It’s been a rough month for Boston Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa, who has struggled on the hill going back to the end of July. The rough patch began on July 25 when the Japanese setup man allowed three runs on two hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning against the Tampa Bay Rays. Going into the outing having not pitched in five days, it was assumed to be just a matter of rust.
More recent performances have indicated the opposite. Tazawa has been less sharp, his command not as good and the numbers back it up. In his last 13 appearances, including that July 25 outing, he’s allowed nine runs (seven earned) on 14 hits and seven walks to 14 strikeouts over 12.1 innings. His ERA has jumped from 2.52 to 3.14 in that span and his WHIP from 1.194 to 1.316.
Tazawa’s outing on Monday night, in which he threw the eighth inning of the Sox 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, was another instance of the 28-year-old’s ineffectiveness of late.
Entering the inning with the Angels clinging to a one-run lead, Tazawa got into an 11-pitch battle with Chris Iannetta — Anaheim’s ninth batter — eventually walking him to lead off the inning. Then he fell behind Kole Calhoun before allowing a double off the wall in center. He intentionally walked Albert Pujols after striking out Mike Trout.
Putting three of the first four runners on in the eighth led to two runs, giving the Angels much-needed insurance and prevented any type of Sox rally. While there was some bad fortune involved — if Tazawa cleanly fields an infield dribbler by Howie Kendrick, he likely turns the 1-2-3 double play and gets out of the inning unscathed — the lights-out pitching in the late innings by Tazawa was what set up so many rallies in 2013. And it’s been his ineffectiveness of late that has prevented Red Sox rallies, most notably Monday.
The sudden drop in production from Tazawa has many searching for answers around the Red Sox. He doesn’t appear hurt. There’s been no dramatic drop in velocity. Boston pitching coach Juan Nieves believes hitters are beginning to jump on more fastballs early in the count to avoid splitters later on, as has been the chief issue faced by many Japanese hurlers.
So the jury is out on what exactly is causing Tazawa’s struggles that are going on a month in length. It could be as benign as a small rough patch or a blip on the radar.
One possible cause could be workload. Over the past two seasons, Tazawa has been the go-to guy in the Red Sox bullpen before the ninth inning. The Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series last season had it not been for his work in the seventh and eighth innings.
Tazawa comes from a culture of pitchers in Japan where the M.O. is throw, throw and throw some more. While Japanese starting pitchers haven’t translated to the American game, the relievers have. The ability to give close to 80 appearances and 75 innings in a 162-game season, taking the ball in the late innings and going out to make a few big outs is a role many Japanese pitchers have flourished in.
Tazawa is on a long list of such success stories in that role that includes teammate Koji Uehara, former Red Sox Takashi Saito and Hideki Okajima, Kaz Sasaki, Akinori Otsuka and Shigetoshi Hasegawa, among others.
Tazawa has been that workhorse going back to the start of 2012, his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010.
Since the start of the 2012 season, Tazawa has thrown 206.1 innings over 191 appearances, all but 42.2 of it coming on a major league mound. That innings output ranks fourth among all relievers over that period, trailing just Craig Stammen (233.2), Anthony Swarzak (226.2) and Adam Ottavino (212). His 191 appearances ties Steve Cishek and Randy Choate for 18th.
Since the start of last season — including the playoffs, in which he threw 7.1 innings, allowing just one run — Tazawa has made 142 appearances, tied with Uehara and St. Louis Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal for the lead among major leaguers, ranking 15th in innings pitched (127.1) over that stretch.
That’s quite the workload on any arm, and whether it’s made of rubber or glass, that catches up with everybody at some point. It might not be the very reason, but it’s certainly worth looking at.