Where In The World Is Kenshin Kawakami?

With Kris Medlan suffering a tear in his UCL, the Braves are in need of a starting pitcher, and so they’re summoning Mike Minor from Triple-A to fill the rotation spot on Monday. The pitcher that Medlan originally replaced in the rotation, Kenshin Kawakami, was not an option to fill the spot because he’s thrown only one inning in the last six weeks.

Kawakami, however, has not been hurt, suspended, or otherwise absent from the team. He has just been chilling in the bullpen, waiting for Bobby Cox to summon him to the mound, an invitation that never materializes. And now that the Braves actually have a spot for him, he’s not stretched out enough to fill the hole, and is headed to Triple-A to get back on the mound. The entire saga of Kawakami’s usage is one of the more perplexing story lines of 2010.

While he is certainly no kind of ace, Kawakami is a perfectly serviceable major league starter. His performance is no different this year than it was last year, as his nearly identical xFIPs indicate. His ERA is up due to some BABIP fluctuation, but even that number isn’t overly high. He didn’t even pitch himself out of the rotation – his last start before being banished resulted in a strong performance against the Tigers.

And yet, Bobby Cox clearly has no faith in him. He kept him on ice, waiting for a low leverage long relief spot to let him soak up innings, but one never came, and he refused to use Kawakami in any game where the outcome was not yet determined. Why doesn’t he trust Kawakami? Your guess is as good as mine. His win-loss record isn’t pretty, but Cox has to be able to see how useless that number is, right?

So, instead of using a decent enough pitcher to help keep the Phillies at bay in a pennant race, the Braves now find themselves hoping he pitches well enough in Triple-A to generate some interest from another team, leading to an August trade. With a $6.7 million salary for 2011, he is sure to clear waivers, even though that amount isn’t much more than he’s worth.

Once the Braves find a team willing to look past wins and losses, Kawakami will likely have a new home – one where the manager is actually willing to give him the ball.  The Braves, meanwhile, will lean on a rookie to try to keep them ahead of the Phillies in the NL East. For their sake, I hope Minor pitches well, because otherwise, they’ll have a lot of reasons to look back and wonder why their manager simply refused to use a pretty decent major league pitcher in the middle of a pennant race.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


50 Responses to “Where In The World Is Kenshin Kawakami?”

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  1. bikozu says:

    He seems like he might be a good pickup for the Mariners, who are in need of somewhat cheap, underrated rotation help next season.

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    • Mr. Sanchez says:

      And the Mariners tend to be fond of Japanese players. So, what will ya offer for him? KK and McLouth for Figgins?

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  2. Jake says:

    How about Mike Minor? Of he is seen as one of the top future starters in Atlanta, then this seems like the time to see what he has at the major league level. Are we going to get a fangraphs scouting report on Minor?

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  3. Of all my time watching Bobby Cox mismanage bullpen arms, this was one of the worst I’ve ever seen.

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  4. Brian says:

    Kawakami was not particularly bad, but the Braves still had five starters better than him. They also have five relievers better than him out of the pen. Apparently there was some gentleman’s agreement when he signed that the Braves wouldn’t send him down to the minors, and they finally convinced him to consent.

    I don’t think the Braves did anything particularly wrong here. They used their best pitchers. I’m willing to bet Minor is better, too.

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    • Nik says:

      That’s not a wise bet to make in the middle of a pennant race.

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      • Brian says:

        I don’t think it’s that risky a bet. Minor’s performance in AAA this season has made me very confident he is better than Kawakami.

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      • Nik says:

        5 starts is a fairly small sample to proclaim a pitcher ready for the Bigs. His 15 AA starts are not nearly as impressive.

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      • Temo says:

        11.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 43.2% GB rate is not impressive?

        And he improved those stats when he went to AAA: 10.0 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, .3 HR/9, 46.8% GB rate.

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    • spike says:

      I don’t think the Braves did anything particularly wrong here.

      When you have a perfectly useful pitcher on your roster (and not a cheap one I might add) and refuse to pitch him you’ve either done bullpen management, roster construction, or asset management wrong.

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    • Mr. Sanchez says:

      Not true. Since Kenshin Kawakami’s last start, he has made one appearance in 6 weeks. Over the same time frame, Jesse Chavez has made 9 appearances. So the Braves did not simply use better pitchers instead the entire time, and there were numerous opportunities to get him innings, even in longer, low leverage type situations.

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      • Temo says:

        Cox doesn’t think KK does well out of the bullpen.

