Kyuji Fujikawa was the biggest name of four Japanese players to be granted free agency yesterday in hopes of signing with MLB teams before the 2013 season. I hadn't even heard of him until one of our readers sent us a message about it -- see, we do listen to your input! -- but after looking at his numbers, he looks like a great fit for the Tigers.
Who is he?
Fujikawa is a 32 year old right-hander who has spent the last six-plus seasons as the closer for the Hanshin Tigers -- oh, the parallels here -- in the Japanese League. His fastball typically sits between 92-94 mph, but can top out anywhere from 95-97 mph depending on which scouting report you find when you Google him. His numbers as a closer are pretty similar to those of Yu Darvish, the former Nippon Ham Fighter who finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting this season. Fujikawa was 26-18 with a 1.36 ERA and 202 saves in 369 2/3 innings since the start of the 2007 season.
Why should we care?
His peripherals are off the charts. He strikes out 12.4 batters per 9 innings while walking just 2.3 per 9 innings. His career WHIP is just 0.855 and he allowed an average of 10 runs per season (!) during his last six years in Japan. His numbers dipped a bit in 2012, but there's only so much complaining allowed when your closer goes 2-2 with a 1.36 ERA and saves 24 games. He pitched in 48 total games, but since he only allowed seven runs all season, I'm willing to bet that many of those appearances were in non-save situations. Another plus: he doesn't give up runs in situations that Jose Valverde normally would have.
Why should we stay away?
There's always a huge concern with Japanese players transitioning to the MLB, and we don't have much history to draw on for a bullpen guy like Fujikawa. Hideo Nomo is the only Japanese-born pitcher to have any sustained success in the majors, though Darvish may be joining that list in a few years. There are many other cautionary tales -- Kei Igawa comes to mind -- and generally the large contracts doled out to these guys are worth well more than their actual production. It's probably a safe bet to say that Fujikawa won't command Darvish's asking price, but I'd imagine that it will be more than the Tigers brass wants to spend on a closer next season.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It's fun to think so, but I doubt it. I'm less skeptical of Fujikawa's ability to translate to the American game after the seasons that both Darvish and Wei-Yin Chen had in 2012, but it's also tough to gauge whether a guy like Fujikawa can get outs in the majors without a decent secondary pitch -- seriously, I haven't found anything mentioning a slider, curveball, or changeup whatsoever. I doubt that the Tigers will start looking at Japanese players now after having success without dipping into Asia's ever-increasing talent pool, especially when there are other options available stateside.