There’s bad, then there’s Junichi Tazawa in 2017 bad. One of the best relievers in the league in 2015 has become anything but this season, leading him to be placed on the “disabled” list just a month and a half into the year. However, it appears as though his “injury” may just be a bad excuse for what has turned out to be a signing just as heinous as Tazawa’s exports in a Miami uniform.
Through 15 games, Tazawa owns a 6.60 ERA bt way of a 6.84 FIP and a 4.8% walk rate. His 26.7% ground ball rate is the eleventh lowest in baseball. If those figures aren’t alarming enough, he also owns a lowly .195 BABIP meaning he has been very fortunate not to give up even more damage. In 2015, Tazawa held down 4.14 ERA via a 3.05 FIP and an extremely low 1.99 BB% all while having pretty bad luck on balls in play (.349 BABIP) at hitters’ haven Fenway Park. Last year, he had a much more Fenway-like 15.8 HR/FB ratio of 15.8 and a more neutral BABIP of .292. However, he regulated himself by striking out nearly 10 hitters per 9 innings (9.79) and inducing ground balls at a 40% rate and stranding 79% of his runners. This season though, in the much more pitcher friendly Marlins Park, the wheels have completely fallen off. The question is why?
The Marlins are using the excuse that Tazawa is injured, saying that he has rib cartilage inflammation. While there may be some truth to the fact that Tazawa recently tore something in his rib cage, it’s hard to believe they would ever let him take the mound if he was suffering from the main symptom of costochondritis which is chest pain. Accordingly, there must be another explanation for the way Tazawa has struggled for the entire season. Pitching coach Juan Nieves spoke more closely to that reason when he said Tazawa needs time off not for his chest, but for his head.
“He needs time off to make a mental adjustment,” Nieves said.
That would definitely be a great place for Tazawa to start. From there, he can work on fixing his mechanics. In order to compare an effective Tazawa to whatever this is he has become, here is a stop motion image of his fastball circa 2014 and one of his fastball this year. Out of respect for any sort of injury Tazawa might have suffered recently, the second image is of a fastball he threw to a virtually powerless Yuli Guriel that got taken for a grand slam during his first outing of the season when he was pretty much undoubtedly 100% healthy, right out of camp.
In both images, the same pitch is being called for and thrown: fastball in. Tazawa has maintained similar velocity from then until now but the command is night and day. The reason for this appears to be that, probably not purposefully, Tazawa is throwing from a higher plane and arm slot which he cannot control. At the apex of his leg kick which has gone from high to even higher, it is easy to notice that Tazawa’s glove is also much higher in the air his arm is at a much more horizontal angle and a lot closer to his body.
This is where Tazawa’s problems begin and stem from. From there, they get even worse. Where he used to swing his arm nearly straight horizontally behind his back while keeping the top of his hand facing the hitter, hiding his grip on the ball advantageously and leading to a fluid turnover of his palm, this new windup leads to Tazawa having to drop his arm straight down vertically, giving hitters a clear view of the baseball and his fingers followed by him barely getting his arm fully extended backward and a rotation of his wrist that looks forced. Where Tazawa used to almost literally sit back on his pitches, leaning all the way back on his back leg to the point that he almost falls over before powering through his delivery, he is now almost completely relying on his arm, barely transferring any weight whatsoever. This leads to him flying open to the third base side before overthrowing his pitches and throwing off his release points. The end result of all of those factors are pitches that miss his targets and wind up way out over the plate.
Opposing hitters are taking full advantage of this version of Tazawa, being patient early in counts, allowing Tazawa to get behind in the count early (he has a first pitch strike percentage of just 60%) and staying patient allowing them to work themselves into a favorable hitter’s count (he gets into just as many 3-0 counts (6.2%) as he does 0-2 counts), virtually disabling Tazawa’s once-filthy offspeed secondaries and making him rely on the fastball/forkball changeup combo which accounts for 79% of his pitches thrown. Between them sitting on his stuff and Tazawa misplacing it, guys are making contact at an 80.5% rate, including a 90% rate on pitches inside the zone, both career highs for Tazawa and recording swinging strikes 8.3% of the time, a career low. Deception and the ability to get in guy’s heads are completely gone from Tazawa’s game as he is only generating chase swings outside the zone at a 28.2% rate, another career worst.
Not only are hitters making contact often against Tazawa, they are making loud contact.
The average Tazawa pitch leaves a hitters’ bat at 89 MPH and goes 210 feet. The latter of those figures is the 21st-highest average distance in baseball, proving Tazawa has been lucky to not give up even more homers and thus an have an even higher HR/FB% which currently sits around 14%. Hitters are barreling up against Tazawa once in every five of their ABs. All of this proves that thanks to his .195 BABIP and the fact that he’s pitched in mostly pitcher friendly parks, Tazawa has been arguably the luckiest man in baseball not to have an even higher WHIP than his already mediocre 1.33 mark and his absolutely horrendous 6.60 ERA.
Even more fortunately for Tazawa and most unfortunately for the Marlins is that he has job security. Tazawa is under contract for the remainder of this season as well as next season. With it becoming more and more unlikely that he will opt out after this year due, the Marlins, who are paying him $6 million a season until 2019, need to hope Tazawa gets his stuff right ASAP. Upon his return from injury, Tazawa will almost certainly get a rehab assignment in the minors. What the Marlins do with Tazawa immediately after that will be a good barometer of where they are in the towel-throwing-in process for the year. If they are still playoff hopeful, Tazawa will work out his issues in the minors. If not, he will be allowed to do so with the Marlins, likely leading to more fans’ pain and suffering. Wherever he attempts to work out his woes, the Marlins better hope for the sake of not wasting $12 million that he is able to do so because right now, Tazawa isn’t worth 12 Yen (10 cents American).