What to Expect from Junichi Tazawa

» 16 February 2009 » In mlb prospects »

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about Junichi Tazawa, for a reason. This site was basically Tazawa Central in October and November, and I was pretty thrilled when he signed with Boston. Not because I cared about where he signed, but because I was happy that the frenzy was over and I could move on to writing about something else.

But still, this is an interesting story, and perhaps a precedent-setting one. We’ve already seen NPB make a rule change in response to this, and I think we’ll see a lot more MLB teams scouting the Industrial League tournaments this year, looking for the next Tazawa. And rules aside, I expect Tazawa’s performance to be influential — if he does well, I think we’ll see more try to follow in his footsteps. If he’s a flop, that will probably be a better deterrent for potential defectors than NPB could come up with.

So what can we reasonably expect from Tazawa?

Here are his 2009 tournament stats, courtesy of Draft Report:

Innings Hits K Walks Earned Runs ERA
54 46 56 4 6 1.00

So Tazawa was dominating his Industrial League competition. Let’s put some context around that though. The highest profile Industrial League games are all short-term tournaments, rather than league games like we’re used to in professional leages.

In the last tournament of the 2008 Industrial season, the Japan Players Championship, Tazawa pitched 20 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run, with a 15/2 K/BB ratio. In that tournament though, pitchers averaged a 2.28 ERA, 5.38 K rate, and 2.64 BB rate. Similar situation in the Intercity Championship, where Tazawa posted a 1.27/11.44/1.91 line (ERA/K rate/BB rate) vs a 2.72/6.37/3.15 tournament average.

Tazawa’s performance was clearly above average, but he did play in a pitcher-friendly series. In America, he will have to adjust to the reality that even in 2A there will be guys capable of hitting his best stuff. This will challenge him to improve on his approach on the mound and preparation for the game.

The largest Industrial League tournaments in Japan have 32 teams, so the winning team plays five games. These are single-elimination tournaments that last a week or two, so do the math on how much and how often the best guys pitch. Looking at last year’s Intercity Championship, which Tazawa’s Eneos won, Tazawa started on Sept 1, Sept 4, pitched relief on Sept 6, started again on Sept 8, and finally closed out the tourney with two innings on Sept 9. That was a total of 28.1 innings in nine days, with no more than three days rest in between apparances. I don’t have pitch count data, but I recall reading that he had gotten around 150 in one game last year (not sure if it was this tournament or another one). And he did wear out down the stretch — in his last appearance he didn’t allow any runs, but was nicked for 7 hits in 2 innings.

The upside here is that the Red Sox certainly won’t put this kind of strain on Tazawa’s arm. He’ll be put under pitch counts and watched carefully. The adjustment he’ll have to make is pitching on a regular, routine basis, instead of the short, extreme bursts of activity with long breaks in between.

There isn’t any defined way to equate performance in a Japanese amateur league to the professional American minor leagues, but there are numbers and context. In a future post, I’ll take a look at how other Industrial Leaguers have acclimatized to the pro game in Japan.

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