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International Free Agent Profile: Chihiro Kaneko

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There is a possibility that, for the second year in a row, the reigning Eiji Sawamura Award winner might be posted. Can Chihiro Kaneko thrive in the United States, and if so, should the Mets look into adding the Orix Buffaloes' ace?

Not pictured: Chihiro Kaneko
Not pictured: Chihiro Kaneko
Koji Watanabe

Born on November 8, 1983, in Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture—the same birthplace of Japanese wrestling godfather Giant Baba—Chihiro Kaneko would rise from relative obscurity to become a giant himself, one of Japan's top pitchers in the late-2000s and early-2010s. The right-hander attended and graduated from Nagano Shogyo High School, but was not scouted or drafted by a professional baseball club. Because he did not attend college, he played in the industrial leagues and joined a team representing the Toyota Motor Corporation. After opening eyes with his performance, Kaneko was selected in the first round by the Orix BlueWave—one of the last moves the struggling franchise would make before merging with the Kintetsu Buffaloes to form the Orix Buffaloes.

The young right-hander spent all of the 2005 season and most of the 2006 season on the Buffaloes' ni-gun (secondary; minor league) team in the Western League. Kaneko made his NPB debut late in the 2006 season and went 1-1 with a 3.54 ERA in one start and twenty relief appearances. While he was effective, and his surface numbers seemed impressive, the youngster still had a lot of work to do, as he walked 18 batters, struck out 22, and allowed four home runs in his 28-inning cup of coffee.

The 2007 season was Kaneko's first real test, and the 23-year-old, affectionately called ‘Neko' by the fans, passed. Appearing mostly out of the bullpen (29 relief appearances, seven starts), the right-hander corrected the issue with free passes that had plagued him in his rookie season, walking 20 batters in 84 innings (compared to the 18 batters he walked in 28 innings the year before). His 2.79 ERA was fourth best on the team for relievers who appeared in thirty or more games. It became apparent that Kaneko had swing-and-miss stuff, and so the Buffaloes decided to transition him into the starting rotation for the 2008 season to maximize his value. Kaneko's workload was doubled that year, setting a then-career high of 165 innings. Though he was a bit hittable—second only to submariner Shunsuke Watanabe in hits allowed and former Mariners/Padres journeyman Brian Sweeney in home runs allowed—Kaneko's peripherals showed progress. Though his strikeout rate dropped slightly, his walk rate dropped a bit more, and as a result, his K/BB ratio rose from 3.4 to 3.7

The 25-year-old Kaneko had his first All-Star season in 2009. For the year, he posted a 2.57 ERA—good for fifth in the Pacific League, trailing only Yu Darvish, Hideaki Wakui, Masahiro Tanaka, and Toshiya Sugiuchi—in 171.2 innings, sixth-most in the league. Thanks to his increasing pitch control and deepening understanding of pitching strategy, the right-hander struck out nearly 40 more batters than he did in 2008, while walking the same number (38).

While his potential certainly was being realized, Kaneko showed the Japanese baseball establishment that he was not to be overlooked when, on Opening Day 2010, he took the hill against the Rakuten Eagles, opposite 2008 Sawamura Award winner Hisashi Iwakuma. To many Orix fans, Iwakuma was a turncoat and a traitor. He began his baseball career with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, one of Orix's predecessor teams, as a promising youngster. When the Kintetsu Buffaloes merged with the Orix Bluewave to form the Orix Buffaloes, Iwakuma refused to play for the new team, and was eventually "traded" to the newly formed Rakuten Eagles for cash. Kaneko got the better of Iwakuma in this matchup, as Orix won 1-0 on the strength of a four-hit shutout by Kaneko. That win would be the first of 17 for Kaneko that year, the most in the league. He ended the season with a respectable 3.30 ERA in 204.1 innings pitched, once again with impeccable command and swing-and-miss stuff.

