Junichi Tazawa is a right-handed relief pitcher with the Boston Red Sox. A native of Yokohama,
Japan, he signed as a non-drafted free agent with the Red Sox on December 4, 2008. Prior to his career in MLB, he was an amateur pitcher in Japan. After graduating high school, he was not selected in the NPB draft and instead joined the Nippon Oil ENEOS in Japan’s Industrial League. He debuted with the ENEOS in 2005.
Tazawa played four seasons with the ENEOS. In his final season in 2008, he went 13-1 with a 1.02 ERA, 5 SV, 114 K in 113 IP over 21 G (11 GS).
During his first three seasons in MLB, Tazawa was used sparingly due to inconsistency and injury. He missed all of the 2010 season and part of 2011 after having Tommy John surgery in 2010. He has emerged from injury rehabilitation to become one of the most effective setup men in the league, with particularly strong performances in 2012 and 2013.
Career in Japan
Tazawa’s stellar 2008 season in the Industrial League drew the attention of teams in the NPB and MLB. The Industrial League is independent of the NPB and is made up of amateur players who have jobs with the corporations that sponsor the teams. Joining the Industrial League is a common practice among undrafted high school players in Japan.
In the industrial league, the most high profile games are all played during short-term tournaments throughout the year. Teams will treat these competitions like a playoff series, using their best players as often as needed to try and win the tournament title. A team’s top pitcher, like Tazawa, would normally throw a large amount of innings, both as a starter and reliever within a short period of time.
Following the end of the 2008 season, Tazawa expressed his desire to play in MLB and asked not to be selected by any of the teams in the 2008 NPB draft. He was believed by most experts to be a potential first round pick. However, the NPB teams complied with his request.
Controversy emerged when the NPB league office claimed Tazawa was off-limits to MLB teams, due to his amateur status. The NPB cited a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the two leagues. NPB conveyed that MLB had promised not to sign Japanese amateur players as part of this agreement. Officials in MLB maintained that the agreement in place did not prevent its teams from signing Japanese amateurs and that the agreement with the NPB only dictated the signing process of its professional players.
Under no obligation to the NPB, some MLB teams began negotiating with Tazawa. There were other teams, such as the Yankees, whose ownership chose to respect the wishes of NPB and did not pursue him. Ultimately, Tazawa signed with the Boston Red Sox prior to the 2009 season, making him just the third Japanese amateur to sign with an MLB team (Mac Suzuki, Kazuhito Tadano).
As a result of the Tazawa affair, the NPB passed a new regulation known as the “Tazawa Rule.” The rule states that high school players who refuse to enter the NPB Draft and elect to play overseas will not be eligible for the NPB draft for three years, if they return to Japan. College and Independent League players who go overseas must sit out two years.
Tazawa throws a fastball that averages between 93-95 mph, which tops out at 97 mph. He compliments the fastball with a splitter (86-88 mph) and a slow curveball (73-77 mph).
In 2009, Tazawa began his first MLB season with the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A Affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. He went 9-5 with a 2.57 ERA as a starting pitcher, and was named to the Eastern League All-Star team. He was also invited to the MLB Futures Game. Tazawa was then promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on July 27th.
After two starts with Pawtucket, he was called up to the Red Sox on August 7th, to replace released veteran John Smoltz. He made his MLB debut that night, pitching 1.2 innings in a 15 inning game against the Yankees. Tazawa took the loss after giving up the go-ahead homerun to Alex Rodriguez. He then started four games before being lost for the remainder of the season to a groin strain on September 21st. He finished the season 2-3 with a 7.46 ERA, 13 K, and a 2.053 WHIP in 25.1 IP for the Red Sox.
Tazawa experienced elbow tightness in his elbow during spring training of 2010. He told the Red Sox trainers he had pitched through tightness in the past, during his career in Japan. The Red Sox opted to get Tazawa examined by an orthopedist, who diagnosed him with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. He was shut down for the season and had Tommy John surgery in April 2010.
He began the 2011 season on the 60 day disabled list, before being sent to the minor leagues to complete his elbow rehabilitation. He returned to the Red Sox in September and appeared in just three games out of the bullpen.
In 2012, Tazawa began the season with Triple-A Pawtucket, but was called up the Red Sox on April 17th to replace Mark Melancon, who was struggling in the bullpen. Tazawa performed well in his first few outings and established himself as the Red Sox’ most consistent reliever by the end of the season. He went 1-1 with a 1.43 ERA, 45 K, and a 1.200 WHIP in 44 IP on the season.
Tazawa entered the 2013 season as a one of the top relievers in the Red Sox bullpen. He was briefly named the interim closer after injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, but was shifted into the setup man role with the emergence of fellow countryman Koji Uehara. By late July, Tazawa and Uehara had become an effective late inning combination for the Red Sox. Late in the season, Tazawa began struggling, particularly in appearances where he was asked to pitch over one inning. In September, Red Sox’ manager John Farrell announced Tazawa would not pitch over an inning in the post-season but would still maintain a key role in the bullpen. Tazawa finished the regular season 5-4 with a 3.16 ERA, 72 K, and a 1.200 WHIP in 68.1 IP. He was one of the Red Sox’ best strikeout pitchers with a 9.5 K/9 ratio.
Tazawa has been an integral part of a bullpen that has helped propel the Red Sox through the playoffs and into the World Series. Tazawa and relievers Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman, and Koji Uehara have combined for a remarkable 29.1 IP and just 2 ER.
Below are Tazawa’s 2013 postseason statistics with series opponents in parenthesis:
- ALDS (TB): 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 2 K, 0.429 WHIP, 2.1 IP, 4 G
- ALCS (DET): 1-0, 3.38 ERA, K, 1.500 WHIP, 2.2 IP, 4 G
- WS (STL): 0-0, 0.00 ERA, K, 0.000 WHIP, 0.2 IP, 2 G
- Total: 1-0, 1.59 ERA, 4 K, 0.880 WHIP, 5.2 IP, 10 G
At the age of 27, Tazawa has positioned himself to continue his successful career in MLB for the foreseeable future. After being passed over by the NPB out of high school, Tazawa appeared destined for obscurity for the remainder of his career. However, his hard work and persistence in the face of adversity has led him to MLB’s biggest stage. Pitching in the World Series, Junichi Tazawa is anything but obscure.
Photo credit: Boston Globe
Reference: ESPN.com, baseball-reference.com, NESN.com, NPBTracker, USAToday.com, nytimes.com, redsoxinsider.mlblogs.com