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      • Mr. Sanchez says:

        Says who Temo? Cause he’s never been quoted as such, and the stats show otherwise. If he didn’t think the man was good in the bullpen, why’d he put him there, and why’d he use him in that role last September? And I strongly doubt he expected Jesse Chavez to do any better.

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    • DJ says:

      Every single time they used Chavez over KK, they were using a worse pitcher than KK. Plus, this is a stupid way to run a pitching staff. See – Medlen’s injury. You need to let everybody get some work in every now and then, or you’ll end up in a situation just like what the Braves are facing now. They’re lucky they have such amazing depth in the minors to fill in for him, or they’d be forced to make an emergency trade or bring up someone even worse than KK.

      And for what? Because of some petty grudge being harbored over the fact that he wouldn’t accept a AAA assignment? When he wasn’t even the worst pitcher on the 25-man?

      I’m a Braves fan, but the Braves got what was coming to them here. I respect Bobby and all he’s done for the team over the years, but that doesn’t change the fact that, today, he’s running the team like a senile old man. Playing Heyward when he was obviously hurt, playing Glaus when his legs were obviously about to fall off, playing Schafer last year when he was obviously hurt (and potentially ruining his career – the guy seems to have lost it completely), running Francoeur out there every day for over two years when he had CLEARLY lost it, this new abomination with KK.. The list goes on.

      Bobby will go down as one of the greatest managers of all time, but that doesn’t mean he is one now. I’m looking forward to getting a new, younger manager in the clubhouse who may bring a new outlook on things (Please Wren, not Fredi “Bobby Jr.” Gonzalez).

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      • Corky says:

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m fairly certain that Schafer was less than forthcoming when it came to his wrist injury last year. Second, the Braves did send Frenchy to AA to work on his swing, only recalling him because injuries on the MLB roster.

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      • Hizouse says:

        Nice post. You might be able to give Cox a small excuse on this one, however, just because there haven’t been many long relief opportunities since KK went to the ‘pen (that I can remember, anyway). Still, DOB notes today that Venters and Moylan are among the league leaders in appearances, and one is a rookie with no experience as a reliever and the other one has had TJ surgery.

        As for Corky and Frenchy: I believe they recalled him mostly because he threw a hissy-fit.

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      • SSO says:

        Fredi is not Bobby Jr.

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  5. Temo says:

    He wasn’t used because Medlen was better as a starter than Kawakami. And he wasn’t used out of the pen because the perception is that he’s not a good type for the bullpen role, as we found out last year. Whether the latter is true or not is up for debate, because the stats aren’t there to say either way. In that case, I think you have to go with Bobby Cox’s judgement.

    Also, Braves management (and Braves fans, for that matter) has more confidence in Mike Minor than in Kawakami right now. There’s a reason he lost his starting role two years in a row, and it’s namely that while his FIP/xFIP would play in most rotations, it doesn’t play in Atlanta. The talent in the rotation here is too deep for that.

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    • pacgnosis says:

      The fact that KK is not well suited to a bullpen role should have meant that they kept him in the rotation. Yes, Medlen was a slightly better starter–but only slightly. Medlen had already shown himself as a dominant reliever who had Bobby Cox’s full confidence.

      It was inevitable that something like this would happen if the Braves went with Medlen over Kawakami in the rotation. If they had gone the other way, they’d likely have lost nothing in terms of the standings, but would have gained a far superior position in terms of resource usage. Not to mention that Medlen might not have been injured.

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      • Brian says:

        Do you think the Braves would have won 13 of Kawakami’s 14 starts like they did for Medlen? 13-1 sure did help them fend off the Phillies.

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      • Brian says:

        I should correct myself. The Medlen vs. Kawakami thing only became an issue when Jurrjens came back. Medlen has made five starts since then, and the Braves are 5-0 in those games. Anyone that watched Kawakami pitch would know that was not likely to happen with KK on the mound.

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      • Temo says:

        3.81 FIP//3.67 xFIP for Medlen
        4.19 FIP//4.51xFIP for Kawakami

        I’d say it’s better than a “slight” improvement. Especially when you have a stocked bullpen, where Peter Moylan, Johnny Venters, Takashi Saito, and Billy Wagner are all conceivably better relievers than Kris Medlen. Not to mention Eric O’Flaherty as LOOGY is better vs. LH than Medlen.

        For the 5 games that Medlen started and KK didn’t, lets say there’s about 33 innings of work there. The difference in runs between Medlen and KK would have been:

        1.4 runs by FIP and 3.1 runs by xFIP, or between .14 WAR and .31 WAR difference between the two over the past 25-30 games. That’s probably more than you’d get by making Kris Medlen the 5th guy in the bullpen.

