Dennis Sarfate doesn’t seem to be very complicated. Sarfate wears his heart on his sleeve and says what he feels. He works hard, he plays hard, he throws hard. The way he pitched during his first three NPB seasons was similarly without complexity; he threw a really good fastball and got really good results.
Sarfate is both harder to figure out and harder to hit these days. He’s added a few new wrinkles since joining the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks last year, and gone from a good, sometimes great, reliever, to one of NPB’s elite closers.
“He’s the guy,” Softbank starter Jason Standridge said. “There’s really not anything else to say. When he steps on the mound, there’s no way I have any doubt he’s going to get the job done.”
Sarfate still has the fastball, but he and catcher Toru Hosokawa have struck gold with the other pitches in his arsenal, especially a splitter he can use in any count and put batters away with.
“I had it (the splitter), guys just never called it,” Sarfate said. “The Carp and the Lions, (Yoshiyuki) Ishihara and Ginjiro (Sumitani), great catchers, they just loved me throwing fastballs.
“Toru was the one who pushed me to think outside the box and start guys off first-pitch split for a strike, start guys off curveball, maybe even throw two splits in a row and then a heater,” Sarfate said. “He just made me a better pitcher, where now I can throw stuff that I want in different counts.”
Sarfate’s approach led to a banner year in 2014, and he’s kept it going with 14 saves and 43 strikeouts in 27⅓ innings this season.
“It’s just carried over,” he said. “I’m doing the same thing. I think if you ask the hitters, when they face me, they have to respect my fastball, but I think the biggest thing is they also know that I can throw those other things for strikes. I think that just makes it a little bit tougher.”
Sarfate, 34, is in his fifth year in Japan, having also played for the Hiroshima Carp and Seibu Lions, and has 105 career NPB saves. He’s been wildly successful since joining the Hawks, with 56 saves, 139 strikeouts and a 0.63 WHIP in 91 appearances.
“He’s strong, physically and mentally,” said Softbank reliever Ryota Igarashi. “He has a good fastball. He sometimes uses a splitter, and that’s also good a lot of the time. Dennis can mix in a curve ball that’s effective too. I think he’s pitching really well.”
It’s hard now to envision anyone else getting the ball in the ninth, but when Sarfate joined Softbank in 2014, he assumed Igarashi, a former major leaguer, would be the closer. So he was caught off-guard when the team named him the closer and slotted Igarashi into the setup role after spring training.
Igarashi didn’t express any anger at the decision, and the relief duo slid into an easy rapport and friendship.
“I thought he deserved to be the closer,” Sarfate said. “He’d never done anything to not earn that the year before. But it was just a really good combination, eighth and ninth inning. We pushed each other. He would have a good one, I would have a good one. It was just a fun year. I think we were the best eighth and ninth combo in the league.
“We respect each other,” Sarfate said. We’ve had good conversations. He’s a nice guy to have in there who’s done what I did in the States, now he’s here. We’re the older guys in the bullpen, so we gotta teach these younger guys a little bit about it. We take the role seriously and we love what we do, and I think we have fun everyday.”
Sarfate, who was in MLB from 2006-2009, is also among NPB’s more experienced foreigners, and understands making it in Japan for more than a few years is rarely accidental, that it takes a certain type of mindset to make it work.
“I think if you just adapt and don’t worry about why they do certain things and just adapt to it, you’re going to have more success, you’re going to have a better time and your teammates are going to respect you,” Sarfate said.
“The guys who come in here thinking they’re all-world and they were in the big leagues and this and that, no one cares. Adapt. You’re here for a reason, you’re here in their country, so adapt.”
Sarfate, meanwhile, is comfortable. He’s pitching well, the Hawks are playing better and he says he and his family love living in Fukuoka.
The focus now is on remaining consistent.
“I think the biggest thing is just trusting my stuff, realizing that I am good, that I don’t need to be perfect every time out, and the trust that my teammates and my coaches have in me,” he said. “That makes me feel that much more confident.”