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March 18, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Wake of the Quake

by Jay Jaffe

In the aftermath of last Friday's massive earthquake in Japan, as I pulled away from the spectacle of the shocking footage on television and helped the Prospectus staff gather information on the ballplayers affected by the disaster, I found myself gravitating towards the stories of two pitchers who happened to be at more or less opposite ends in my personal pantheon. The Brewers' Takashi Saito hails from Miyagi Prefecture, whose capital is Sendai, more or less the epicenter of a massive earthquake that measured 9.0 on the Richter scale. The Yankees' Kei Igawa is from Oarai, a port city engulfed by the subsequent tsunami.

While reports filtered in from Japanese players such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, and Koji Uehara, all of whom had been able to locate their families in relatively timely fashion following the disaster, neither Saito nor Igawa could say the same. Quite understandably, both players left their respective teams while making further efforts at contact. They've since located their loved ones, though their lives certainly haven't returned to normal, and neither have those of their fellow Japanese players here in the US.

In the greater sense, this isn't really about baseball, but in a small way, the Japanese players we follow and root for serve to humanize the tragedy. By which I mean that if a similar number of Russians or Icelanders or Indians were affected by a disaster of the same scale, such a disaster might remain a more abstract notion without the connection that we as fans have with a group of players who have bravely chosen to ply their craft as strangers in a strange land half a world away. And so I've been thinking about this particular pair of pitchers.

Saito is a personal favorite. After 14 seasons of pitching for the Yokohama BayStars of the Japanese Central League, from 1992 through 2005—a span during which he earned All-Star honors four times, but was also driven to the bullpen by injury and ineffectiveness—he chose to follow in the footsteps of former teammate Kazuhiro Sasaki and pursue a shot in the majors. At the ripe old age of 36, he signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers, made the team out of spring training, and in the wake of ongoing injuries to All-Star closer Eric Gagne, pitched his way into the closer's job around Memorial Day.

Sporting a 91-93 mph fastball and a devastating slider, Saito ably filled the oversized shoes left by Gagne. He saved 24 games with a 2.07 ERA and a stellar 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings, and wound up ranking third in the NL with 5.4 WXRL, behind only Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. Perhaps even more impressively, he sliced and diced right-handed hitters at a .129/.205/.193 clip, a level of dominance right in line with Gagne in his prime.

The guy was money down the stretch, too. With the Dodgers locked in tight races for both the NL West and the wild card, Saito was scored upon in just one September outing out of 13; in his last seven appearances, he posted a 14/1 K/BB ratio while allowing just five hits, as hapless opponents flailed at his slider. Watching the games via the Extra Innings package in my tiny East Village apartment three time zones away, I developed a cautionary ritual whereby I'd push my coffee table aside in the late innings, so as not to bang my shin while pacing the floor or engaging in any celebratory jumping. I did so even while limited to listening to the audio feed on September 30 (a Saturday, and thus subject to the league's nationwide blackout rules) as Saito whiffed the Giants' Lance Niekro to clinch a post-season berth.

Saito dominated to an even greater extent in 2007, saving 39 games with a 1.40 ERA and a 6.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio while leading the league in WXRL. Again, he destroyed righties (.114/.177/.152), this time to such an extent that managers sent up so many pinch-hitters that he wound up facing more lefties, who hit a comparatively robust .186/.240/.319 against him. He maintained his dominance through the first half of the following season under new manager Joe Torre, with a 2.12 ERA and 11.5 K/9, but just before the All-Star break, he experienced tightness in his elbow, which turned out to be caused by a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. With the threat of Tommy John surgery looming—not to mention a possible retirement or at least a return to Japan—he chose to undergo an experimental procedure in which team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache injected platelet-rich plasma into his elbow in an attempt to stimulate the healing of his UCL.

