Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Tigers should consider trading pitcher Shintaro Fujinami

by Jason Coskrey

The Hanshin Tigers should trade pitcher Shintaro Fujinami.

Yes, that Shintaro Fujinami. The fire-balling right-hander who dominated at Koshien Stadium during Osaka Toin’s run to the Summer Koshien title in 2012. The tall, lean rising star who for the next three years, while playing his home games at the same venue as a pro for the Hanshin Tigers, looked ready to take his place beside Shohei Ohtani and Tomoyuki Sugano as one of NPB’s next great pitching stars.

Now, he looks like a pitcher in danger of flaming out. His promise has given way to poor results, a lack of control and inexplicable wildness on the mound.

The pressure on the 24-year-old hurler has been steadily building as he’s absorbed jeers from fans and been criticized in the media — sometimes by his own manager.

Trading him would be a bold move by NPB standards, but it would allow Hanshin to get rid of the drama, get something in return and also allow Fujinami to get back on track somewhere else.

While Hanshin has been content to seemingly do the same thing over and over in hopes of a different result, Fujinami continues to struggle. He pitched at home against the Dragons on July 4 and allowed four runs in 5⅓ innings of a game the Tigers rallied to win. Fujinami, fortunately for him, was left out of the decision as his ERA ballooned to 5.36

“I didn’t have a good feeling in the bullpen,” he was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon. “I just couldn’t bring everything together and fix it.”

In the days following that game, Tokyo Sports published a report saying Hanshin was asking the fans to take it easier on Fujinami. Catcher Ryutaro Umeno even used part of his hero interview on July 4 to encourage fans to get behind the pitcher, who he praised for his growth.

“I think Shintaro can meet the expectations if you support him even more,” Umeno said from the podium.

The gesture from Umeno aside, it’s not great if things have reached this point.

Fujinami is 2-2 in eight starts this season, with only two quality starts. He was 3-5 with a 4.12 ERA in 11 starts last season.

It wasn’t always like this. From 2014-2016, Fujinami finished three-straight seasons with a WAR of at least 4.5 (per Deltagraphs) and ended two of those with a sub-3.00 ERA. He was clearly a player on the rise and nearly won the Sawamura Award in 2015. In his first three seasons (2013-2016), Fujinami was 35-21 with a 2.86 ERA in 499⅔ innings.

The cracks began to show in 2016, though he still managed decent numbers, and things really went south in 2017. Some have faulted his mechanics, others say he has the yips. At his worst now, his arsenal can resemble a fleet of really fast knuckleballs, as once a pitch leaves his hands, it’s anyone’s guess as to where it’s headed.

It doesn’t help he’s under immense scrutiny all the time, burdened with the pressure of living up to expectations while trying to prove his worth to what has been an unforgiving, from the outside at least, coaching staff. It’s hard to pitch effectively while constantly looking over your shoulder at the first sign of trouble. Once something goes awry, the pressure on Fujinami to keep it together has likely led to overthrowing, overthinking and in many cases disaster.

Fujinami is getting it from all sides, and that can be a lot for anyone to bear, let alone thrive under.

Maybe a change of culture, be it through a trade or the Tigers changing internally, would do him good. An unburdened Fujinami, pitching where his confidence isn’t constantly under assault, might trend back toward the 2015 version. The Tigers meanwhile could focus on the pitchers they have left.

What’s clear is whatever they’re doing isn’t working. A trade would be a big move, but moving forward in some way has to be better than the rut both sides are stuck in now.