Junichi Tazawa is satisfied with his current role. Sort of. The 28-year-old set-up specialist would rather start or close, but he’s comforted by the knowledge that outs in the seventh and eighth innings can be every bit as valuable as outs in the ninth. And he gets a lot of them. Tazawa made 71 appearances for the Red Sox this season and logged a 2.86 ERA over 63 innings.
His job isn’t simple. Along with frequently facing high-leverage situations, he doesn’t have one designated inning. Tazawa pitched in the eighth inning 45 times this year, and 16 times in the seventh. He also made appearances in the sixth, the ninth, and in extra frames.
Further impacting Tazawa’s preparation has been his usage relative to the scoreboard. He entered 29 games with the Red Sox trailing. On 28 occasions he entered with a lead.
“My job doesn’t really depend on whether we’re winning or losing,” acknowledged Tazawa, through translator C.J. Matsumoto. “There is the possibility I will get into either situation, so I’m looking at the pitch count and trying to get my blood flow going. I need to be able to step right in there.”
One of the questions I asked Tazawa at season’s end was whether his ready-at-any-time role is more challenging mentally or physically.
“I would say that it’s more taxing mentally,” responded Tazawa. “It’s not easy to not know, but preparing with uncertainty is part of being a middle reliever. That’s a significant part of it. I know I probably won’t be pitching three games in a row, but I have to be mentally prepared at all times.”
The native of Yokohama, Japan did get called upon to pitch three games in a row this year, albeit only on three occasions. On 20 occasions he pitched in back-to-back games. His busiest months were May and August, when he made 15 appearances.
Accentuating his workload is the fact it came on the heels of a 2013 season that stretched to the end of October. Counting the postseason, Tazawa made 84 appearances. It’s what he brought up when I asked him to rate this year’s performance.
“I think most of the concerns about me were that I pitched a lot of innings last year,” answered Tazawa. “They thought there might be some kind of drop off, but I think I was able to prove I had the endurance to pitch the whole season without that. There wasn’t a big difference in my numbers. I’m satisfied in that regard.”
As for satisfaction regarding his under-appreciated and under-compensated [$1.275 million last year] role, let’s just say he understands the concept of leverage.
“I don’t feel I have to be a closer to prove that I’m a good pitcher,” said Tazawa. “There are a lot of important outs in the middle innings. I understand what the pressure is like being a closer, trying to finish the game off, but there are situations where getting a crucial out in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning can be a turnaround in the momentum. I like my job. I know people don’t think much of middle relievers, but I feel there is a lot of significance there.”
He won’t admit it – at least not publicly to American reporters – but he’d prefer to be a starter. According to a Japanese source, Tazawa will embrace the opportunity if it is ever presented. He broke into the big leagues as a starter and a chance to return to that role could be a selling point when he becomes a free agent in 2017. Until that time, he’ll humbly do what’s asked of him.
“I would be able to build up the endurance to be a starter,” said Tazawa. “But I feel that I owe this team a lot. They stuck with me through the hard times — the injury and [Tommy John surgery in 2010] – so I’ll do whatever they feel I can do best.”
Relievers often leave their best efforts in the bullpen. In some cases, it’s because they pitch poorly after entering the game. In other cases, they warm up but are never used. It happens a lot and bullpen coaches monitor such occurrences for a reason: When it comes to keeping arms fresh and healthy. unused bullets are still bullets spent.
“You can’t discount the getting-hot factor,” explained Minnesota Twins closer Glen Perkins, who typically needs 25 pitches to get ready. “It’s important to realize relievers don’t come into the game every time they’re up. It’s basically a dry hump, because they end up not needing you.”
Pitchers don’t throw with game-level intensity in the bullpen, but the effort is enough to tax arms. Like most relievers, Perkins increases the intensity as he warms.
“My normal routine is throw 16 pitches at between 50 and 70 percent [effort] and then another seven to 12 pitches with more intensity,” said Perkins. “Of course, you don’t always know exactly how much time you have. It could be an inning that goes on and on – maybe there are mound visits or something else drags it out – so you’re warming up and warming up.”
Save for short stretches here and there, Billy Butler never really warmed up this year. The same can be said for last year. For whatever reason, the 28-year-old Kansas City Royals DH is a little like the old gray mare – he ain’t what he used to be. From 2009-2012, Butler’s OPS ranged between .822 and .882. Two seasons ago it was a plodding .787. This year it plummeted to .702.
Does he miss Kevin Seitzer, and has a lack of continuity contributed to his struggles?
Following the 2012 season, the Royals fired Seitzer as their hitting coach and replaced him with Jack Maloof, assisted by Andre David. The duo lasted all of two months into the 2013 season before they were replaced by George Brett and Pedro Grifol. Two months later, Brett stepped down. That left the job to Grifol, who retained it until late May of this year. Dale Sveum then became the club’s fifth hitting coach in less than two years. That’s a lot of voices.
Judging by his offensive output, the voices in Billy Butler’s head have been a cacophony. Country Breakfast has been a shell of his old self since Seitzer was replaced by a revolving door.
I asked Butler if the changes have had an impact on his performance.
