Bringing in players directly from Japan has not been the Phillies’ M.O. when it comes to roster construction. Though they are trying harder to be more a presence in Asia, the players from Japan that have played in Philadelphia have been acquired through other means. One could argue that trading for Tadahito Iguchi saved the Phillies from missing the playoffs in 2007 when Chase Utley went down to injury. So Taguchi had mostly a forgettable tenure here, but he word #99! That’s always fun.
Rumors swirled this offseason that the team was going to make their first foray into the posting waters when Yoshinobu Yamamoto was made available, but signing Aaron Nola, along with rumors of Yamamoto receiving close to $250 million, has likely squashed that dream for good. If the Phillies wish to add a player from Japan, they’ll likely have to continue with the free agency route for now. And it just so happens that a player from Japan fits the team as an under the radar relief option they might want to explore.
To say Shintaro Fujinami’s initial exposure to MLB was a spectacular failure would be an understatement. Signed to modest fanfare in Oakland, Fujinami put up such horrendous numbers as a starter, the team was forced to move him to the bullpen after only four starts. That’s what a 14.48 ERA, a 12:12 BB:K rate and 24 runs allowed in 15 innings will get you. Once moved to the bullpen, things got a little better for him (6.09 in 39 1⁄3 IP in a bullpen role), but still not good enough to keep on the roster. When the Orioles came calling to acquire him at the trade deadline, the A’s bit and let him go. In Baltimore, it got better still, but the control issues that plagued him continued and he was let go once 2023 ended. Under the hood, there are reasons to like Fujinami and reasons why the Phillies might consider him.
It starts with the fastball
Consider how the Phillies have assembled their bullpen lately. One of the things they have focused on has clearly been velocity as they have three pitchers who rank in the 95th percentile for fastball velocity (Dominguez, Alvarado, Soto), one that is a tic below at the 92nd percentile (Hoffman) and one that will join those upper echelon ranks once he has thrown enough pitches to qualify (Kerkering). Fujinami’s fastball would fit right in with this group in terms of sheer power, his 98.4 MPH average velocity putting him in the 97th percentile of the game. It’s a good base on which to build a solid reliever.
Cutters and sweepers and splitters, oh my
Fujinami has shown with his arsenal that he is able to at least show a cutter and/or sweeper, something that would appeal to Caleb Cotham. While his splitter is his main secondary pitch by pitch percentage, having these other two pitches at his disposal thanks to needing a starter’s repertoire gives Cotham something work with. We had multiple instances of pitchers on the Phillies last year incorporating their version of the sweeper in their personal arsenals, first with Zack Wheeler, then with Michael Lorenzen once he arrived from the Tigers in a deal. If it’s not the sweeper the team is working with, it’s a cutter, a point of emphasis throughout the organization since the 2023 spring training began. It’s in this article by Matt Gelb where we can see a bit more why the team might want Fujinami, the cutter and sweeper being part of the reason.
Cotham has a hunch that the days of the two-pitch reliever are fading. It’s why most of the pitchers the Phillies have tinkering with cutters are relievers...“Let’s just talk a little more about building options to compete in the zone,” Cotham said, “rather than competing at 15 different spots with two pitches.”
If a pitcher is able to have more pitches at his disposal, that makes him more appealing as a reliever to the Phillies. Fujinami is not a two-pitch reliever, which tweaks that interest a bit higher.
Now, are those pitches all that good? Depends. If one places a run value on it like Baseball Savant does, his cutter was decent (3) while his sweeper needs some work (-2). Both pitches rank towards the bottom of the percentiles when it comes to their horizontal and vertical movement, but this is where a pitching coach would come in, tweaking grips and creating better pitch design to get more out of the pitches.
There are downsides
As with any free agent, particularly relievers, there are pitfalls to having them on the roster. with Fujinami, the first and most obvious pitfall is clear to spot: he has little to no control over his arsenal. When he started the season with four starts in Oakland where he lasted only a total of 15 innings and gave up 12 walks, he was one of only seven starting pitchers this season who completed such a ignominious feat. The rate at which he gave up walks got better once he became a full time reliever, but it still wasn’t good.
Another thing to consider is why with such a widespread assortment of pitches did he start to see such heavy dips in his whiff rate as the season moved forward.
When it comes to players coming over from Japan, there has to be a fatigue factor to consider in any equation. Everything they do in MLB is different than in NPB, which can contribute to players sometimes hitting a wall physically. This could be an underlying cause to why these numbers dropped, but what’s odd is that at the same time his whiff rate dropped, his xwOBA dropped around the same time.
One might think that going from the A’s to the Orioles is a case of going from a bad defense to a better one, but that isn’t true, at least according to OAA. The Phillies’ defense ranks ahead of both Oakland and Baltimore, so he could also get a boost there.
The overarching point here is that Fujinami might be a project the team decides to hand over to Cotham. With the kind of numbers he put up last year, he shouldn’t command more than a minor league deal or a very cheap one-year deal at best. If he works out, the team has another find on their hands at very little cost. If at any point he tanks, he can be sent on his merry way without denting the overall financial outlook. It might be worth looking into.