Kaneko followed his 2010 campaign with another excellent year, though he was limited to just 20 starts. In 155.1 innings, he posted a 2.43 ERA, sixth among qualified Pacific League starters, behind only Masahiro Tanaka (1.27), Yu Darvish (1.44), Tsuyoshi Wada (1.51), Toshiya Sugiuchi (1.94), D.J. Houlton (2.29), and Hisashi Iwakuma (2.42). The Orix ace did not have much more luck staying on the field in 2012. Kaneko made only nine starts that year, limited to 63.2 innings thanks to an elbow injury.

The 29-year-old returned to the field healthy in 2013, and he came back with a vengeance. Kaneko started a career-high 29 games and pitched a career-high 223.1 innings. The results? A career-low 2.01 ERA with 200 strikeouts—the most in the league—and 58 walks, good for a roughly 4:1 K/BB ratio. Kaneko's 2014 season went almost exactly the same way. Starting 27 games and pitching 191 innings, Neko posted a 1.98 ERA, struck out 199 batters, and walked 42. This time, he also led the league in wins, with 16, and ERA, but narrowly missed winning the Triple Crown, as Takahiro Norimoto narrowly edged him out by a mere five strikeouts. Still, the Orix ace did more than enough to win the 2014 Sawamura Award, which many believe he should have won in 2013 instead of eventual-winner Masahiro Tanaka.

Because he was a well-regarded, young pitcher, Kaneko's name had always been in the periphery of yearly posting candidate discussions; these discussions reached a fever pitch in October, when Sponichi News reported that Kaneko had expressed interest to a team official earlier in the year in playing for an MLB club, hired Arn Tellem as his representative, and came to the U.S. to watch the World Series. According to the man himself, he never "thought about [playing for an MLB team] when I first turned pro, but with all the Japanese players going, I had more opportunities to watch games on TV. Reading articles about scouts coming to games also got me thinking about it... In speaking to various people. I don't think opportunities like this come around every year. If there is a chance, then it means that becomes an option in my mind. There was no one thing that got me thinking about it, it just happened over time." As reported by Sports Hochi, Kaneko added, "I will have to be posted if I am to go. But that doesn't mean I'm thinking that 100 percent right now. As luck would have it, there is the Japan-US games so I'll be able to face [Major Leaguers]. I would like to think things through again once that's over."

Year Age G/GS IP ERA FIP K BB
2010 26 30/29 204.1 3.30 3.07 190 44
2011 27 20/20 155.1 2.43 3.10 123 38
2012 28 9/9 63.2 2.40 2.56 56 15
2013 29 29/29 223.1 2.01 2.77 200 58
2014 30 27/27 191 1.98 2.25 199 42

Kaneko features a fastball that sits around the 90 mph mark. Blowing away hitters is not the right-hander's game. Instead, he relies on the plus movement of the pitch and his own control to get batters to get themselves out. In addition to the fastball, Kaneko throws a wide assortment of pitches, as is generally the norm across the Pacific. His arsenal includes a curveball, slider, shuuto, cutter, changeup, and splitter, the last pitching being one of his most potent. According to scouts, he does not have one stand-out, bona fide plus pitch, possessing instead an assortment of fringy-to-average pitches—good enough to put batters away with the proper strategies. Among those pitches, Kaneko has generally relied on the slider, splitter, and shuuto the most, and the curveball the least.

If Kaneko is not posted, the Buffaloes will look to re-sign their ace, as the Sawamura Award winner was one of 88 players to file for domestic free agency, having accrued eight years of service time for Orix. Though the Buffaloes are working to ink their long-time ace to a new deal, the talent-hoarding Yomiuri Giants are planning on making the right-hander an offer he can't refuse, according to rumors. The Buffaloes might have taken that into account, as information recently surfaced regarding some kind of side deal that would allow Kaneko to be posted based on his meeting certain performance-based benchmarks; and winning the Sawamura Award would seemingly be an easy catch-all indicator of excellence in most pitching categories.