.

As a Red Sox fan who sees a lot of Okajima's appearances, I can tell you at least one change in his pitching that has, without a doubt, contributed to his decline: a loss of control. Okajima never had great stuff or velocity, but in his first couple of years he could spot his fastball essentially wherever he wanted (and he oftened tabbed corners perfectly), and then finish off hitters with a changeup or splitter placed in a tempting but unhittable location. Unfortunately, Okajima has always had a propensity to tire over the course of a season, and he would lose this command when that, it appears he is suffering from a long-term fatigue or even just general aging, and the command is gone.