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    • Mr. Sanchez says:

      “he wasn’t used out of the pen because the perception is that he’s not a good type for the bullpen role, as we found out last year” is also wrong.

      After Tim Hudson came back and Kenshin went to the pen, his numbers were 7 games, 13.2 innings, 14 hits, 4 walks (2 intentional), 4 runs, 0 HR, 7 K. That’s a 2.63 ERA, 1.317 whip, and 1.75 k/bb ratio. That’s not dominant relief work right there, but it is certainly good enough to warrant the occassional use.

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      • Mr. Sanchez says:

        Irrelevant in this context santoro.

        The comment was “he’s not a good type for the bullpen role, as we found out last year”

        Sample size doesn’t matter here when the facts of last year say he was decent out of the bullpen and directly dispute the quote. If you wanna cry sample size, it can’t be large enough to determine he wasn’t good as a reliever either.

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  6. ABravesFan says:

    The saddest thing about the stretch of time when KK wasn’t used, Jessie Chavez of all people was actually trusted by Bobby Cox more than him. Okay for the record, Jessie Chavez’s FIP is not THAT much worse than Kawakami’s (4.83 vs. 4.19).

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  7. Ben says:

    I am a Braves fan and have been following this situation closely. Management says that they are unwilling to use Kawakami because he is not currently “stretched out.” There has been a serious breakdown in communications between the two parties where Kawakami was uncertain about his role with the team.

    Minor has looked very good at AAA, but the decision to go with an untested SP in the heat of a playoff race is highly questionable, IMO. We also get the “benefit” of starting Minor’s arbitration clock early. Hooray!

    Regardless of how forthright management is being in their official statements, it seems like a blunder has been made.

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    • Nik says:

      Unless Minor was first brought up in June 2011 or later, it doesn’t matter if he is brought up now or opening day 2011. At least that’s my understanding of the arbitration eligibility

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      • Temo says:

        If you bring him up now or on opening day 2011, he has arbitration before the 2014 season and free agency before 2017.

        If you bring him up in mid-April 2011, he still has arb before 2014, but free agency is pushed back to 2018.

        If you bring him up in June 2011, he has arb a year later (2015) but free agency is still 2018.

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    • TK says:

      I’m not sure the Braves intend to trade KK. Mike Minor is a huge part of the Braves future and this is his first professional season. I’m sure he’s on an all-levels innings count and will not be able to pitch in the Atlanta rotation for the entire rest of the season. My guess is that if he pitches well, he pitches as long as his innings count allows. If not, KK will be back in the Atlanta rotation in 3 weeks. Either way, KK will end up having to be in the Braves rotation by the end of the year.

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      • Bronnt says:

        I’ve had that thought myself. They might be looking to showcase Minor to trade him in the offseason. I really can’t foresee the Braves failing to get Kawakami back in the rotation if Medlen really does need surgery. I don’t think Minor is going to be able to pitch in late September, so I think there are 3-4 more starts available for Kawakami in Atlanta even if Minor excels.

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  8. Steve says:

    This is just typical Joe Torre bullpen….what’s that? Bobby Cox? Oh, I don’t know why Kawakami hasn’t pitched.

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  9. Bronnt says:

    It’s just a terrible case of mis-management with Kawakami. That’s all there is to say. The Braves, and Bobby, don’t have any faith in him, and that’s shattered his faith in himself. I believe that if Medlen were in the bullpen and KK suffered an injury at this point, the team would have had no problem utilizing Medlen as a starter even if they weren’t confident that he could go more than four innings.

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  10. Mr. Sanchez says:

    Couple of corrections Dave,
    MedlEn, with two e’s, and no a’s.

    And Medlen did not replace Kawakami in the rotation. When Jair Jurrjens went down early with an injury, Medlen filled his spot in the rotation. Then when Jair got healthy enough to come back, Medlen just stayed starting as he was doing better than Kawakami was in the role.

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  11. NEPP says:

    Kawakami: Showing that a 12 man bullpen might not always be worthwhile. You cant tell me that having an extra bench guy might have made more of a difference for the Braves than a pitcher they never ever use.

    I would put the Phillies forward as another team that could get by with an 11 man pen with no major issues thanks to their rotation now.

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  12. ChuckO says:

    I don’t know whether or not it’s a good idea to bring up Minor, but one reason given for the move is that the Braves feel that they need a left hander in the starting rotation.

