The ‘other’ Boston reliever

Winslow Townson

Although Junichi Tazawa isn't even the most well-known reliever in his team's bullpen, he's one of the best relievers in the game.

If you had even watched just one game in which the Boston Red Sox won with a tight score last year, you almost inevitably watched their star closer, Koji Uehara. Much praise has been given to him—all of which is just—for the way that he took over the closer role in Boston and made 9th innings look easy.

But, if you only watched the 9th inning of Red Sox games last season—which, by the way, would be a really weird thing to do—you likely missed the other component to their bullpen who has been nearly as invaluable to the team: reliever Junichi Tazawa.

While we all know about Uehara's jaw-droppingly impressive performance over the past couple of seasons, Tazawa's success seems to go unnoticed. First, here are the raw numbers for Tazawa over the last two years:

Innings Pitched K/9 BB/9 K:BB Ratio ERA- FIP- xFIP- fWAR
112.1 9.37 1.36 6.88 59 64 71 2.4

In isolation, his numbers are, for the most part, pretty great. But, all of these become even more impressive when compared with the rest of the league. Here are Tazawa's numbers again, with his ranking (in italics) compared with all relief pitchers with at least 50 innings over each of the last two seasons (242 total):

Innings Pitched K/9 BB/9 K:BB Ratio ERA- FIP- xFIP- fWAR
112.1 (71) 9.37 (82) 1.36 (4) 6.88 (2) 59 (22) 64 (19) 71 (15) 2.4 (19)

By almost all accounts, Tazawa has been, at the very least, a top-20 relief pitcher for the last two seasons. What he lacks in strikeouts, he makes up for in command. His 1.36 BB/9 trails only teammate Uehara (0.98), Edward Mujica (1.18), and Aaron Loup (1.35), and his K:BB ratio is second to just Uehara, besting stars like Craig Kimbrel and the now-retired Mariano Rivera.

To have this success, Tazawa, like many relief pitchers, relies heavily on two pitches in his repertoire: in this case, a four-seam fastball and a splitter. In 2012, those two pitch types combined for 88.54% of his total pitches, and in 2013, they combined for 87.86% of his total pitches.

His four-seam fastball sits comfortably between 94 and 95 miles per hour, and, while effective in its own right, serves as the setup to his splitter. His splitter, which can sometimes look less like a splitter and more like a forkball, manifests itself as a deadly combination of a splitter and a two seam fastball. Here, from Pitcher GIFs, is what it looks like:

Impressionableaggressivebluejay

via giant.gfycat.com

However, while his pitches are exciting and the results that his efforts have yielded—at least over the past couple of seasons—have been strong, Tazawa doesn't get much recognition. Sadly, that's what happens when your teammate is one of the best relievers in the league.

Perhaps with a different cap on his head, Tazawa might be more in the limelight. He might even be converted into a closer for another team that doesn't already have this guy taking the mound in the 9th inning. Maybe both of those things will happen by the end of this year. Tazawa and the Red Sox avoided arbitration this offseason by signing a one year deal worth just over $1 million, but it's plausible to imagine him finding a new home with a larger contract.

But, maybe Tazawa will be just what the Red Sox need pretty soon. Uehara is likely to decline in the somewhat near future, as this is his age 39 season, and with Tazawa turning just 28 this year, he may be in line for a shot at the closer's role at some point soon.

Right now, Tazawa's success is enveloped by the large shadow cast by Koji Uehara, but he should have his time to shine soon enough.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and BrooksBaseball.

Evan Kendall is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score and co-founder of The Sports Post. He also contributes to Athletics Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @Evan_TSP.

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