Boston Red Sox Report Cards: Junichi Tazawa


Now that the 2015 season is in the books, the BoSox Injection staff will hand out their final report cards, grading the performances of each member of the Boston Red Sox roster based on their expectations entering the season.

C. . Relief Pitcher. . JUNICHI TAZAWA

2015 Stats: 2-7, 4.14 ERA, 61 G, 3 SV, 58.2 IP, 56 K, 1.33 WHIP

In Japanese they have a saying – Tori naki sato no koumori. Don’t ask me to pronounce that. It’s the equivalent of the old English proverb “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

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Now, nobody in the Boston Red Sox bullpen is blind, though at times you’d wonder if they have problems seeing the strike zone, but the point is well taken. Boston has struggled with its relief pitchers this year on an almost historic level. The bullpen is the land of the blind and Junichi Tazawa was its king who could see, at least half of the time. So it was for his 2015, a tale of two halves, one eye but not two.

Tazawa’s 2015 will ultimately be remembered for the end, not the beginning, as is perhaps to be expected in baseball. And it ended badly. Tazawa posted an unsightly ERA of 8.44 in August and followed up with a catastrophic ERA of 12.00 in four outings in September. The last of those outings, on September 12, would be the last of his outings for the season as he was shut down for the remainder. His first 3 games in September, totalling some 2 and a half innings, were flawless but that final attempt saw 4 hits, 4 runs (all of them earned) including a homer without recording a single out, gifting a win to the Tampa Bay Rays. Nakittsura ni hachi as they say in Japanese, one thing after another.

If that was the full story, you’d be looking at a giant F on the report card, but it’s not. We have two eyes after all. So let’s start from the top.

Junichi Tazawa signed with the Red Sox as an international free agent in 2008, working his way up the ranks until he arrived in Boston for keeps in 2012. He was a revelation. A set-up man who would work that elusive 8th inning to perfection, paving the way for the closer to come in and finish the job. With the introduction of fellow Japanese hurler Koji Uehara as the Red Sox closer in 2013, Boston acquired possibly the most deadly, feared and essentially automatic final two in the game. Tazawa in the 8th, Uehara in the 9th.

Tazawa is in many ways the opposite of Uehara and in that regard they perfectly complement each other. Tazawa throws hard, regularly hitting 95 mph on his fastball (indeed, his fastball came back quicker than ever this year, frequently flashing 96) and he absolutely pounds the zone with the pitch. Tired and frustrated after relentless live-arm fastballs, the opponents step up in the 9th and swing helplessly at nasty splitters from Koji.

As it was in 2013, so it was in 2015, at least at the beginning. Indeed, Tazawa did not give up a run for his first 8 consecutive games in April, averaging a strikeout per inning. As dominating as April was, May was even more ridiculous, as he gave up a mere two runs in 13 innings (over 13 games) of work, worth an ERA of 1.64.

Now the astute reader will probably note that 13 games in May (and 11 in April) is a lot of appearances for a single reliever. After all, you have a whole bullpen filled with relievers, why not use one of them? Well because they stink, that’s why. A general refusal to accept the failures of the offseason would lead to yet another losing year resulted in a push to win that required the only two bullpen pieces reliable enough to hold even a dog’s lead to be stretched. And stretched thin.

To be fair, Tazawa had pitched in 71 games in 2013 and the same again in 2014, which was enough to make him the most used Red Sox pitcher in both years by no small measure. For management in Boston it seemed Tazawa was reliable to go the distance again, that he alone could steer the sinking Sox bullpen to safe ground. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the collective fatigue caught up with him in, of course, spectacular fashion.

June started normally, Tazawa doing Tazawa things, five games without giving up a run and indeed only conceding a single hit. Then, on June 12th, management made the ill-advised decision to throw Tazawa to the Toronto Blue Jay lions, a team who made their season feasting on right-handed pitchers and had, it has to be said, always had a field day with Junichi. To compound the matter, Tazawa had pitched four outs the night before and was clearly in need of rest. But call him they did. 4 hits, 5 runs and 0 outs later, Tazawa leaves the game and the dismay is tangible in Fenway. Zenmon no tora, koumon no ookami, from one bad situation to the next.

June wasn’t quite so lost, as Tazawa still finished the month with 4 straight games of shutout ball in his territory, the 8th inning. Even July seemed the calm before the storm, while Tazawa gave up 13 hits in the month only 3 of those ended in runs and his ERA on the month was 2.53, good but different from what we were used to. Not different enough to cause alarm bells for the Red Sox management, though as the clickbait title reads, they could never have imagined what would happen next.

On August 7th, while closing the door on the Detroit Tigers, Uehara took the last out on his right arm and saw his season come crumbling down around him. The loss of his partner in the Red Sox 1-2 punch of the last 2 innings was troublesome for Tazawa, but even more so that he was then called upon to take his place as the closer for the rest of the year.

The weight of responsibility weighed too heavily on Tazawa’s shoulders and he struggled. Blown saves, losses, being replaced by Jean Machi. All embarrassing, but it was obvious to everyone that this simply isn’t Junichi Tazawa, not as we’d seen for his many years in the organisation or even as 2015 had seemingly presented itself. A combination of exhaustion and not being suited for the role of closer would be his downfall and the only action the Red Sox could take was to bring his season to a crashing end. Ryouyaku wa kuchi ni nigashi, good medicine always tastes bitter.

In the end though, Tazawa was still the one eyed king. The first half of his season was exemplary, a top drawer performance from an exceptional reliever. Certainly more than enough to remind us that he isn’t blind, that while a great purge of the bullpen is likely, he’s an asset to the team and can be relied on to come out and set the stage yet again in 2016. Just perhaps not to the extremely frequent levels that were unfairly expected of him in the past.

Keizoku wa chikara nari, perseverance is power.

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