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  13. Andrew says:

    It is my understanding that Kawakami’s contract said that he could not be sent to the minors. He had to waive that clause in order to be optioned to AAA. My guess is that he initially refused to waive it, so Bobby was vengeful and let him sit in the bullpen until he caved in.

    Re: bullpen use. Bobby Cox has to be one of the worst bullpen managers in baseball. I love the man, but his rationale behind a lot of bullpen decisions is baffling. Currently the most abused is Venters. For example, on July 24 Venters threw 40 pitches in two innings of work. The next night he was back out there for another inning. In addition, Venters has pitched in five games in the past 7 days. Fortunately some of these outings (including last night’s) have been very efficient, but it speaks to the misuse of this bullpen.

    Kawakami is not an ace. However, it makes no sense why he did not assume the role that Kris Medlen was first used in. And let’s not forget that Medlen pitched in relief on July 11, 16, 17 and 21. Some of those are justified because of the All Star Break, but this again reflects on the mismanagement of Kawakami.

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  14. Undocorkscrew says:

    I don’t see the issue here, to be honest. Kawakami isn’t stretched-out enough to make Medlen’s next start, so he’ll be sent to Gwinnett to work on that. If Minor struggles in his debut and continues to struggle in his next start, they’ll just send him back down and call Kawakami back up. Either way, it’s not going to hurt the team all that much….

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  15. Nitram Odarp says:

    I still think the Braves tried to get KK to waive his clause and allow him them to demote him, but he refused as first and this is how the Braves responded. Now that he’s seen that he has to go down to get his spot back, he’s relented and agreed to the demotion to get stretched back out.

    Honestly I don’t think its a bad idea. If Minor struggles you can send him down after 3 or 4 starts and bring KK back up. If he looks good, you have a LHP ready for the end of the season when you play 6 games against Philadelphia’s LH heavy lineup.

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  16. bvillebaron says:

    undocorkscrew:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Many of the posters on here forget that KK simply did not pitch well when he started, certainly not better than Medlen and JJ. KK simply can’t say that Cox didn’t give him every opportunity to succeed as a starter. I think the Braves’ plans were to let him be a spot starter, long reliever, but fortunately for the team, those opportunites didn’t present themselves. KK’s history doesn’t suggest he would be an effective 1 inning guy late in the game (although I will concede that I didn’t understand why Cox keep parading Chavez out there before he was traded). KK isn’t stretched out right now to start and Minor has pitched well in AAA. It makes perfect sense to give Minor a couple of starts and if falters and if KK pitches well, give him another chance.

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    • SSO says:

      That tis completely untrue. In the last 6 weeks there were plenty of chances for KK to pitch. The Braves just burned a roster spot for no reason.

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    • Fullgatsu says:

      Actually JJ stats is eerily similar KK so it could have been some discussion on who was better. KK have an 4.75 ERA 4.19 FIP 4.50 XFIP and if you take away his only relief apperance his ERA 4.48, his FIP should be 4.16. JJ have a line of 4.48 ERA 4.16 FIP 4.63 xFIP and when he replaced KK he had a 5.59 ERA and 4.48 FIP, by those numbers KK looked better going forward and had pitched better then JJ at that point.

      Not saying going with JJ was wrong but it should probably been alot more discussion between those two.

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  17. BCbravos says:

    Cox definitely has a past of wearing out some relievers and letting others gather cobwebs, and this seems like another example. But regardless its going to turn out the best possible way for the braves. We need a lefty in the starting rotation desperately for upcoming series against teams like the phillies. If Minor is unable to carry the load and perform at this level, while he’s in the rotation we have 4 other better than average (except maybe Lowe) starters to ensure some wins. Then he gets sent down, KK comes back up, and we’re in the same situation as we would be if KK began starting now.

    The benefits to trying out Minor, regardless of whether KK should have been treated better and be ready to join the rotation right now, are: a) the lefty thing and b) gauging trade value, both for KK and Minor. KK is obviously on the trading block, but if Minor does well, we know Wren is generally open to trading away some bigtime prospects for older, veteran performers. Ideally Minor does well for a couple weeks & reaches his innings limit, KK comes in and finishes the season well, and they are both looking good for the trade market come offseason.

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  18. Justincredubil02 says:

    Why are we comparing KK to Medlen? Compare KK to the rest of the rotation. Medlen may be better than KK, but Derek Lowe certainly is not. That is who should have been sent to the BP.

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  19. stupup74 says:

    KK sucks. He misses his spots by 18 inches. To be honest he has been fortunate to not have a worse ERA. He is in AAA, where he belongs.

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