The Best Reliever Available Might’ve Pitched in Japan

Dennis Sarfate is now 36 years old, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since 2009. In terms of just the general profile, fans of every team have experience with their own Dennis Sarfates. It’s maybe the most familiar reliever profile there is: hard-throwing righty who doesn’t throw strikes. Most of the time, those pitchers don’t blossom. When they’re in the minors, they’re viewed as future closers, but the strikes never come, and they bounce around on waivers. They get replaced. There are always replacements.

Sarfate blossomed. He didn’t do it in the majors, nor did he do it with a major-league affiliate. You might argue that Sarfate blossomed quietly. But in fact, that would reflect a biased perspective, because Sarfate went and became a dominant reliever in Japan. Sarfate was so good he was just voted as his league’s MVP, and although it’s not often the true MVP works out of a bullpen, the results send a message. Pitching in another league, Sarfate has turned into something overwhelming. He set Japan’s single-season record for saves, and he worked three innings in the decisive game of the championship. I used to make fun of Sarfate, when I was younger and he was bad. Sarfate now has maximized his talent. He might be the best reliever available.

That statement comes with an asterisk. Is Sarfate actually available? He’s still under contract with Fukuoka. And although players frequently look to return home from overseas, Sarfate would have to be posted.

I don’t have any inside information. Neither does Google. I’m not sure what Sarfate wants. On the one hand, he clearly fits in, and he’s gotten comfortable after spending several years in another country. On the other hand, he might now want the challenge of the majors one more time, after accomplishing just about all there is to accomplish in the NPB. Big-league teams are interested, meaning big-league money is out there, so this could be a coin flip. I’ve heard of no new developments. It’s been all Shohei Ohtani, all the time.

So maybe Sarfate won’t become available after all. He and Fukuoka might elect to have him play out his deal. In that event, Sarfate still deserves some measure of FanGraphs statistical acknowledgment. Whether or not Sarfate indeed comes over, let’s take a few minutes to recognize how he’s developed.

Even way back when he was in the majors, Sarfate was known for his lively fastball. It was the lively fastball that got him a handful of jobs. I could track down only so much video, but here are a bunch of Dennis Sarfate fastballs, presumably from the most recent season.

Here’s one of them in particular, selected for no good reason. I just wanted to give you video in a slightly different format.

That one is maybe an exception, in that it’s down around the knees. If you watch the longer video of fastballs above, you see an assortment around the belt and the letters. Sarfate still brings the high heat, and here’s some evidence that he can throw pitches at 96 miles per hour.

I was surprised by how little video I could find. I couldn’t find any video of Sarfate throwing a non-fastball. But he has two other pitches, and, more than that, he even credits them for boosting his development along. He credits his other pitches, and he credits his former catcher for calling for them.

He often credits former Hawks catcher Toru Hosokawa with assisting his transformation from basically just a fastball pitcher into someone who threw all he had at you.

Sarfate said Hosokawa challenged him to throw first-pitch forkballs, throw two of them in a row, throw his curve when behind in the count.

Sarfate has repeated this pretty often, and here’s a little more detail, from 2015.

“I had it (the splitter), guys just never called it,” Sarfate said. “The Carp and the Lions, (Yoshiyuki) Ishihara and Ginjiro (Sumitani), great catchers, they just loved me throwing fastballs.

“Toru was the one who pushed me to think outside the box and start guys off first-pitch split for a strike, start guys off curveball, maybe even throw two splits in a row and then a heater,” Sarfate said. “He just made me a better pitcher, where now I can throw stuff that I want in different counts.”

It took some time, but Sarfate learned how to keep hitters off balance. It makes sense that his earlier catchers in Japan would’ve fallen in love with his heater; there aren’t very many pitchers in NPB who throw so hard. Still, any pitcher would be better by avoiding predictability. Sarfate the one-pitch pitcher turned into Sarfate the three-pitch pitcher, and when a hard-throwing reliever can throw two or three pitches for strikes, there’s not a whole lot that can get in his way.

Sarfate has also polished his own motion. Here’s a still I found from almost a decade ago.

And Sarfate from 2017:

He’s no longer so upright, and as you can see from the glove hand, Sarfate doesn’t fly open so much. I wish that I could find more images, to offer more support, but it’s out of my hands. And if I’m going to be honest with you, the big story is about the numbers, anyhow.

Sarfate throws hard. He has multiple pitches, and his mechanics look better. Just won the league MVP, as a closer. Yet it’s the stats that make the strongest case. I don’t have access to more detailed information, but I can show you strikeouts, walks, and home runs. The core components, in other words, of FIP. For the following plot, I’ve divided Sarfate’s own rates by each year’s league-average rates. What you see, therefore, are ratios. Sarfate went over to Japan in 2011.

As the home runs show, Sarfate has never been easy to slug, but I’d like to draw your attention to the red line, and then, especially, to the blue line. Sarfate has always been good for a better-than-average strikeout rate, and he’s had a few seasons with a ratio at or around 2.0. This most recent year’s ratio was 2.2 — Sarfate’s strikeout rate was more than twice the average. But then watch as the blue line drops, and drops, and drops. Sarfate’s chronic wildness has simply disappeared. In 2014, his walk rate was right on the average. In 2015, it was about two-thirds the average. In each of the last two years, it’s been about half the average. The league-average walk rate has been a little above 8%; Sarfate’s walk rate has been a little above 4%. Most recently, every single thing has come together.

Sarfate has been great every single year except 2012, when he had a hernia. In the past three seasons, Sarfate has reached still another level. In 2015, Sarfate finished first in Japan among all pitchers in K-BB%, and he was first by more than 11 percentage points. In 2016, he finished second, by just about one percentage point. And in 2017, he got back to first, with a gap of about six percentage points. And the runner-up was six percentage points better than the pitcher in third. Pitching is about more than just strikeouts and walks, but, by strikeouts and walks, Sarfate has been so dominant that you don’t even need to think about anything else. Over three years, he’s allowed 101 hits and 32 runs in 193 innings.

I don’t want to say there’s nothing left for Dennis Sarfate to do in Japan. There are new records to set, and he seems to love his city, his setting, and his teammates. If Sarfate prefers to remain where he is, he’ll go into next year as the best relief pitcher in the country. If, however, Sarfate would like to give the majors a go, he might be granted that permission, and, honestly, I don’t know why he wouldn’t be successful against major-league opponents. Everything appears to be in place, from the heat to the health to the secondary stuff. Sarfate hasn’t just beaten Japanese hitters. He’s rendered them almost totally helpless, and Japanese hitters are good. Many of them could probably play in the States. Statistically, Sarfate has been as good as it gets.

Should he end up posted, there ought to be a frenzy. I don’t know if Sarfate will ultimately become available. If he does, he could help every single team. He could be the best relief pitcher on the market.

UPDATE: Courtesy of Daniel Brim, I’ve learned that Fukuoka is opposed to the posting system. This article offers that statement additional support. So, unless something there changes, which looks highly unlikely, Sarfate is going to play out his contract in Japan. Okay! Sure has been good, though. That point is still true.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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4 years ago

RE: The Hawks and posting — they posted Nobuhiro Matsuda a few years ago, even though he ultimately resigned with the Hawks

RE: Sarfate’s intentions — It may just be PR babble, but in his MVP press conference he was asked about his goals and he mentioned that reaching 250 saves was a big deal for him.

4 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

Matsuda was a free agent. And Sarfate did mention 250 saves and plans to play in Fukuoka next season.