By TED BAARDA
Last season, a few NPB relievers signed small MLB deals and ended up making an impact in the bullpens of playoff teams. Pierce Johnson (Padres) and Rafael Dolis (Blue Jays) both provided value to their teams on cheap contracts during last year’s shortened season. Each year it seems like a reliever or two comes from, or comes back from, overseas to make an impact. This year there are two potential relief options for teams to consider from Japan. Both are free agents, and thus are not bound by the rules of the posting system.
One good option came off the market when Robert Suarez decided to stay in the NPB for 2021. We’ll give a report on him at the end of this piece.
Hirokazu Sawamura – RHP – Chiba Lotte Marines
Hirokazu Sawamura had a rough start to the 2020 season for the Yomiuri Giants but after being traded to Chiba Lotte on September 8, he was able to find his strikeout stuff again and gave them 21 innings of 1.71 ERA ball down the stretch. A starter earlier in his career for the Giants, Sawamura had been essentially a one-inning bullpen arm since 2015.
Sawamura pitches exclusively from the stretch and releases his pitches from a high ¾ arm slot. He also incorporates a slide step with runners on base to help control the running game. Sawamura throws everything hard, with all of his pitches being thrown 90 MPH or above.
Sawamura throws a straight, mid 90s fastball that sits around 96 that he can locate well at the bottom of the zone. His primary secondary pitch is a low-mid 90s splitter, which has some late drop but doesn’t have a huge break due to the speed he throws it at. He does a good job of keeping the pitch down, either in or below the zone, and hitters regularly swing over it when it dips out of the zone. Splitters are difficult pitches to command, which is a factor contributing to Sawamura’s high walk rates.
His third pitch is a low 90s cutter with a short, late break that he tries to locate inside to lefties, or mix into righties when in a long at-bat. It is clearly his third pitch, as his control of the pitch is hit or miss and he can get under it and throw it above the zone at times.
Sawamura’s inconsistency could make teams hesitant to offer him a deal, but his stuff is comparable to fellow free agent Hansel Robles, who also relies on throwing a lot of hard splitters (admittedly Robles is a rough comp given his 2020 struggles). Like Robles, Sawamura likely could fit into a MLB bullpen in a middle relief role and attempt to work his way into higher-leverage situations if his performance merits it.
Spencer Patton – RHP – Yokohama DeNA Baystars
Spencer Patton has had a winding career, drafted in the 24th round of the 2011 Draft by the Kansas City Royals, pitching in parts of three MLB seasons with the Rangers and Cubs from 2014-2016, and finally ending up in Yokohama for the last four years.
While the results have not been there for Patton the last couple of years, his first two years in Yokohama were very promising, and he still features high strikeout rates.
Patton primarily comes after hitters with his fastball/slider combo from a ¾ arm slot. He pitches out of the windup with no runners on, not a common occurrence for a reliever, and features a high leg kick to power his delivery from the windup or stretch. He likes to work up with his four-seamer which will sit around 93-94 MPH, though if he misses he tends to miss up out of the zone altogether.
Patton’s slider sits in the high 80s and typically features some late drop to it. Patton locates the slider well to the outside corner to righties, and tries to run it in off the plate to lefties. He also features an occasional changeup that he will primarily throw away to lefties.
Patton will likely have to prove himself on a minor-league contract with a small salary if he returns to North America, given how his last two seasons have gone in Japan. It is hard to find a comp for Patton, as two-pitch relievers without elite velocity don’t have a long shelf-life in the Majors. To have sustained MLB success he may need to move towards using the slider as his primary pitch or develop another weapon. As he is now, he profiles as similar to Blake Taylor of the Astros (2.18 ERA in 20 2/3 IP but a 4.55 FIP in 2020).
Robert Suarez – RHP – Hanshin Tigers
Robert Suarez is likely the least known pitcher of the three in this article, but he is also likely the best and as such, he re-signed with the Hanshin Tigers. Suarez put together a great 2015 in the Mexican League and turned that into an opportunity with the SoftBank Hawks of the NPB.
In 53 2/3 innings in 2016 Suarez pitched to a 3.19 ERA for the Hawks, with strong peripherals to back his performance. He earned a spot on Team Venezuela in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, but got injured there and needed Tommy John Surgery. He put up unimpressive numbers the next two years with SoftBank before the team let him go.
Suarez signed with the Hanshin Tigers for the 2020 season, and with Hanshin losing both Pierce Johnson and Rafael Dolis to MLB teams there was a clear opportunity in their bullpen. When closer Kyuji Fujikawa struggled at the beginning of the season, and Suarez regained his control, the team handed him the closer role and he ran with it, collecting 25 saves in a shortened NPB season.
Suarez pitches exclusively from the stretch and attacks hitters with his high 90s fastball from a high ¾ arm angle. The fastball typically sits around 96 but he can run it up to triple digits on occasion. In addition to his great velocity, Suarez also gets some tailing action on his fastball, letting it run in on right handers and producing ground balls. He also features a splitter with some traditional tumbling action that he throws in the upper 80s, along with the occasional slider that will be slightly harder than the splitter with some sweeping action.
Suarez’s control was inconsistent early in the season, though he was still able to close out games. In the second half of the year his control took a big step forward, suggesting that he has returned to form following his injury. Throwing hard, inducing grounders, and limiting walks are three big keys for a successful bullpen arm. He profiles as similar to Jeurys Familia, and (like Familia) his ability to limit walks could determine how much success he has.