Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

'Reborn' pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa off to good start for Fighters

by Jason Coskrey

Naoyuki Uwasawa declared himself reborn in mid-December.

In 2017, he was still getting back on track after an 2016 elbow injury. But that winter, newly married and with a new uniform number, trading in No. 63 for No. 15, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters righty was ready for a new beginning in his fourth NPB season.

The new Uwasawa has coincided with a new era for the Fighters, one in which their best pitcher, Shohei Ohtani, is no longer theirs after his high-profile move to MLB and the Los Angeles Angels during the offseason.

“He’s younger than me by a year,” Uwasawa, 24, told The Japan Times near the visitor’s clubhouse at ZOZO Marine Stadium on Saturday morning. “He’s like my younger brother. As a player, he’s so great and there are many things I want to learn from him. I wish him the best.”

With Ohtani gone, there’s room for someone to become the new face of the Fighters pitching staff, and Uwasawa could be just the person for the job.

Uwasawa certainly has the talent, and many fans will tell you he also has the looks. He’s gotten off to a 2-0 start in 2018 with a 1.69 ERA in 21⅓ innings over four starts.

“I feel good,” he said when asked about his performance so far. “I’ve got a good feeling.”

An elbow injury, and the ensuing surgery cost Uwasawa the entire 2016 season and he spent 2017, during which he made 15 starts, shaking off some of the rust. Now he’s back and fully healed and looking solid on the mound again.

“I feel like he’s gotten a lot better than when I first starting playing with him,” said third baseman Brandon Laird. “His fastball is good, his breaking balls are good and you can tell he’s pitching with a lot of confidence.”

Uwasawa’s command is also a strong point. While inconsistency has crept in on occasion, he has great feel for his pitches and good control, a potentially major weapon going forward, especially if he can get more velocity out of his fastball.

He’s averaging 142.6 kph with his fastball so far this year, per Deltagraphs, a tick higher than last season and also faster than in 2014 (140.7) and 2015 (139.1) before his injury.

“I’d been dealing with a sore right elbow,” Uwasawa said. “Now that the pain has gone, I can throw harder.”

He uses a forkball and slider as his main secondary pitches, and has worked to keep the ball down with those and his other breaking balls.

“With my fastball, I’m not too concerned with keeping it down, but with throwing it hard,” Uwasawa said. “With breaking balls or splitters, you have to keep the ball down, or get it to drop.”

The Fighters are off to a better start than many envisioned, and have a promising rotation, at least at this juncture. The team may no longer have Ohtani — and for all intents and purposes didn’t have him last season due to injury — but Uwasawa, Nick Martinez and Hirotoshi Tanakashi have all gotten off to nice starts.

Whether the new Uwasawa eventually emerges as the team’s best pitcher or not — right now it might be newcomer Martinez who is 3-2 with a 1.88 ERA — a good season from him would go a long way toward helping the Fighters claim a spot in the Climax Series this fall.