“Hitting is one of those crazy things you really can’t explain sometimes,” Butler told me during the ALCS. “We were just having a tough time and our hitting coach got let go. Pedro is a great guy – a tremendous baseball man – but it was just one of those things where everybody was doing so bad there had to be a change. Unfortunately it came at his expense.”
Grifol was only one of several voices. According to Royals announcer Steve Physioc, Brett frequently referenced Charlie Lau and “was more about confidence and energy.” Grifol was “more about video and information that wasn’t available when Brett played.” Sveum’s primary message is “to hunt pitches high in the zone and spit on low pitches.”
Were different voices conveying different messages?
“There’s been no change with that,” Butler told me. “It’s been pretty much the same, it’s just that sometimes you need change.”
Butler was among the least-productive designated hitters in the American League this season. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Victor Martinez. The Tigers stalwart hit .335/.409/.565 and would be a legitimate contender for MVP honors if his old catcher’s mitt caught baseballs and not mothballs.
I asked Tampa Bay pitching coach Jim Hickey why V-Mart is such a dangerous hitter.
“What really stands out for me about Victor is the way he stays through the ball,” said Hickey. “His swing is flat and kind of long – he stays through it – a little like Robinson Cano. Even if he’s fooled and out in front, the bat stays through the hitting zone long enough that he still has a chance to do some damage.”
Victor Martinez isn’t known for snappy quotes, but he had a good one after Game 1 of the ALDS. He said the following about Orioles righthander Chris Tillman, against whom he’d homered and struck out.
“Man, you know what? This guy is so tall, man. When he throws the ball it pretty much feels like he’s going to slap you in the face.”
Matt Wieters had a less-snappy, but more-insightful, comment on the 6-foot-5 hurler. The injured backstop was addressing a question about Tillman’s success in holding runners.
“I think he actually feels the quicker his tempo is, the better it makes his delivery. That’s a good thing. Feeling that speeding yourself up makes you have better mechanics is good for a pitcher’s mindset.”
From Peter Gammons’ October 13, 1996 Sunday Notes column in the Boston Globe:
“Barry Bonds is angry about the way his father was fired as hitting coach and wants out of San Francisco. Barry feels his father was the scapegoat for a bad team and it’s time to move on… The question is whether anyone can give the Giants what they want, namely, three major league players. The Marlins inquired, but the Giants started their asking with Edgar Renteria and Luis Castillo, whom Florida won’t trade.”
A few factoids via Bill Chuck of Gammons Daily:
The Rockies led the majors fouling off 4,360 pitches.
The Royals were the only team to take under 200 called third strikes, while the Astros were the only team to take over 400 called third strikes.
Royals batters led the majors with two strikes in the count at .194.
More factoids (not via Chuck): On this date in 2002, Tsuyoshi Shinjo of the San Francisco Giants became the first Japanese-born player to appear in the World Series. One year later, also on October 19, Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees became the first Japanese-born player to hit a home run in the World Series.
Buck Showalter is on the short list for Manager of the Year. Ditto Dan Duquette for Executive of the Year. The duo deserves a lot of of credit for the Orioles’ success. In Showalter’s opinion, their predecessors do as well.
Showalter’s use of the word “we” stood out when I interviewed him in September, and again during his postseason press conferences. Something he said during the ALCS suggests his “we” doesn’t totally discount two people no longer in the organization.
“Dave Trembley and the people before me took a lot of bullets to get some things right,” said Showalter. “I’m sure Dan feels the same way about Andy MacPhail, who did a lot of quality things. You take what they started and try to advance it forward.”
The organization certainly did that, and it’s commendable that their manager isn’t trying to bake all of the credit into a pie and share it with his current boss. Kudos to Showalter for acknowledging that MacPhail and Trembley helped lay the groundwork.
An event you’ve likely never heard of is taking place today in the small town of Trenary in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For the 60th consecutive year, “The Potato Auction” will pay homage to the most famous catch in World Series history: Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder grab of a 460-foot blast by Vic Wertz at the Polo Grounds.
The tradition started with a bar bet. Neither of the imbibers was a fan of the Giants or Indians, but each had a strong opinion of which team would prevail. How strong? They agreed the loser of the bet would push a wheelbarrow of potatoes from U.S. Highway 41 to the saloon they were sitting in, a distance of three-quarters of a mile.
The gentleman who favored the Indians – a team that won 111 games in the regular season – didn’t welch on the bet. He pushed the wheelbarrow and upon his arrival the contents were auctioned off. The proceeds went to drink, but every year since, the beneficiary has been the town’s Little League program.
Six decades later, a wheelbarrow is still pushed, although the event now precedes the World Series to coincide with the area’s harvest season. Local residents – Trenary’s population is approximated 400 – augment the wheelbarrow-load by donating a variety of items from their gardens. A curiously-shaped carrot can fetch a pair of sawbucks.
A lot of adult beverages are consumed during the event, but not the 1997 bottle of homemade wine that is auctioned off annually. The bottle, which generally reaps around $100, remains unopened and is donated back every year.
To my knowledge, Willie Mays is unaware of this 60-year-old small-town tradition. Nor are Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval, each of whom would look absolutely smashing in the auctioneer’s sombrero. They should be. This is Americana at its unique best.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.