An Ace by Any Other Name: Hirokazu Sawamura’s MLB Debut

Hirokazu Sawamura follows in the footsteps of Koji Uehara

In the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league in Japan, the yearly award for the best pitcher is named after famed pitcher Eiji Sawamura, a young man who dropped out of high school in the 1930s to pitch against a visiting American all-star team featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Eiji Sawamura went on to have a couple significant years in the nascent Japanese Baseball Federation (the predecessor to the NPB), before going to battle in service of the Japanese empire’s imperial ambitions throughout Asia. Nearly 80 years later, Hirokazu Sawamura — no relation to Eiji — joined the Boston Red Sox as a 33-year old relief pitcher. In his first appearance, he made waves on the internet with his splitter, which dove downward toward home plate like a magnet pulled on it.


As the world watches Sawamura’s fellow countryman Shohei Ohtani return to baseball this April, I want to shine a light on another, much less heralded Japanese player making his way through the MLB this week: Hirokazu Sawamura.


Signing Sawamura


The 33-year-old Hirokazu Sawamura joined the Boston Red Sox this season as a free agent after a decade in the NPB, where he played for the Tokyo Giants and the Chiba Lotte Marines. Because he had played in NPB sufficiently long enough to earn his free agency, he could choose his team directly through an agent, rather than teams bidding on him through the posting system. The posting system is the system created to manage the transfer the players from NPB to MLB, wherein young NPB players who wanted to transfer to the MLB would enter a kind of “auction,” and the highest paying MLB team would get the right to work a contract with the NPB players. Ohtani came to the United States in 2018, the first Japanese player to do so under a newly reworked posting system. Sawamura, meanwhile, pursued an opportunity with the Boston Red Sox, where fellow countryman Koji Uehara had previously succeeded. He signed a 3 year deal, with 2 years guaranteed and a third year as a club option. 

The 2021 Red Sox pitching staff is very much in a “wait and see” holding pattern, with Eduardo Rodriguez due back this week and Chris Sale due back mid-season. Their bullpen is less than thrilling, with Matt Barnes (19.1% career K-BB%, 1.37 career WHIP) and Adam Ottavino (16.7% career K-BB%, 1.32 career WHIP) as the lead closer options. With the Red Sox hitters hoping to return to their pre-2020 prowess, it will be important for the bullpen to hold the leads. If Barnes and Ottavino don’t succeed in the near term, the next in line for saves should be Hirokazu Sawamura.


The Sawamura Slide


Sawamura is an intriguing bullpen option for the Red Sox because he’s statistically the most experienced closer / setup man on the team. He was available because, well, 2020 was an awful year for just about everybody, and the usually stable Sawamura stumbled out of the gate and lost favor with his life-long club in Tokyo.

Playing mostly for the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants — the NPB’s equivalent of the Yankees — Sawamura began as a starter for the first three years of his career before transitioning to the bullpen. He displayed acceptable K/9 rates of about 8.00, but more impressive was his nearly 3:1 K/BB ratio. This resulted in K-BB% rates around 17% for the first part of his career, which is in the range of top 50-ish pitchers in the MLB. In 2015 and 2016, Sawamura was the primary closer for the Giants, racking up 72 saves in 2 years with similar K-BB% to when he was a starter. In 2018 and 2019, he transitioned to a setup role, remaining consistent with his career numbers.

Then, 2020 happened. Personal story tangent: I was supposed to be traveling in Japan in late March 2020. As you can probably surmise, that trip never happened and I’m still holding on to some airline vouchers for international travel. Japan was one of the first countries in the world to enter a complete lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid, and it became quickly apparent that the Japanese government was suppressing the release of case data in the hopes that the Olympics would happen. Ultimately, doctors in Osaka went public with their Covid findings, and the government properly shut down the country to deal with Covid. The Olympics were postponed, and the NPB season stopped. But thankfully, the Japanese outbreaks were quickly mitigated and the country opened up to work and social activities comparatively quickly, with the NPB season returning to work with minimal fan engagement.

The 32-year old Sawamura — usually quite consistent in his stats — completely fell apart during the NPB restart in 2020. Although sporting a career ERA below 2.70 up to that point, he threw 14 innings for the Giants where he allowed 9 earned runs and garnered a 6.08 ERA. While usually sporting a K/BB ratio over 2:1, he had 8BB to 11K, and the Giants were ready to move on. The Giants traded Sawamura late in the season to the Chiba Lotte Marines, where Sawamura put his career back together. In 21 innings in Chiba, Sawamura struck out 29 batters while walking only 10. With 4 earned runs over those appearances, he finished the second half of 2020 with a 1.71 ERA. It looked like the Sawamura we knew had returned; he had just been a victim of the impatience with small sample size.

Because Sawamura had been in the NPB for more than 7 years, he had earned his free agent rights and could pursue his own contract without having to worry about the posting system. Sawamura had previous international experience in the World Baseball Classic and the qualifiers, and he pursued a career in the United States, knowing that there was an opportunity to be a closer for the Red Sox. Although Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino ostensibly had the closer and set up roles locked, neither of them had the true high leverage closer experience that Sawamura had. Additionally, Sawamura favored the heritage of Japanese players on the Red Sox, and adopted the same uniform number as Koji Uehara, who had also played with the Tokyo Giants before becoming the closer for the Red Sox from 2013-2015.

Closer or Crowded?


The reliever landscape in Major League Baseball is always tenuous. Players move through the roles of setup man, closer, and middle reliever almost arbitrarily now. Yet, relievers are used more than ever in the MLB landscape, with starters averaging about 4.8 IP per start, and relievers notching more IP, more Holds, and more Saves than in any previous time in history. Sawamura looks to follow Koji Uehara’s lead and take the closer role in Boston, where he could easily be the go-to option for a few years. If the reliever landscape continues to cycle through players and Sawamura becomes yet another blip on the reliever radar, at least Sawamura’s cutter will live on in the memories of internet GIF savants.


Graphic by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)

Blair Williams

Blair holds a PhD in Japanese history and is the author of "Making Japan's National Game: A Cultural History of Baseball." He's a fan of sci-fi, prog metal, and sipping rums.

2 responses to “An Ace by Any Other Name: Hirokazu Sawamura’s MLB Debut”

  1. Mike Honcho says:

    That splitty looked impossible to hit and catch!!
    He’d be a nice under the radar FAAB steal if your crystal ball is working.

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