Relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa is one of the more appealing names on the international free agent market. Could he be a fit for the Mets in 2013?
Kyuji Fujikawa was often rumored to be a candidate for posting, but he never was. After qualifying for international free agency during the 2012 season, he is no longer at the mercy of the Hanshin Tigers organization. His newly-hired agents Don Nomura and Arn Tellem recently confirmed Fujikawa’s intent to play in the Major Leagues in 2013.
The 32-year-old right-handed pitcher, who will turn 33 in July, was very good during this year. And last year. And the year before that. Well, suffice to say, Fujikawa has been an elite pitcher for a while now. During that eight-year timeframe, his 2.01 ERA in 2010 was his highest. He also posted his worst BB/9 rate at 2.87 and K/9 rate at 11.6.
In addition, Fujikawa is also very reliable. He has appeared in no fewer than 49 games since becoming a full-time reliever in 2005. Since then, he maxed out at 80 appearances in 2005, setting a Hanshin Tigers record. His stats over the last five years are as follows:
Fujikawa owes most of his success to his fastball. A few years ago, it sat in the mid-90s and topped out around 97 mph. Nowadays, it sits in the low-90s and tops out in the mid-90s. His average fastball velocity was 91.6 MPH this year, down from 91.9 MPH in 2011, 93.6 MPH in 2010, and 92.6 MPH in 2009.
Despite the slight decline, the results are still there. There are a few reasons for this: his increased use of the cutter and the slider in 2012, pitches that he rarely threw previously with any regularity, his plus fork and curveballs, and, well, the fact that he has physics on his side. In 2006, a scientific study on baseball was done by a TV station in Japan, and Fujikawa took part. His four-seam fastball was captured by slow motion cameras, which revealed that it rotated 45 times per second — eight more times than the average four-seam fastball. The cameras also found the spin axis of his fastball was tilted 5 degrees relative to its trajectory, a stark contrast to the average fastball, which the study found to spin on a 30 degrees relative to its trajectory. According to the Magnus Effect, the faster an object spins and the less it is tilted about its vertical axis, the more lift is created. The "rising" effect of Fujikawa’s fastball hampers batters.
There are a few red flags that would worry me in a theoretical pursuit of Fujikawa. First, and obviously, is the transition to the regulation baseball of MLB. In the study I did last year of NPB pitchers who transitioned to the MLB, a large group of them had considerable experience relieving in both Japan and the United States saw an increase in BB/9 and decrease in K/9.
In terms of Fujikawa, this would in and of itself simply result in more batters on the basepaths, and a K% that isn’t as high as it is in Japan. His pitching philosophy, which has garnered him so many strikeouts in Japan, might also be problematic in the United States. A large percentage of his strikeouts come on his fastball, which he likes to throw up in the zone, getting batters to chase. As one NL scout mentioned, "In the U.S., if you start throwing high, they'll wait for that high pitch… So he better start pitching low." The problem with Fujikawa pitching low is that, when he does so, he loses the rising action that makes his fastball a weapon, and the pitch suddenly becomes a rather generic fastball with little movement clocking in at the low-90s.
Does He Make Sense For The Mets?
In a world where money was not an issue, Fujikawa would be an interesting gamble. Younger than most other NPB relievers who have come to North America to play ball, he has more than a few years of putting up very good numbers in Japan, and he’s done so in important, high-leverage situations, to boot. This is both a boon and an issue. It means that he would likely be able to better mirror his NPB numbers than most other relievers who have come over to play in the MLB, but as a result, his asking costs will be higher. Fujikawa certainly isn’t going to make anything near Daisuke Matsuzaka or Yu Darvish money, but he’s not going to accept playing for the Major League minimum, either. Something in the $5 million range would not surprise me, and that kind of money on a relief pitcher — especially one who could be a bust — probably isn’t the best strategy for Sandy Alderson this winter. As such, courting Fukijawa really doesn’t make too much sense.