Kyuji Fujikawa is a thirty-year-old right-handed middle relief pitcher that currently pitches for the Hanshin Tigers, and is a member of the ‘Matsuzaka Generation', one of many good NPB pitchers born in 1980. He has been the team's closer since 2007, having been the Tigers' set-up man, and "spot closer", in previous years. Fujikawa has yet to be officially posted by the Tigers, but according to inside sources, he has made up his mind about wanting to play in the MLB, and that team officials will give their blessings to his wants, and will post him on the international market, having not done so in 2008 and 2009, when he asked the team to be posted. Fujikawa was born to play baseball, because, in Japanese, ‘Kyuji', can be translated as "baseball kid". As the story goes, his father threw a no-hitter in a sandlot game he was playing in the day before Kyuji was born, hence the name.
Fujikawa's first few years with the Tigers were decent, but nothing all together too spectacular. In his first three years, he posted a 3.95 ERA in 199 innings, with most of them coming from the bullpen- he made 14 starts over that three-year period. His BB/9 rate was 4.93, his K/9 rate was 8.07, and his WHIP was 1.51. The most interesting thing about him was that, in 1999 (his rookie year), he missed a few team workouts during Spring Training because he needed to attend remedial classes at the high school he attended, because his grades were so poor that he wouldn't have been able to graduate otherwise.
Finally, in 2004, he was assigned to the Minor Leagues, after a shoulder injury sidelined him. Upon the advice of his pitching coach, Fujikawa completely retooled his pitching mechanics. In the second-half of the season, when he returned, he was a completely different pitcher. In 31 innings, he struck out 35 batters, and had an ERA of 2.61. His K/9 for the year rate rose to 10.16, and his BB/9 rate for the year shrunk to 3.19. The then twenty-five-year-old didn't look back from there.
From 2005 until the present (2010 stats, I could find, following that pattern, sadly), he has posted an ERA of 1.12 (He has not posted an single-season ERA over 1.67 once), in 378 innings pitched. His K/9 rate is a very impressive 13.04, and his BB/9 rate is a miniscule 2.09. His WHIP was sub-1.00, as was his HR/9 rate. As a result of this transformation, Fujikawa became the new, full-time closer of the Tigers (2007), won numerous awards (Central League Most-Valuable Closer and Set-Up Man, among others), and was elected into four straight All-Star Games, from 2005 until 2008. In early 2009, he reported pain in his pitching elbow, and was shut down for about a month. When he returned, he continued putting up stellar numbers.
He pitched for Team Japan in the 2006 and 2009 WBC competitions. In 2006, he threw only 2.2 innings, but they were 2.2 scoreless innings. He struck out three, while walking none. In 2009, he put up nearly identical stats, pitching 4.0 scoreless innings, while striking out three. This time, he walked a batter, however. His WHIP for 2006 and 2009 were 1.50 and 1.00, respectively. Because of problems with his control, the manager of Team Japan, in 2009, elected to replace Fujikawa with Yu Darvish as the team's closer. Fujikawa still found a way to contribute, by sitting down with Darvish and giving him advice as to how to prepare for relief appearances, something Darvish had no experience with.
Here are his stats, thanks to Baseballcube.com:
Part I: Scouting Report
According to NPBtracker.com, Fujikawa possesses:
- A fastball that sits in the mid-90s, that tops out at around 97 MPH.
- A forkball that hovers around 85 MPH.
- A curveball that is thrown anywhere between 65 MPH and 80 MPH.
- A cutter that hovers around 85 MPH
Periodically, Fujikawa also throws a shuuto, and a slider, but he does not use these pitches very often.
Fujikawa is a prototypical power pitcher. He has a phenomenal K/9 rate, and this is due in part by the blazing fastball that he possesses. In Japan, his fastball is known as "Hi no tama sutorēto", which can be translated flowery as "fireball fastball". Besides for the pure speed it has, his fastball also has a lot of late, rising movement. In 2006, a television station in Japan, TV Asahi, did a study using high-speed cameras, and discovered that his fastball spun at 2700 RPM, 45 times per second- more than even the great Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose fastball at the time spun ‘only' 37 times per second. The same study also found that the axis of Fujikawa's fastball, relative to the trajectory to the plate, was only five degrees, as compared to Matsuzaka's 10, and the average pitchers' 30. Thus, according to the laws of physics, Fujikawa's fastball, if released from the exact same release point, thrown at the exact same target as the average pitchers', would cross the plate an entire foot (12 inches) higher, thus an explanation as to why it "rises" so much. Interesting stuff.
Here is a clip of Fujikawa pitching. His delivery isn't particularly unorthodox. The most striking feature of it is the three-second or so hitch after lifting his leg. From the stretch, his motion loses this feature. And, seeing that forkball and curveball in motion is pretty impressive, a lot more so than just reading and writing about it.
Part II: Costs
Kyuji Fujikawa, currently, is one of the NPB's elite closers, possibly even the best one there is currently. He isn't washed-up, and he isn't years away from his last known point of success. All signs point to him being a somewhat expensive import, at least in terms of posting price.
There are a few things that might count against him, and lower his price. For one thing, he is a relief pitcher. Only in Omar Minaya-land do relief pitchers make incredible sums of money. Most other baseball minds understand the concept that, regardless of how good a relief pitcher is, his value is stunted by the fact that he only appears in a limited amount of games. So, for this reason, I can't see Fujikawa being posted for massive sums of money, like Dice-K, Igawa, and former NPB players were. His ineffectiveness (albeit, in a small sample size) in the WBC might also work against him. The WBC used the Major League-regulation ball, and he seemed to have some trouble adjusting to it, to the point that it was affecting his ability to dominate as he had in Japan.
All things considered, I could very easily see Fujikawa posted for somewhere in the range of $10 to $20 million dollars. Since he's still fairly young, in terms of NPB talent coming to the MLB, I wouldn't be surprised if he wanted a deal that guaranteed him three years or so, at around $7 to $10 million dollars or so (probably a bit less, because of the aforementioned issues)- that's around what Brad Lidge, Jonathan Papelbon, Jose Valverde, and plenty of other closers are making. In the NPB, Fujikawa is better than all three, and if his talent translates into the MLB, he'd be worth that kind of money.
Part III: Conclusion
I would like the Mets to be serious contenders for Fujikawa, for the same reasons that I'd like the Mets to go after Chang-Yong Lim. In signing him, we'd be shoring up the bullpen, possibly adding a closer for the immediate post-Francisco Rodriguez years, and speaking of K-Rod, we'd be adding a bullpen piece that would be able to handle those high-leverage relief appearances that isn't him, meaning less games for Frankie to appear in, meaning the odds his option for that magical 3rd year activates, meaning all Mets fans exhale a sigh of relief.