Kyuji Fujikawa: Japan’s Mariano Rivera

In a recent article discussing the latest crop of international talent, valued commenter “Nate” offered a great, concise preview of soon-to-be international free agent Kyuji Fujikawa, who’s presently playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball league:

Kyuji Fujikawa – Closer for the Hanshin Tigers. Closest thing Japan has had lately to a Mariano Rivera-type. He’s 32, but will be a full free agent, so won’t require a posting fee. Expensive teams that forgot to buy a bullpen should look at him *cough* Angels *cough*.

And Nate is correct many times over; not only does one of Japan’s best relievers appear ready for a jump across the river, but he also has every chance to be an elite reliever in the United States.

Take a look at his numbers in Japan:

This is legit. And he could make for a talented addition to a number of teams in 2013.

Since 2002, Fujikawa has been an elite reliever for a lately underwhelming Hanshin team. As the graph notes above — in ERA and FIP terms — Fujikawa has exceeded the league average in recent seasons. He will be 32 entering the 2013 MLB season, and if even a portion of his numbers translate across the ocean, he will be a phenomenal pickup for an interested team:

Year Age Tm G SV IP Fujikawa ERA Fujikawa FIP ERA- FIP-
2007 26 Hanshin 71 46 83 1.63 1.43 42 35
2008 27 Hanshin 63 38 67.2 0.67 1.63 18 41
2009 28 Hanshin 49 25 57.2 1.25 1.95 35 49
2010 29 Hanshin 58 28 62.2 2.01 3.26 49 75
2011 30 Hanshin 56 41 51 1.24 1.40 41 39
2012 31 Hanshin 46 22 45.2 1.38 1.97 48 55

NOTE: The NPB FIP- used here is not park-adjusted.

Some have projected he will get a contract along the lines of two years at between $8 million and  $10 million — which is not discounted per se, but could develop into a bargain.

In 2012, four NPB pitchers made the jump to the MLB — Yu Darvish, Wei-Yin Chen, Hisashi Iwakuma and Tsuyoshi Wada. They weren’t exactly a glowing advertisement for NPB pitchers.

Wada has spent most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery; Darvish cannot seem to beat a team twice in a row; Iwakuma has some occasionally scary numbers as he has split time between the rotation and bullpen; and Chen — who has been perhaps the best value so far in the 2012 season — appears pretty close to an average pitcher.

Here’s a look at the stats for these players before and after their Pacific leaps:

Player Age Tm League IP ERA HR% BB% K% FIP FIP- 2012 MLB FIP- 2012 MLB xFIP-
Yu Darvish 24 NPN PL 232.0 1.44 0.76% 5% 42% 1.64 49 79 88
Tsuyoshi Wada 30 FKA PL 184.2 1.51 1.06% 6% 25% 2.59 77
Wei-Yin Chen 25 CNI CL 164.2 2.68 1.37% 5% 14% 3.42 96 103 104
Hisashi Iwakuma 30 TOH PL 119.0 2.42 0.91% 3% 14% 2.95 87 115 94

Darvish went from unstoppable in Japan to (merely) above average in Texas. The other two pitchers moved closer to 5 to 10 points or so in FIP or xFIP.

Fujikawa will presumably lose some degree of effectiveness in the MLB, but even scouts suspect he can still occupy late-inning relief roles in the U.S.:

“Closer, maybe. Maybe a quality set-up man,” the scout from the NL team said. “I’m concerned about him pitching up in the zone all of the time. In the U.S., if you start throwing high, they’ll wait for that high pitch, and the hitters in America have more power than the Japanese. So he better start pitching low.”

Again, let us bow to Nate’s prescience. The Angels, despite being one of the better clubs in the American League, have the eighth-worst bullpen in the majors, with a 4.03 FIP. In the coming offseason, the Angels, White Sox, Cardinals and maybe even the Red Sox — depending on how close they feel they are to contention — could all be candidates for bullpen upgrades. Plus, teams like the Yankees — which always play a role in free agency — and the Orioles, a team that has demonstrated a penchant for East Asian free agents, could also make a play for Fujikawa.

And if he indeed goes for $10 million or less, he might be able to help rewrite the reputation for Japanese pitchers.

You can find more of Fujikawa’s stats at his impressive Wikipedia page.



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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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wilt
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wilt
4 years 14 days ago

“across the see”

le sigh

Nate
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Nate
4 years 13 days ago

Thanks for the shoutout, Brad! Good article too.

David
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David
4 years 13 days ago

Post is missing one major question – how hard does he throw????? 9/10 big league closers blow gas, I’d like to know if he can get it to the 93-96mph range.

