April 1, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa (left) reacts while shaking hands after securing the final out against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Chicago Cubs won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Kyuji Fujikawa-Is he the Answer as Chicago Cubs Closer?-Off the Radar

When I heard rumors that Kyuji Fujikawa was coming to the United States from Japan, I was very skeptical as to how he would transition to the Majors and whether he was truly a big league pitcher based on his velocity, age, and the command he showed in video I watched. However, we now have 75 pitches from Fujikawa between spring training and his official MLB debut. This obviously isn’t a big sample size, but it gives us an idea of his stuff at the very least. In this post, I will look at the data and see if the data suggests that he will be a successful back of the bullpen pitcher.

April 1, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa (11) delivers a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Chicago Cubs won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The fastball is below average for a reliever, especially a right-handed reliever. The 92.54 MPH fastball is actually closest to Rudy Seanez in the Pitch F/X era, in the bottom 35 percent of right-handed reliever fastball velocity. We already knew this though, what about his movement data, something we didn’t have before his Pitch F/X outings? The vertical movement data suggests he has an elite moving fastball, while his horizontal movement is above average. He doesn’t have good velocity (though it isn’t horrible), but he can get very good movement on the pitch, which can supplement that velocity. However, this can be overstated. If you look at the 4 fastballs (again, right-handed relief fastballs in the Pitch F/X era) that have top 10 vertical movement, but below average velocity, only one, Josh Collmenter and his funky release point, has above average whiffs, and he is still not in the top 100 (out of less than 400 pitchers). When you look at grounders, we see the same thing, Collmenter is the only one that is above average (though he is in the top 100 this time). Movement is nice, but it seems that velocity is more important unless you have some quirk like Collmenter.

Of course, Fujikawa throws what is usually called a forkball (his 2nd most used pitch according to his outings so far), at least that is what it is called in Japan. However, in American Pitch F/X, there is no “forkball”. So the manual tags at Brooks Baseball have been calling it a splitter, while the official MLB AM tags are calling it a changeup.  No matter which one you classify it as, it is below average in velocity and vertical movement. Ideally, we would use spin charts to tell us the difference. However, since no one (that I can find) throws both a splitter and a change (that selection of pitches would probably be redundant as the function in a similar way, looking like the fastball before darting down with some speed taken off) we will have to look at the pitches separately to get a good idea of which one makes more sense.

Here is Fujikawa’s spin on his forkball (the yellow pitches):

The closest change velocity is Clayton Mortenson. Here is his spin chart:

Joel Peralta’s splitter provides the closest velocity to Fujikawa’s splitter/change/forkball:

It definitely looks more like Peralta’s splitter than Mortenson’s change. Most change’s have similar spin and rotation to the fastballs, while it seems that splitters have the same amount of spin, but not the same rotation. Lazy commentators might point to Koji Uehara as a right-handed reliever that has been absolutely dominant coming from Japan with a below average right-handed fastball. Indeed, we have seen that NPB numbers may be a little more predictive than fastball velocity. In fact, Fujikawa’s fastball is nearly 4 MPH higher than Uehara’s. But let’s look at Uehara’s splitter, something he throws a third of the time. It is nearly 2 MPH slower than Fujikawa’s, but Uehara’s gets much more movement both horizontally and vertically than Fujikawa’s. In fact, Uehara’s splitter is in the top 11 in both vertical and horizontal movement out of the 50 right-handed relievers that have thrown at least 100 since the start of the Pitch F/X era. From what I can tell, no other splitter was in the top 10 or 11 in both. Fujikawa’s would be 31st in vertical movement and 22nd in horizontal movement. In graph form, here are Fujikawa’s and Uehara’s splitter movement versus some other notable good splitters:

Fujikawa’s doesn’t seem to fit in with the other splitters very well. I think it is really hard to argue that his splitter/forkball is a plus MLB pitch, and thus, Uehara comparisons aren’t very helpful, and it is hard to see how this will supplement his below average fastball. One positive thing you can say about Fujikawa, is that he has shown a consistent release point:

That kind of consistency is going to allow him to throw a lot of strikes. From all the data so far, he looks like the anti-Marmol. He doesn’t have the plus stuff that the Cubs’ long time closer has, but he seems to have much better command and delivery repetition (though Carlos Marmol did repeat his delivery pretty well in his awful outing on opening day). Fujikawa also has shown a curve and a slider in his bag of tricks, a bag that is deeper than most relievers.

