Bryan Mauro-Contributing Writer (@threecolorbeard)
What can be said about Junichi Tazawa? Enigma? Sure. Exciting? Sure. Inconsistent? Definitely! We have come a long way since the 2013 World Series. A year in which, as you all remember, the Red Sox won the World Series and had one of the most dominant back ends of the bullpens in baseball. Now, let’s fast forward to 2016.
This year, brought a Junichi Tazawa that we have not seen before. He has looked uncomfortable all year. He has not seemed to be able to get a grasp of any of his pitches. His patented split finger fastball has become a sure ball, because he can’t get enough on velocity on it for the pitch to be effective. The normal strike throwing, ground ball inducing setup man of old is gone. Why? Is it a mechanical flaw? Is his shoulder still bothering him? Or, is it something else entirely?
Let’s start with the shoulder. As any Red Sox fan knows, Tazawa was placed on the disabled list right before the All Star game with what was said to be a sore shoulder. He was activated shortly after the All-Star break. Phantom injuries in baseball for guys who are overworked or slumping are a common practice. I figured this was just a case of the same. Now, watching Tazawa pitch, I am not so sure there was not more to this. When you watch him, you will notice that his velocity is down and he is less reliant on his splitter, because he can’t get enough on it for the pitch to ever be a strike. The velocity is the most telling sign of an arm problem for most pitchers, as well as not being able to get a feel for a finesse pitch like the splitter. Tazawa, no matter the situation, was always at 94, the most consistent velocity in the bullpen. Not anymore.
Another telling sign of arm trouble is the newfound wildness of Tazawa. As I mentioned, he is having a hard time getting a feel for his pitches. Sure, it could be a mechanical flaw, but for the sake of argument let’s say he is hurt. When your arm is hurt, or you feel a pinch or tingle, it’s very hard to get a grip on the ball. Tazawa has been bouncing almost every splitter he throws lately. I have no idea where his fastball is going and neither does he.
There is one thing I have noticed in Tazawa’s delivery that could be a mechanical flaw, but it also could be a telltale sign that he is still hurt. He seems to be short arming the ball when he is throwing. He is not completing his follow through and his front toe is ending pointing at the visitor’s dugout. Pitching is a complicated thing with many moving parts. If one of those functions of a pitcher is off by a miniscule amount, it could lead to throwing strikes and throwing balls, or in Tazawa’s case, bouncing the ball. It also could mean that he is hurt and trying to throw in a way in which he puts the least amount of tension on his shoulder. Due to Tazawa’s shoulder, and whatever this little flaw is that needs to be tweaked, he has lost complete confidence on the mound. It’s almost like he has forgotten how to pitch.
The thing that made Tazawa so unique in the previous seasons was his wonderful pitch selection. He could throw three pitches for strikes and stayed out of the middle of the plate. The pitch selection for Tazawa is something that has been bothering me this whole year. He has consistently gotten behind hitters this year and then instead of keeping the hitters guessing, he throws fastballs in fastball counts. The problem is those fastballs are usually right over the middle of the plate. If Tazawa happens to get ahead in the count, and can keep the hitters guessing, he is still throwing his fastball. Previously, his fastball had a natural run and a little bit of a cutting action. Not so this year. This year, it’s as straight as an arrow.
Photo Cred: Adam Kaufman
We all got a firsthand look at Tazawa’s pitch selection in his last outing against the Rays. He came into the game with the bases loaded and two outs. He was facing Logan Forsythe. He threw him a beautiful splitter, one that actually was a strike this time, and then he followed it up with a nice fastball down and away. The next pitch was a ball. This is where it gets very confusing as to what he was thinking. Forsythe looked utterly confused at the plate, as he had no idea what to expect with the next pitch. Usually when that happens, the hitter will just sit on a fastball. Tazawa could have thrown anything as long as it was a strike. Instead, Tazawa decided that he would throw a fastball, a fastball that went right down the middle of the plate and was hit for a two run single up the middle. The old Tazawa would have thrown a curveball or a splitter.
The Red Sox will need Tazawa going forward. The bullpen is not strong enough for one of their most talented pitchers to be bad. If Tazawa is hurt, which is kind of what I suspect, he needs to tell someone so the Red Sox can fill the void. I am hoping with the recent call of Joe Kelly, he can step up and be that guy. I think I can speak for all of the Red Sox Nation in saying that none of us are ready to watch another Tazawa implosion like the one he had against the Tigers. For the first time in many years, Tazawa might have to fight and earn his roster spot come spring training next year.