El Vigilante
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El Vigilante
4 years 13 days ago

I’m sure you’re aware that Yu did just see Tampa twice in his last three starts. Sure he didn’t earn two pitcher wins, but 15IP, 1ER, 18K, and 4BB isn’t too bad.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC
4 years 13 days ago

If you’re not perfect against the Rays, I’m not impressed.

TutGadol
Member
TutGadol
4 years 13 days ago

If he’s number are so great why didn’t he get to the MLB earlier? 32 is a little late.

Joel
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Joel
4 years 13 days ago

Probably wasn’t a free agent until now given the way free agency works in NPB. From my understanding, coming over via the posting fee method doesn’t really making financial sense for players who won’t be big ticket items, and regardless, is up to the team he plays for anyways.

Nate
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Nate
4 years 13 days ago

He’s asked to be posted before but his team denied him. This is the first year he’ll have the right to go wherever he wants.

TutGadol
Member
TutGadol
4 years 13 days ago

Upon a further look and some videos. My very amateur scouting report says he throws 92-94 mph with great rise on his fastball. His fastball get’s a lot of swing throughs up in the zone because of it, but in the majors hitters will pick up the movement every once in a while and his velocity isn’t good enough to allow him to throw up to power hitters. The thing is that if he throws down he losses that movement and it just becomes a pretty average reliever fastball. He also throws a forkball and a curveball neither looked too special to me, in Japan he’s a pretty plain fastball pitcher.

As hitter’s see him more and more I think they’ll start to adjust to his fastball movement and start to sit on it, so he’s offspeed development will be key. He does have terrific control so I see him giving around a 3.6 era 70 innings.

Dr. Chaleeko
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Dr. Chaleeko
4 years 13 days ago

“He does have terrific control so I see him giving around a 3.6 era 70 innings.”

Speaking only for myself, I’m always skeptical about looking at BB/9 numbers in NPB. Control seems to be the one of the skills that pitchers have the toughest time retaining in coming from NPB to MLB. No numbers, just recollections, but Japanese pitchers in the U.S. seem to have a lot of trouble with walks, and their walk rates zoom up compared to NPB. Nomo, Ishii, Matsuzaka, Darvish, Irabu, for example, all with walk problems.

My guess is that because MLB hitters are better hitters and can adjust quickly to their repertoire, they turn to nibbling, and they lose a lot of hitters.

Jon L.
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Jon L.
4 years 13 days ago

This is an interesting point. I’d always assumed it was a cultural difference, and the philosophy of pitching in Japan was to never to let a batter get a hit – lots of K’s and BB’s, like Nolan Ryan (without the velocity). Maybe the real difference is that these guys have had success putting pitches where no one could hit them. Maybe if you moved guys like Roy Halladay and Greg Maddux to a league where the average hitter was HOF quality, they’d become nibblers who walked a lot of guys too.

Chris from Bothell
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Chris from Bothell
4 years 13 days ago

If you’re on target with the 2 years and 8-10 million, that’s in line with paying for about 1 WAR a year, yes? If that’s right, and if I have this table right, then I think he does slot in well with the upper tier of relievers here in the US.

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=rel&lg=all&qual=y&type=c,4,5,11,7,8,13,-1,36,37,40,43,44,48,51,-1,6,45,62,-1,59,60&season=2012&month=0&season1=2012&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=18,d

Which then leads me to wonder whether there are going to be other free agent relievers with the same production available for a lower price. I don’t know how to interpret the free agent leaderboard from the other day to predict that, as I don’t know how to estimate what the market rate for relievers will be this winter. (I doubt many people could…)

Neil S
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Neil S
4 years 13 days ago

Somewhat off-topic: How on earth did the league-average ERA in NPB drop an entire run in from 2010 to 2011?? Look at the trend from 2007-10, and then 11-12. That looks like a completely different game.

Nate
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Nate
4 years 13 days ago

They switched to a new ball design in ’11 that is supposed to be closer to what MLB and international tournaments use. As you can see, it’s had a significant impact on the league.

todmod
Member
todmod
4 years 13 days ago

This article is oddly dismissive of Yu Darvish, who has the 6th highest pitching WAR in the AL. A bit above average is quite the understatement.

Taylor
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Taylor
4 years 13 days ago

Yeah, no kidding

James
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James
4 years 7 days ago

Nice article. I’m in Japan and follow Fujikawa as much as I can. He’s good. Not necessarily a penciled-in MLB closer type, but he’ll get a shot at that role with whomever he signs with. I’m guessing Dodgers at 9 mil per year.

My only criticism is regarding your League FIP. Not sure what you mean by that, since League FIP is calibrated to match League ERA. If you’re using an assumed FIP constant of 3.2, you’re gonna be off in that league. Fujikawa’s 2007 FIP is more closer to 1.07 or so, not 1.43. Even more nasty.

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