Earlier this year, Shintaro Fujinami faced the Angels as a member of the Oakland Athletics, and it didn’t go well: the big right-hander allowed an unsightly eight runs, helping to close the book on his time as an MLB starter. Last night, Fujinami pitched a scoreless eighth inning against LA, hitting 100 on the radar gun on three straight pitches. The worm, it appears, has turned. From the AL’s worst team, Fujinami has gone to its best, from starter to reliever, and from hapless to . . . kind of nasty?
One of the hard baseball truths illustrated by the Baltimore Orioles this season is that relievers are, if not a dime a dozen, at least easier to dig up and slot in than starters or preternaturally talented left-handed hitting shortstops. This is not to say that the Orioles bullpen hasn’t been good—they have, the No. 1 outfit according to Fangraphs.
But for a good team, there have been a lot of randos making sudden late-innings appearances (Chris Vallimont, Reed Garrett, Eduard Bazardo, Logan Gillaspie, just to name a few…). And what could be more random than a 6’6” Japanese guy who hits 100 miles an hour and can’t find the strike zone?
Acquired by the Orioles on July 29 from the Oakland Athletics, Shintaro Fujinami was a puzzling trade deadline acquisition for a team whose real lack was in starting pitching. Fujinami had an 8.57 ERA through 49 1/3 innings, the worst of any pitcher with 40+ frames. This number was skewed by a 14.26 ERA across seven starts he made when he first joined Oakland. But a 5.40 ERA as a reliever isn’t terribly attractive, either.
You can’t be mad at the Orioles for taking a flyer on this guy, though. The bullpen had looked concerningly “top-heavy,” with Félix Bautista, Yennier Cano and Danny Coulombe all excellent, but a steep drop-off thereafter. Plus there was the former starter Fujinami’s six-pitch mix (two fastballs, a cutter, slider, splitter, and a curveball) and seductive ability to get whiffs. Over his last month in Oakland, Fujinami struck out hitters at an impressive 25.6% clip with just a 7% walk rate.
The problem was his terrible penchant for imploding at bad times. On August 2, as a new member of the Orioles, he hit two Toronto Blue Jays and walked another in a single awful inning. A week later, facing Houston, with two outs, he then walked three batters in a row and let them all score. Yuck.
What do you do with somebody like that? Well, just what the Orioles are trying to do: never pitch him in high-leverage situations.
It’s unwise to make too much of a few weeks of competence given a larger body of work (and Fujinami’s reputation in the NPB as a control-challenged starter). But it’s easier to buy into his potential given his “high-octane” stuff, and this team’s track record of reviving relief pitchers’ careers (see, Cano, Yennier; Bautista, Félix; etc.).
Might we be seeing some tiny improvements from this frustrating but talented hurler? Yes, maybe some. Working in shorter relief outings has upped the average velocity on his four-seam fastball from 97 mph to the 99-100 mph range. Orioles’ pitching coaches, you might not be surprised to learn, are urging Fujinami to pound the zone with strikes, and his walk rate is down to 3.9 BB/9 from an average of 5.5 BB/9 with Oakland. The Orioles have also messed with his pitch mix: he’s making more use of his splitter and splitter, both of which have gotten hit less hard than his fastball. With Baltimore, he has an 11.1 K/9 rate so far, up by about two batters a game from where he was earlier in the season.
Plus for what it’s worth, he hasn’t had one of those terrible outings in his last two weeks. On Tuesday night, Brandon Hyde, short on relievers, was forced to put in Fuji in the tenth inning with a one-run lead and the ghost runner on at second, a high-pressure situation, needless to say, and one where strikeouts and avoiding walks are critical. Fuji delivered: he allowed a flyball to move the runner over, but whiffed two Angels in quick succession to secure the win. Pressure scenario, no walks, big-time K’s. This is what the best-case scenario looks like for him.
Well, actually, the best-case scenario would be an even higher ceiling: could Baltimore think about converting Fujinami back into a starter? The trouble is, he’ll be a free agent again at season’s end, at which point Baltimore will take on the approximate $1.3 million in salary still owed to him through the end of the season. It could be a gamble worth taking, if both sides agreed to try. I’d love to see the team take a shot on him.
Whatever happens on that front, what we can say is that thus far, the Orioles show no signs of abandoning their trend of picking up good pitching on the cheap. This year’s success stories include (obviously) Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano, but also Cionel Pérez, Danny Coulombe, and—with any luck—Jorge López, and maybe, the unusually gifted Shintaro Fujinami.
He might not be this team’s go-to high-leverage closer in a must-win playoff game. But he’s certainly gaining his manager’s confidence, and showing enough to stay interesting.