At 75.2 MPH, the curveball is well below average, in the bottom 13 percent of right-handed relievers. The pitch also gets well below average vertical depth or movement, closest to Eduardo Sanchez and Dustin Nippert. This is mixed company, as Sanchez had a very successful curve according to whiffs and grounders, while Nippert’s was pretty poor. It is important to note that Sanchez had nearly 5 more miles per an hour on his curveball and more horizontal movement than Fujikawa’s. Fujikawa’s horizontal movement is not bad on the curve, but it seems that the closest overall curveball comparison is probably Randy Messenger (based on velocity, horizontal and vertical movement), who has the worst whiff curve in the sample, and is currently in Japan. Fujikawa has also broken out a slider, something he hasn’t thrown a lot, but he throws it really hard, at 87.5 MPH, in the top 20 of the nearly 300 sliders thrown by right-handed relievers. The problem is in classification though, as these sliders only show up in the manual tags, but not in the MLB AM tags. He was said to throw a slider in the NPB, but it averaged only 83 MPH, and he threw a cutter at 88 MPH. This pitch could be a cutter that is just quite a bit slower than his fastball. But a 4 MPH difference between fastball and cutter isn’t unheard of, as Nathan Eovaldi, David Price, Brandon Morrow, Chad Billingsly, Felix Doubront, Cliff Lee, Zach McAllister, Jake Peavy, Matt Harrison, Gavin Floyd, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Jake Westbrook, Dan Haren, Tim Hudson, Dillon Gee, Paul Maholm, Wei-Yin Chen, and Mark Buerhle all threw over 100 innings last year with over 4 MPH difference between fastball and cutter. What does the movement data tell us? Keeping in mind that the manual tags do believe he threw one cutter with extreme vertical depth and very little horizontal movement, the “slider” Fujikawa has thrown gets very conservative horizontal movement, but very solid vertical movement for a slider. It is hard to believe that he just randomly added 4 MPH to his slider and none of his other pitches, so we still have a classification problem, but I honestly have no idea how you would fix such a problem.

Overall, the average pitch Fujikawa has thrown is 88.25 MPH, which is actually very solid for even a right-handed reliever, in the top 32 percent, closest to Chris Bootcheck and Alex White. Those are not (or at least have not been) very good pitchers, so perhaps unfortunate comparisons. However, it is better than successful back of the bullpen pitchers like David Hernandez, Joaquin Benoit, and George Kontos (and is interestingly, harder than Joel Zumaya’s average pitch). One could make the claim, that when you break down Fujikawa’s individual pitches, you don’t find a plus one, or even a MLB average pitch (we certainly struggle to find one looking at the Pitch F/X data), but, on the other hand, the collection of his pitches, along with the command and control he seems to possess, you can have a successful bullpen pitcher.

Kontos may not be a horrible comparison if you are looking for a positive interpretation of Fujikawa. Kontos’ fastball is a little worse, and though he doesn’t come as far out as Fujikawa, he also provides a nice tight release point. Fujikawa will most likely be more of a platoon guy, especially since the splitter doesn’t seem to be the kind of pitch that is going to get him a ton of lefties out, but it is a comparison of a successful pitcher formula that you can point to. I am sure this is not the impact arm that the Cubs wanted when they signed him, or what they expect from him in 2013, but this is probably best case scenario, at least this is what the data suggests.

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