The early returns were less than impressive. Saito returned to the roster in mid-September having been supplanted by Jonathan Broxton as the team's closer, and provided only window dressing as the Dodgers won a tight division race. He was scored upon in three of his six outings, and wild to boot, walking four in 5.2 innings. His sole post-season appearance was a gruesome affair; entrusted with a 10-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game Two of the Division Series against the Cubs, he failed to retire a hitter, yielding two runs via a pair of doubles and a single before being replaced by Broxton. While the Dodgers and their fans celebrated the team's first postseason series victory in 20 years, Saito's ineffectiveness in the wake of injury made it something of a bittersweet occasion.

Sadly, that was Saito's last appearance in Dodger blue, for he was left off the roster for the NLCS against the Phillies in favor of Hong-Chih Kuo. In December, Saito and the Dodgers were unable to agree on an incentive-based contract, and he was non-tendered, an agonizing scenario the team would repeat two years later with Russell Martin. Soon, Saito signed with the Red Sox, ostensibly as a set-up man for Jonathan Papelbon. Scored upon in four of his first seven appearances in April 2009, he never secured the confidence of manager Terry Francona. His 2.43 ERA was actually a hair lower than the year before, but his peripherals (1.0 HR/9, 4.0 BB/9, 8.4 K/9) and 0.1 WXRL were all MLB career worsts by far. As his 0.62 Leverage Score attests, he spent most of his time on mop-and-bucket detail.

With his elbow somewhat miraculously still holding together, Saito fared better as a setup man in Atlanta last year, despite a career-worst 2.83 ERA. His strikeout rate rebounded to 11.5 per nine, and his homer and walk rates fell; despite missing about a month for hamstring and shoulder woes, he finished 26th in the league with 2.0 WXRL. Alas, the latter injury—inflammation that limited him to just one ugly appearance over the season's final two weeks—was enough to keep him off the Braves' playoff roster. Over the winter, he was on the move again, this time migrating to Milwaukee, where the plan is that he'll set up John Axford.

Where Saito remains a favorite, Igawa is a pitcher who has done little besides disappoint me and every other Yankee fan since coming over from Japan. Like Saito, Igawa pitched in the Japanese Central League, experiencing both the highs and lows during his eight season (1999-2006) with the Hanshin Tigers. He won MVP honors and the Eiji Sawamura Award (Japan's analogue to the Cy Young Award) during his second full season, going 20-5 with a 2.80 ERA in 2003, and led or tied for the league lead in strikeouts three times, but by 2005 he'd fallen out of favor as his ERA has ballooned, and he was briefly exiled to the minors.

Wishing to come stateside, the 27-year-old southpaw went through the posting process following the 2006 season. The Yankees, having lost out on the bidding for Daisuke Matsuzaka just two weeks earlier, won his rights for $26 million, then signed him to a five-year, $20 million deal, a combined expenditure of less than half of what the Red Sox spent on Matsuzaka ($51.1 million to post, $52 million over six years to sign), but a major expenditure nonetheless.

Alas, Igawa didn't come close to delivering even the mixed bag of Matsuzaka's performance. He began the 2007 season in the Yankees' rotation, but was lit for a 7.84 ERA through four starts and then exiled to the bullpen, unable to get by working up in the zone with a high-80s fastball, or to command his off-speed stuff with any consistency. I happened to be at the game which represented his brief moment in the sun, a tense early-season affair against the Red Sox which Yankee starter Jeff Karstens departed in the first inning having yielded two hits without retiring a batter, the second of which broke his leg. With the Yankees already nursing a seven-game losing streak that had driven them five games under .500, the day looked ruined before it had barely begun, but Igawa rose to the occasion, quickly inducing a 4-6-3 double play against David Ortiz, walking Manny Ramirez, then striking out J.D. Drew to end the threat. By the time he departed to a standing ovation, he'd tossed six innings of two-hit shutout ball, offering hope that he'd turned the corner.

