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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.