The Tigers — Hanshin, not Detroit — have lost their closer. After years of trying to convince his team to post him, the 32-year-old Kyuji Fujikawa is a free agent now and touring the United States. Though he’s got an interesting arsenal, there’s already some decline in his Japanese numbers. His future depends, as it does, on his landing spot.
Even as a younger man, Fujikawa has had issues putting in full seasons. Since becoming a regular 11 seasons ago, he’s had two seasons where he didn’t top 35 innings. After overcoming the early injuries, he settled in as a 60-70 inning guy — even setting an NPB record in games pitched (79) in his breakout 2005 — until the nicks and cuts began to pile up. His last two seasons, he averaged just around fifty innings.
Mostly, he works with his 92-93 mph fastball, and then a splitter. At his best, he was all fastball and unhittable. He once was able to dial it up to 95 mph, and once told Japanese slugger Alex Cabrera that three fastballs were coming (he showed his grip before each pitch), and struck him out on three straight heaters. These days, it’s more telling that he didn’t manage to make the top ten fastball velocities in Japan last season as compiled by Patrick Newman at NPBtracker. That means he averaged less than 92.2 mph on the fastball. Even with late life — his fastball has double-digit inches of ‘rise,’ too — that’s not great velocity.
Time has stolen some of his strikeout punch, too. He regularly struck out more than 12 batters per nine earlier in his career, and to be fair, he struck out 14 per nine as recently as 2011. But in 2010 and 2012, that rate dropped below 12 per nine (career-low 11 K/9 last season). Age isn’t kind to relievers in general, and if the fastball velocity is beginning to go, the strikeout rate could follow quickly.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that he’s got a splitter, a major league fastball, and impeccable control. He’s never once walked as many as three per nine, and his career walk rate in Japan was closer to two per nine. If you were looking for a comp, you might look at players like Joel Peralta (32% split fingers, 90.3 mph fastball), J.J. Putz (23.3% split gingers, 92.9 mph fastball), especially since both pitchers have great control and iffy fastball velocities to go along with their split fingers.
The Joel Peralta comparison might be best, given the fact that Peralta has been excellent for some time but has not been trusted with the full-time closer role for more than a short-term stint. Peralta also has double-digit rise on his fastball, which helps contrast with the sinking movement of the splitter. Fujikawa is rumored to be spending time visiting with the Cubs, Diamondbacks, Angels, Dodgers, Rangers and Red Sox. I think you can easily spot the team where a Joel Peralta type pitcher would immediately zoom to the top of the bullpen pecking chart.
Will the Cubs pony up for a reliever when they seem pretty far from contention? Will the Diamondbacks trust their closer role to another older control-and-splitty guy? The rest of the teams, with an asterisk for the Red Sox, would seemingly be interested in him as a setup man, which would make him a late-game holds league guy at best.
One thing worth remembering: the team that ends up paying the most cash for him probably wants to use him for the highest leverage innings. Fujikawa could still add to his 200-plus saves stateside.
Thanks for the scouting reports from Patrick Newman at NPBTracker.