Such was not the case. Igawa was torched for eight runs in his return to the rotation, and by mid-May, he'd not only earned the derision of Yankee fans everywhere, he'd triggered a Roger Clemens comeback. The Yankees soon optioned Igawa to Tampa to work on his mechanics with pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras, then sent him to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He rejoined the big club in late June, but his 5.97 ERA through six starts (none of them quality starts) was hardly sufficient, and he returned to Triple-A at the end of July. The Padres claimed him off waivers on August 10, and the two sides tried to work a deal, but the Yankees ultimately pulled him back; in retrospect, that was a brutal miscalculation. He made just two more big[-league appearances in September, and finished the year with a 6.25 ERA in 67 2/3 innings thanks to grotesquely swollen walk and homer rates (1.9 and 4.9 per nine, respectively).

The Yankees planned to let Igawa compete for a rotation spot the following spring, but he served up a grand slam in his first appearance, and while he pitched his way into consideration as a long man, he went back to Triple-A. He +made just two brief major-league appearances, first getting lit for six runs and 11 hits in three innings on May 9 after Phil Hughes had gone on the DL with a broken rib, then closing out a 9-0 game on June 27.

A month later, the Yankees removed Igawa from the 40-man roster, a process that required passing him through waivers; not surprisingly, every team passed. Since then, despite decent spring trainings and the occasional injury-related opening in the Bronx, he has been bypassed, even buried, spending the entirety of the 2009 and 2010 seasons in Scranton. At this point, he's simply an expensive organizational soldier, his contract arguably a bigger blemish on general manager Brian Cashman's record than that of Carl Pavano.

A forgotten man as far as the majors were concerned, Igawa was suddenly remembered last Friday in the wake of the quake, though perhaps owing to his diminished stature as a minor leaguer, less news was available about him and his family than other stateside Japanese players. What we know is that the Yankees sent him to his Tampa home so that he could continue trying to make contact. By Saturday, the pitcher had learned that that his family was alive, albeit living in a car. The Yankees excused him to fly home to Japan to be with them.

We know more about Saito. Scheduled to pitch last Friday, he instead returned to his spring training residence in Arizona after failing to make contact with his parents. He soon learned that his wife and three children were safe in his offseason home of Yokohama, where they were enduring aftershocks from the earthquake. He spoke briefly to one of his brothers in Sendai, where his parents, two older brothers, and various aunts, uncles, and cousins live, and learned that most of his family was safe, gathered at a house without electricity. Shortly after receiving that news, he heard chilling reports of police finding hundreds of bodies being found on a Sendai beach. Two days later, having returned to the Brewers camp, Saito started an exhibition game, before which he requested fans observe a moment of silence. At this writing, his wife and daughters are scheduled to join him in Phoenix this weekend, and while his parents and brothers remain safe, some relatives on his father's side are still unaccounted for.

Nearly one week after the initial earthquake, as the focus has turned to the dangers posed by damaged nuclear power plants, the Japanese government has estimated the death toll from the disaster at 15,000, with over 5,000 of those deaths confirmed, and nearly 9,000 people missing. Nearly half a million homes are without power, and 2.5 million are without access to water.

Saito and Igawa are just two of the 29 Japan natives who've played in the majors over the past four years. It's likely that every single one who's still stateside has endured similar uncertainty, fear or loss due to this disaster, perhaps to an even greater extent. Surely many have relatives and friends among the dead, missing, or displaced, and the same goes for those ballplayers—Japanese, American, or otherwise—who have been in Japan since the quake. Regardless of their accomplishments, and the extent to which we've cheered or jeered them over the years, those players and their loved ones are all in our thoughts at this time.

 At times like this, baseball is but a small part of life. It may seem particularly inessential in the face of larger tragedy, but one only need recall the scene nearly a decade ago here in the US, when in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the game brought people from different walks of life and different belief systems together and promoted healing while providing a welcome diversion from larger tensions. One hopes that the game can do the same, both in the Japanese leagues and the States, for those touched by the disaster, the players as well as the fans.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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