Career Retrospective: Kazumi Saito
After three years on the sidelines, the Softbank Hawks offered former ace Kazumi Saito a choice this offseason: an entry-level ikusei contract, or a coaching position with the team. Saito chose to continue his comeback as a coach, fittingly one responsible for injury rehabilitation. Today we take a look back at Saito’s career, who between injuries has had some dazzling performances.
Saito’s baseball journey began on the southern side of Kyoto, the city where he was born. It was at Minami Kyoto High School where he became a pitcher and first caught the eye of baseball scouts. Despite being unable to lead his teams to an appearance at Koshien (the school has never been), he was tagged as a top professional prospect. The then-Fukuoka Daiei Hawks selected the young right-hander in the first round of the 1995 amateur draft.
Just shy of his 20th birthday, Saito was already pitching at the ichi-gun level. He made his Nippon Professional Baseball debut on October 5, 1997. Though he would appear in only one game at the level (a feat he also repeated during the 1998 and 1999 seasons), he had ascended staggeringly quickly through the pro ranks. However it was also at this time that Saito began to experience shoulder problems, an unfortunate harbinger of things to come. Surgery was performed on his troublesome right shoulder for the first time in 1998, and coaches toyed with the idea of converting Saito to a position player. Saito, however, was keen on remaining a pitcher.
His first full season came in 2000, when he reached a milestone of recording his first win at the major league level. He used his unusual height (192cm) to his advantage, as well as the ability to throw a hard fastball in the 150’s (KPH), a sharp forkball, mixed with an excellent slider and curveball. He finished 2000 with 5 wins against 2 losses and a 4.13 ERA.
His breakthrough season was delayed, however, when it came to light in 2001 that he would need additional surgery on his troublesome right shoulder. He was able to come back by the end of the 2002 season and regain some form of dominance that had led the Hawks to be so high on him.
2003 was the season when it all came together for Saito. The numbers alone don’t do his season justice. After being called upon by then-manager Sadaharu Oh to become the team’s staff ace, the newly minted Opening Day starter responded with a 20-3 (.870), 2.83 ERA season. Saito didn’t lose a game until his 17th decision, becoming the first 20-game winner in the Pacific League in 18 years. He shared the Sawamura Award with Kei Igawa and helped his team to a Japan Series title, defeating Igawa’s Hanshin Tigers in an exciting seven games, though he was winless on the big stage.
As fruitful as 2003 was, what followed must have felt akin to running on ice for #66. After being so good, Saito posted an inexplicable 6.26 and even spent time at ni-gun in 2004 before shoulder pains popped back up in 2005. However, after being sidelined for the first month of the season, Saito rared back to his winning form, ripping off another furious streak of consecutive wins. This time it was 15 straight, exhibiting a penchant for control pitching (2.35 BB/9IP) and a healthy strikeout rate (7.39 K/9IP). He went 16-1 with a 2.92 ERA when it was all said and done, but maintained his reputation for underperforming in the postseason with a poor showing in the playoffs.
2006 was a pitching masterstroke for the ace. After skipping the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Saito tinkered with his windup (NPB placed new guidelines on pitchers prior to the start of the season) and was dominant. Once again making an Opening Day start, he beat the Chiba Lotte Marines and never looked back. The season featured a memorable near no-hitter against the Yomiuri Giants, too. On June 8th Saito faced the minimum 27 batters, allowing only an infield single to Ryota Wakiya and subsequently picking him off base. The dominance continued all summer long, as Saito’s 18-5, 1.75 record reflects. He walked only 46 men over 201 innings, striking out 205. He picked up almost every major postseason honor, save the MVP award, which went to Micihiro Ogasawara. This time Saito was brilliant in the playoffs, but it ended in heartbreak, as the Nippon Ham Fighters crushed his dreams of returning to the Japan Series in a fantastic 1-0 game to decide the pennant.
2007 was the last we have seen of Saito, sadly. Though he appeared in 12 games and the Climax Series, arm trouble persisted and rehabilitation was prescribed. In 2008 he had rotator cuff surgery hoping to be ready for 2009. It didn’t happen, though, and in early 2010 more surgery was performed. As of 2011, he remains with the team as a rehab coach, though not officially retired from pitching and still hoping to regain his form.
With a career 72-23 record, there is no question that he should be counted among the elite Pacific League pitchers of the 2000s. But his career has been a roller coaster ride. As evidence of this, he has only accrued 6 and a half years of service time in NPB, in a professional career that now has spanned 15 seasons. It will be interesting to see if Saito can make it back to ichi-gun as a pitcher; at age 33 and with his injury history, the odds are certainly stacked against him. Does he have one more surprise left for his fans?