Brian Falkenborg. Now, I bet that's not a name you expected to read in a ‘Scouting the NPB' article. But, the 32-year-old right-hander is currently a relief pitcher for Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, and is set to become a free agent after the 2010 NPB season, making him eligible for MLB teams to sign him, if they are interested.
Falkenborg has been in baseball for 14 years now, and he has bounced up and down between AAA and the Major Leagues for his entire career. One might say that he is the quintessential AAAA ballplayer- good enough to earn repeated cups of coffee in the Major Leagues, but not good enough to ever stick on a MLB roster. At the end of the 2008 season, a season where Falkenborg spent time with the San Diego Padres, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and their AAA affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s (Ha, Area 51- I get it. Area 51 is in New Mexico, though, so, what's up with that?), he signed a two-year contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, seeking to perhaps find the success in baseball that eluded him in the ‘States.
He certainly found it in Japan. In 2009, serving as a middle-reliever and set-up man, Falkenborg had a tremendous season. He posted a 1.74 ERA in 46 games (51 innings pitched), striking out 62, and walking 9. That translates into a K/9 rate of 10.80, and a BB/9 rate of 1.57. His WHIP was a miniscule 0.93, and, more impressive, he allowed 0.17 home runs per nine innings- in other words, a single home run the entire year. His success continued in 2010, where he posted a sterling ERA of 1.00, in 60 games (62 innings). Data concerning his BB/9 rate, I could not find, but he did strike out 83 batters for the year, giving him a K/9 rate of 12.05. I do not believe that is a typo, or mathematical error, based on the fact that he struck out 145 in 113 innings, over 2009 and 2010. He was rewarded with a well-earned trip to the NPB All-Star Game, for all his efforts, in 2010.
Here are his stats, thanks to Baseballcube.com:
Part I: Scouting Report
According to NPBtracker.com, Falkenborg possesses:
- A fastball that sits between 90 and 95 MPH, that sometimes tops out around 97 MPH.
- A forkball that is thrown around 85 MPH.
- A curveball that generally hovers between 75 and 80 MPH.
Falkenborg also occasionally throws a slider, and changeup, but utilizes them so rarely that they should not be considered part of his pitching repertoire.
Here is a video of his pitching style while with the SoftBank Hawks. Given that he didn't learn baseball in Japan, it seems fairly non-descript and average for those of us used to MLB baseball.
During his career in the MLB, Falkenborg was mainly a fastball-curveball pitcher. He threw his fastball 66.2% of the time over the course of his career, and his curveball 23.8% of the time. He possessed a splitter (similar to the forkball), having developed it in 2007 with the Cardinals (credit Dave Duncan?), but threw it sparingly, 4.9% and 3.5% of the time in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Arguably, the further development of his splitter into a forkball, is one of the reasons for the success he has had in the NPB.
Part II: Costs
The biggest question surrounding Falkenborg is whether or not he is legit or not. In other words, is he a Colby Lewis- a marginal MLB pitcher who went to Japan, found what he needed to find, and continued that success upon returning to the MLB- or one of numerous other marginal players who, upon returning to the United States after finding success in Japan, reverted to their previous forms, which caused them to leave for Japan in the first place.
Falkenborg didn't have success in the MLB, by any definition of the word success. After a quick cup of coffee with the Orioles in 1999, he bounced around the Minor Leagues until 2004, when the Dodgers gave him a shot. He wasn't particularly effective there, in San Diego, or St. Louis. His net WAR for his entire MLB career is -0.4, with his best season being 2006, where he was worth 0.1 WAR out of the eventual World Series Champions' bullpen. His strikeout rate was always pretty decent- a career 7.37 K/9- but his BB/9 rate was atrocious- 4.28 walks per nine innings. He really improved his BB/9 rate in Japan, however. His 1.57 rate for 2009 (and likely impressive numbers in 2010) is more than around 50% better than the best BB/9 numbers he put up in Japan. To his credit, batters in Japan generally hit to contact, and are somewhat harder to strike out than the Ryan Howard/Mark Reynolds types that exist in the MLB, so whatever he changed to improve his control might be a legitimate thing that upped his game.
As a relief pitcher, he's not going to be make millions of dollars, and command a contract long enough that he'd wear out his welcome not very long into it- being an international player, he does not get posted, so no posting fee is necessary. When there are numerous average-to-slightly-above-average middle relievers on the market at any given time, why would a guy with so many question marks command a lot of bargaining power? At most, I'd offer him a contract for the minimum possible, and give him a chance to make the team in Spring Training. I wouldn't go out of my way to do so, however.
Part III: Conclusion
While comeback stories about players departing to Japan to find their mojo are always nice (again, Colby Lewis, and Matt Murton immediately come to mind), I really don't see much of a reason to target Falkenborg. As I said in the last paragraph, average-to-slightly-above-average middle relief pitchers are a dime a dozen, so to speak. The Mets' bullpen, this off-season, isn't terrible, and in need of a complete overhaul, so I really don't see the team much in the market for relief pitchers. If he were a left-handed pitcher, I think he would be more of an interesting option, with the possibility of Pedro Feliciano being granted Type A free agent status, and theoretically signing with another team, leaving the Mets, more or less, without a LOOGY in a league with a very strong left-handed power presence (hello middle-of-the-order Philadelphia).