There are improvements coming from the Shintaro Fujinami Reclamation Project
At least you can’t call a 6’6″ fireball boring and strapped for control.
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 eight ugly runs, helping close the book on his time as an MLB starter. Last night, Fujinami pitched a scoreless eighth inning against Los Angeles, scoring 100 points on the radar gun on three straight pitches. Looks like the worm has turned. From the worst team in the AL, Fujinami went all the way to his best, from starter to reliever, and from unlucky to . . . kind of bad?
One hard truth of baseball that the Baltimore Orioles have made clear this season is that relievers are, if not a dime, then at least easier to drill and get into than starters or shortstops who are talented left-handers. That’s not to say the Orioles weren’t doing well – they got the No. 1 uniform according to Fangraphs.
But for a good team, there is Owns There have been plenty of Randos popping up in late-stage roles (Chris Valemont, Red Jarrett, Edward Buzzardo, Logan Gillespie, to name a few…). And what could be more random than a 6-foot-6-inch Japanese guy going 100 miles an hour who can’t find his strike zone?
Acquired by the Orioles on July 29 from the Oakland Athletics, Shintaro Fujinami was a baffling trade deadline acquisition for a team whose real lack was a starting pitcher. Fujinami had an 8.57 ERA over 49 1/3 innings pitched, the worst of any pitcher with 40+ frames. He skewed a 14.26 ERA across seven starts he made when he first joined Oakland. But using a 5.40 ERA as a dweller isn’t very attractive either.
However, you can’t be mad at the Orioles for taking a flyer on this guy. The playing field looked worryingly ‘too heavy’, with both excellent Felix Bautista, Yener Cano and Dani Colombe, but then a sharp decline. Plus there was ex-starter Fujinami’s six-pitch combination (two fastballs, snapper, slider, splitter, and curveball) and the seductive ability to get whets. During his last month in Auckland, Fujinami struck out 25.6% of batters with a walk rate of just 7%.
The problem was his terrible tendency to crash at bad times. On August 2, as a new member of the Orioles, he achieved two The Toronto Blue Jays walked back in one awful run. A week later, against Houston, with two outs, he then walked three straight batters and let them all score. disgusting.
What do you do with someone like that? Well, what the Orioles are trying to do: Never put him in high-powered situations.
It’s not wise to draw too much from a few weeks of proficiency given the larger pool of work (and Fujinami’s reputation in the NPB as a dominantly challenging starter). But it’s easier to tap into its potential because of its “high octane” rating, And This team scored in reviving the careers of relief pitchers (see Cano, Linier; Bautista, Felix; etc.).
Could we see some small improvements from this frustrated but talented pitcher? Yes, maybe some. Working shorter relief outings brought the average speed on the four-seam fastball from 97 mph to the 99-100 mph range. You might not be surprised to learn that Orioles pitching coaches urge Fujinami to hit the zone with putts, and his walk rate has dropped to 3.9 bb/9 from an average of 5.5 bb/9 with Oakland. The Orioles have also messed up his pitch mix: he makes more use of the splitter and splitter, both of whom are hit less hard by the fastball. With Baltimore, he has an average of 11.1K/9 so far, up about two strikeouts per game from earlier in the season.
Plus, he didn’t take one of those awful outings in his last two weeks. On Tuesday night, short of reliever Brandon Hyde pitched Fuji in the 10th inning with one run and a bogey runner at second, a high-pressure situation, needless to say, and one where hitting and avoiding walks is crucial. Fuji delivered the order: he let the volleyball move the runner, but fired two angels in quick succession to secure the win. Pressure scenario, no walk, peak times. this Is what the best case scenario looks like to him.
Well, in fact, the best-case scenario would be a cap higher: Could Baltimore consider turning Fujinami back into a start-up? The problem is that he will become a free agent again at the end of the season, at which point Baltimore will have the approximate $1.3 million salary he is still owed through the end of the season. This could be a gamble worth taking, if both parties agree to try. I would love to see the team attack him.
Whatever happens on that front, what we can say is that so far, the Orioles have shown no signs of letting up on their trend of getting a good show on the cheap. This year’s success stories include (obviously) Felix Bautista and Yener Cano, but also Sionel Perez, Dani Colombe and – with a bit of luck – Jorge Lopez, and perhaps the extraordinarily talented Shintaro Fujinami.
He may not be the closest to this team’s high clout in a must-win playoff game. But he definitely earns his manager’s trust and shows enough to remain interesting.