Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Tigers pitcher Shintaro Fujinami at crossroads

by Jason Coskrey

The Hanshin Tigers have a Shintaro Fujinami problem. They just don’t seem to know what to do about it.

Fujinami, 24, is one of the most gifted pitchers in Japan, with a fastball among the fastest in NPB and good secondary pitches. The issue is, he just never seems to consistently have his arsenal under control.

For the Tigers and their fans, it’s an adventure every time the lanky 197-cm right-hander winds up to deliver a pitch. Because it’s anyone’s guess whether his balls will hit the spot where the catcher is set up, or the batter, or just sail far outside the strike zone.

A pitcher with the skill to be a difference-maker in the rotation has become one the team can’t trust. On Saturday, the Tigers placed Fujinami on the farm team, where he spent a good part of 2017 trying to work through these same issues.

“It’s in a bad place, as you can see,” Tigers manager Tomoaki Kanemoto was quoted as saying about Fujinami’s pitching by Nikkan Sports after watching him struggle against the Yomiuri Giants at home on Friday.

Whether it’s something in his mechanics or in his head, a physical issue or the dreaded yips, Fujinami’s issues are threatening to derail a career that began with almost as much promise as that of Shohei Ohtani.

There were MLB scouts who, back in the summer of 2012, watched the two of them and liked Fujinami more. That’s hard to imagine now, as Ohtani sets MLB ablaze with his talents and Fujinami frustrates Tigers fans with the inability to harness his own.

That was no more evident than on Friday against the Giants. Fujinami started off well enough, but once he began to slip, so did any semblance of control he may have had over the flight of the ball from his hands.

The fatal sequence in that game came with the Tigers down a run in the fourth inning. The frame began with Fujinami allowing a leadoff single. That brought up Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, who was ready and willing to provide a free out via a sacrifice bunt.

Instead, Fujinami had Sugano falling to the ground to avoid a pitch near his head before eventually walking him. He then yielded a hit to Hayato Sakamoto, an RBI single by Naoki Yoshikawa and a two-run double to Alex Guerrero in succession as a 1-0 deficit ballooned to a four-run hole. He later gave up another pair of runs in the fifth.

Overall that night, Fujinami struck out 10, but he walked six. He threw 120 pitches in five laborious innings. Sugano only needed 113 to go the distance.

None of this is new. Fujinami’s command was out of whack last season. For whatever reason, he just can’t seem to avoid either hitting or walking a lot of batters, and putting his team on the back foot.

Knowing that, Kanemoto also has to be quicker with the hook. Perhaps the Tigers would’ve remained closer to the Giants on Friday, keeping hopes of a rally alive, had Hanshin tried to stabilize things by going to the bullpen. Because Fujinami can’t be trusted to pitch himself back on track once he begins going off the rails.

It’s irresponsible, then, not to have someone getting ready at the first sign of trouble and then employing whatever time-wasting tactics you have at your disposal to get the new pitcher ready.

Fujinami has far too much talent to just throw him away, but at some point he’s going to have to pinpoint the source of his problems and fix it before his chances run out.

A good Fujinami is a potential game-changer in the rotation alongside ace Randy Messenger. A bad Fujinami leaves the team scrambling to find someone to carry the load he was expected to shoulder.

Right now the Tigers have the bad Fujiami and can only hope another stint on the ni-gun level will help the pitcher find the solution to what ails him.