I don’t know if you’ve heard, but over the weekend Dave Dombrowski made his first big move as a member of the Red Sox organization, bringing in Craig Kimbrel for a slew of prospects. Everyone has their own opinion as to whether the trade represented fair value or whether that even matters, so I won’t go through that. What I’m more interested in is how this will affect the team in 2015 and beyond. Obviously, putting Kimbrel — one of the five or so best relievers in the game with the ceiling of being the best of all-time — in the ninth inning makes things a lot better for the Red Sox at the end of games. That’s simple and no one can argue that fact. Beyond that, however, Kimbrel might even have a bigger impact based on what he allows the Red Sox to do in earlier innings.
By sliding Kimbrel into the ninth inning and making him the top dog in the bullpen, it allows everyone else to take a step back. For guys like Robbie Ross, Matt Barnes and Tommy Layne, that just means they are back to middle relief where they belong rather than the high-leverage spots they found themselves in last year. This means that Koji Uehara goes from being a very good closer to one of the elite setup men in all of baseball. Remember how fun it was watching him put out fires before he took over the closer role in 2013? We get that again. The guy who will benefit the most from Kimbrel’s presence, though, will be Junichi Tazawa.
Since converting to a reliever full-time in 2012 and becoming one of the only positives from the Bobby V era, Tazawa has been arguably the best reliever in baseball that nobody outside of Boston talks about. Over 262.1 career innings, the now-29 year old has struck out nearly a batter per inning while walking just two opponents per nine. It’s that kind of strike zone mastery that has led to a career 3.47 ERA and 3.14 FIP, numbers that were brought down by some early-career struggles before finding his groove under Bobby V. But, you knew all that already, because you watch the Red Sox enough to know that the vast majority of the time, Tazawa has been an almost perfect bridge between the starter and the closer.
Over that three-year span, only 18 pitchers have appeared in more games than Tazawa, and this is after he missed almost four weeks worth of games to finish off this past season.
With all of that being said, he’s far from a perfect pitcher. There are a few flaws of his that we just have to live with — for example, he gives up a lot of line drives for someone of his quality — but there are also some flaws that should be hidden with the addition of Kimbrel. For as good as Tazawa has been over the last few years, he just has not been able to handle being the top guy in a bullpen closing out games. Whether it’s something mental or otherwise, he’s struggled with that role. Over his career, Tazawa has allowed an .804 OPS to opponents in the 9th inning and a .974 OPS in extras compared to .761 and .608 marks in the seventh and eighth innings. The numbers were even worse in the ninth this year, with opponents OPSing .936 off the right-hander. We’re dealing with relatively small samples here, so it’s entirely possible (maybe even probable) that this is all just statistical noise, but there’s no reason to test that theory out. With Kimbrel in town, that adds one more layer to keeping Tazawa out of the ninth and keeping him in a role that he’s shown he’s comfortable with.
The other big issue in Tazawa’s career as a reliever has been his workload. He’s been so good and so reliable for Boston that John Farrell hasn’t been able to resist using him. He appeared in 71 games in both 2013 and 2014, and followed that up with 61 appearances this season before being shut down about a week into September. Over that three-year span, only 18 pitchers have appeared in more games, and again, this is after missing almost four weeks worth of games to finish off this past season.
This kind of workload has had a noticeable effect on Tazawa at the end of seasons, as he typically starts to slow down as the year goes on. In his career, he has a 2.61 ERA with a 6.55 K/BB ratio and has allowed a .663 OPS in the first half versus a 4.24 ERA, 3.32 K/BB and a .783 OPS in the second half. The numbers were even more extreme in 2015, including a 7.08 ERA and an opponents’ OPS of 1.057 in the second half. On top of that, Tazawa has watched his velocity dip as the year went on in each of the last two seasons. As good as he is, he’s not immortal and he can only throw so many pitches in a year. Having Kimbrel on board means they can split setup duties between Uehara and Tazawa rather than leaning solely on the latter, and there’s a good chance they bring in another arm as well. If they can limit Tazawa to something around 50 regular season appearances, there’s a much better chance he can stay consistent all season.
Kimbrel is going to be incredibly fun to watch in the ninth inning this season, and it’s the best reason to be excited about this trade. However, even as someone who only throws one inning a game, he has an enormous effect on the rest of the bullpen. Specifically, he should make Tazawa a much better and more consistent pitcher. It gives them more protection from using him at the end of games, where he has struggled throughout his career. More importantly, it will allow them to stop overworking Tazawa and keep him as a valuable asset for an entire season.
Above all else, hopefully this means Tazawa will never have to pitch against the Blue Jays again.
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