Kawakami Deserves an MLB Roster Spot

Kenshin Kawakami began the season in the Braves rotation, but by July injuries and ineffectiveness left him by the wayside. On Saturday, the Braves officially removed him from their 40-man roster, outrighting the 35-year-old righthander to AA Mississippi. With Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, and Kris Medlen all available, Kawakami didn’t appear to stand a chance of starting the season in the Braves’ rotation. Instead of using Kawakami out of the pen, the Braves will instead attempt to move him, most likely back to his homeland of Japan.

Kawakami is certainly capable of producing the kind of value that his $6.67 million contract calls for in the MLB. In nearly 250 MLB innings, Kawakami has struck out 164 batters (6 per 9) and walked 89 (3 per 9). He doesn’t have any particular struggles with hits (just over one per inning) or home runs (just over one per nine innings). Naturally, then, Kawakami has a roughly average 4.26 FIP and 2.5 WAR in his short Major League career. Despite the solid peripherals, though, Kawakami has had poor results. His ERA is only 4.32 but was an abysmal 5.15 in 2010, and in both seasons he just couldn’t rack up wins. 2009 saw a 7-12 record despite a sub-4.00 ERA, and not even a 5.15 ERA suggests a 1-10 record as happened in 2010.

As win-loss record is a team statistic, Kawakami shouldn’t be blamed for his poor marks in that ledger.┬ábut is there any reason for us to consider his ballooned 5.15 ERA as a warning sign? It doesn’t appear so, as his peripheral numbers were almost exactly the same. The main differences were typical signs of random variation: his BABIP increased and his LOB% percentage took a dive. Just from the numbers, there’s little reason to believe that Kawakami is a fundamentally different or worse pitcher. His fastball was down slightly but still hovered around 90 miles per hour, and his contact rates and batted ball rates were similar as well.

From the sounds of Mark Bowman’s report (linked in the first paragraph), the Japanese teams vying for Kawakami’s services are willing to take on some of the $6.67M owed by the Braves. That means that Kawakami won’t come free if a MLB team decides to jump in on the bidding. But there’s an exceeding chance that Kawakami will improve that team’s roster. CHONE projections suggest that Kawakami should be worth a win and a half above replacement. In that case, a team with exceptional need at SP or at a particularly critical point on the win curve should be willing to take on a large portion of Kawakami’s contract to add his talents to their roster.

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While I generally agree Kawakami could still be a serviceable pitcher, there are some signs that would indicate his rise in ERA is slightly justified. One thing I notice is that his LD% increased from 18.8% to 22.3%. If he’s giving up more hard hit balls, the increase in BABIP makes some sense.