Junichi Tazawa

Junichi Tazawa: Good at Being Lucky?

The Red Sox will always have an important place in the history of international baseball relations, especially between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball. There’s the record-setting (and maintaining) $51,111,111.11 posting fee paid for Daisuke Matsuzaka. And well before Theo Epstein lawyered his way through delaying the promotion of Kris Bryant, he “ruffled some feathers” by claiming Kevin Millar off of release waivers when the then-Florida Marlins tried to sell Millar to a Japanese club.

Junichi Tazawa can claim his own chapter in this unusual history. Undrafted in Japan out of high school, Tazawa dominated in a different league there before catching the interest of teams on both sides of the Pacific. Tazawa asked NPB teams not to draft him, and they complied with that request — but NPB announced that there was a Millar-esque “gentleman’s agreement” that MLB clubs would not sign Japanese amateurs, and some MLB clubs agreed. The Red Sox again laughed in the face of such unwritten rules, to Tazawa’s great fortune (well, $3 million anyway).

But that’s not the only way in which Tazawa has appeared to be lucky. In every year since being a vaguely full-time member of the team in 2012, he’s outperformed his FIP — not exactly unusual for a reliever. But right now, his ERA stands at 1.80 this season, almost two runs below his 3.75 FIP. At first glance it certainly looks like luck; Tazawa sports a .235 BABIP this season after opponents kept up BABIPs over .300 for each of the last three seasons. And while his walk rate has improved a bit, Tazawa’s K% has remained steady. According to BP’s new Deserved Runs Average statistic, Tazawa was due for an ERA in the 3.64 range; that’s just not what’s happened.

Through Monday, Tazawa has a LOB% of 100%. According to that number, not one of Tazawa’s own baserunners have scored this season.

Baserunners are a big part of the luck picture, especially for a reliever, and especially this early in the season. With just 20 innings under his belt so far, random variation can really stick out. FanGraphs keeps a “LOB%” statistic to help narrow down the extent to which a pitcher’s own baserunners have scored, and that’s where things get kind of crazy. Through Monday, Tazawa has a LOB% of 100%. According to that number, not one of Tazawa’s own (other than inherited) baserunners have scored this season. Sure, Tazawa has had four earned runs this season — but three of them scored on solo shots, and those hitters count only as basetrotters, not baserunners.

“But wait,” you might be saying. “On Saturday, Erick Aybar doubled off Tazawa, then scored on that Trout single.” Yeah, you’re not wrong. Aybar was a Tazawa baserunner, and then he scored — off Tazawa. Aybar wasn’t left on base at all. But Tazawa’s LOB% is still 100%. I’m getting into this just to make the point of just how absurd Tazawa’s luck has appeared to be — based on the FanGraphs formula (which guesses that each home run will be worth 1.4 runs), before Saturday his LOB% was really above 100%, and it still is.

League average LOB% is around 72%, but some pitchers — especially strikeout and elite ground ball pitchers — have been able to sustain LOB%s above that mark. Among all relievers with at least 150 innings pitched between 2012 and Monday, Tazawa ranks eleventh in LOB%, at 82.7%. Of the ten relievers ahead of him, six have K/9s over that span over 10.00 (including Koji Uehara, who ranks first in LOB% at 92.0%). Two have ground ball percentages close to 55%, granting them the runner-killing benefit of an unusually high number of double plays. The other two ahead of Tazawa have strikeout and batted ball profiles that look a lot like his own:

Huston Street 8.86 2.29 .226 33.9% 89.8% (2nd)
Darren O’Day 9.14 2.10 .233 38.8% 89.0% (3rd)
Junichi Tazawa 9.22 1.75 .303 38.7% 82.7% (11th)

All three of these pitchers have featured good control, and maybe that means a better-than-average ability to avoid walks at particularly inopportune times. O’Day has benefited from being used as something as a lefty specialist, in part because it helps in the BABIP department, but also because it means frequently coming in mid-inning (and your baserunners are less likely to score if you’re frequently coming on with outs already in the books). Street is a little more like the GB% guys — his FB% is so high that he gets a good wedge of popups that never become hits and almost never move baserunners over.

Tazawa doesn’t seem to be doing any of these things that might contribute to an especially high LOB%, or that might help make up for his high-ish BABIP. He doesn’t do especially well with double plays (DP conversion rate 7%, well under 11% league average) and until this year, he hasn’t regularly induced popups either. The popups go a long way toward explaining 2015 (this year a quarter of his fly balls have been popups), but in terms of his career rate it still stands out as kind of lucky to me. His K/9 is high, especially when viewed in the context of his better-than-average WHIP, but he’s not Aroldis Chapman, and he’s not Uehara. He’s been deployed mid-inning a little more often than many of the high-LOB% pitchers he’s competing with, an advantage that goes a long way, but not one that separates him much from relievers in general.

There’s really only one non-luck explanation left: an ability to buckle down when the going gets tough. Tazawa has faced 45 batters in these last four seasons with a runner on third and less than two outs, striking out just five while collecting 30 outs. That’s a K/9 of 4.50, weirdly low, not weirdly high. In all situations with runners on, Tazawa has faced 353 batters in the same span, in what amounts to 89.1 innings. 7.6 K/9. In situations classified at the Baseball-Reference Play Index as “High Leverage,” Tazawa has faced 241 batters — 7.8 K/9. Essentially, he hasn’t wilted under pressure, but he hasn’t exactly thrived on it, either.

Tazawa has been an important pitcher for the Red Sox not so much because of situational awareness or skills that are especially useful at particular times, but more because he’s just plain good. At some point, we have to tip our cap to Tazawa’s career (or post-surgery) success in limiting baserunners, but without a why, it’s harder to see how it can continue above 80%, let alone at 100%. There’s every reason to expect that Tazawa will continue to help the club this season, but chances are good he won’t be finishing with an ERA under 2.00.

Photo by Robert Stanton/USA Today Sports Images

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