Junichi Tazawa

Say Thanks to Junichi Tazawa, Too

Now that the Red Sox are out of the playoffs, the Internet is filled to the brim with farewells to David Ortiz. This is obviously well-earned, and there is no such thing as too much praise for the future Hall of Famer. I’m as sad as everyone else about Ortiz’s departure from baseball, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reliving his career with each and every piece.

Nonetheless, I’m going to go in a different direction today for a couple of reasons. The first is that other people are doing it much better than I could or would. Go read everything you can find about the slugger, because each piece is worth reading. The second is that I’m a strange person who is unhealthily obsessed with zigging when everyone else is zagging. I’m also very much into relievers, in case you’ve never read anything I’ve written. So, with that being said, I’m going to spend the rest of this post saying goodbye to another one of my favorite Red Sox players of the last few years.

As you can tell by the picture at the top of this post, I am talking about Junichi Tazawa. To be clear, there is nothing official that has come out to suggest that 2016 was definitely the righty’s final season with the Red Sox. It does seem very likely to be the case, though. You never know what kind of moves will be made during the offseason, but the Red Sox will almost certainly have Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree and Joe Kelly throwing out of their bullpen from the right side in 2017. Then, there are Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler, who would both be higher priorities to re-sign. This is without mentioning the possibility of promoting someone like Kyle Martin, the comeback of Carson Smith and/or Brandon Workman and the possibility of bringing in someone from outside the organization. All of this, combined with the fact Tazawa was relatively disappointing for much of 2016, indicates the Red Sox are likely to let him walk this winter. My goal is for Tazawa’s second-half performance to not be the lasting impression of his tenure in Boston.

To start with, how Tazawa even made it to the majors is a fascinating origin story that doesn’t get told enough. He came over from Japan, but not in the way most players from that region do. Instead of playing for an NPB team for the first eight years of his career, he skipped that step and was signed by the Red Sox as an international free agent. This decision has gotten him essentially shunned from Japanese baseball, as he’s not allowed to play in the NPB for two years after leaving the majors, and was not allowed to pitch for his country in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. It’s an unfortunate — and quite frankly, unfair — treatment of a tremendous talent who decided he’d rather hit the open market than be tethered to whichever NPB club drafted him for eight years.

Beyond that, however, Tazawa truly made his mark in Boston despite flying under-the-radar for much of his career. He was first called up in 2009, pitched poorly for 25 innings, then didn’t make the majors again until the end of 2011. After that, his career took off.

Since this is Baseball Prospectus, we like to focus on the numbers. Tazawa does not falter there. From 2012 to 2014, he was arguably the most underrated reliever in all of baseball. He was at least in the discussion. He was in the top 20 percent of relievers in ERA in that span and the top 12 percent of relievers in FIP. His best quality has always been his ability to control the strike zone, which is shown off by the fact that his 5.3 K/BB ratio over that time ranks fourth among 170 qualified relievers. (Off topic, but Koji’s K/BB in that span was 11.2!) Tazawa was never really put in the closer role, and things didn’t go exceedingly well in the situations where he was, but he put up great numbers in an important set-up role.

Even beyond the stats, other fond memories should not be forgotten. The start of the production portion of his career, 2012, is near the top of that list. Obviously, not much about that year is positive. This was the Year of Bobby V, and there weren’t many fun times watching that team on a daily basis. Tazawa was one of those bright spots. He came out of nowhere to emerge as a legitimate weapon, and him being on the mound was one of the few times you could feel confident in the Red Sox. In fact, it was his most impression season by DRA- and cFIP, as he put up marks of 82 and 74, respectively.

It was this season that set him up for his greatest triumph, which was the 2013 campaign. Tazawa had proven himself a useful weapon, and John Farrell rode him all the way to the World Series. He threw in 71 games that season with a 3.16 ERA, more than a strikeout per inning and an above-average DRA and cFIP. Then, he took over in the playoffs and allowed just one run over 13 appearances in seven innings of work.

Of course, the moment he’ll always be remembered for was his battle with Miguel Cabrera in Game Three of the ALCS. He came in trying to hold on to a 1-0 lead with runners on the corners and one out with arguably the best hitter in the world at the plate. He threw him nothing but mid-90’s fastballs and set Cabrera down on four pitches, helping the Red Sox win that crucial game.

Relievers are always inherently underrated, especially if they never serve as closers. They don’t help in fantasy, and they rarely celebrate on the mound after a big win. They are hugely important pieces of good teams, though, and Tazawa embodies that fact. He’s almost certainly going to be somewhere else next year, and hopefully he’ll pitch well and extend his career as long as he can.

Then, in 2023 or in 2033 or whenever it happens to be, the Red Sox will honor that 2013 team. All of the players will come out on the field, and Tazawa will be in the middle of them. The camera will pan over him, and we’ll laugh since we’ll all have forgotten about him. Hopefully, though, the memories of all his success come flooding back. It’s appropriate that his likely departure is being overshadowed by Ortiz’s, as that’s how he spent his career. But Tazawa deserves his small moment in the sun, too.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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