Our four-part series about the Tigers and the upcoming 2015 season concludes today with a look at the relievers as a whole. Click here for infield analysis, here for the outfield and here for the starting pitchers. The relief squad is a complicated group, as it includes men who might get the occasional spot start, but also sees the most shuffling (between the farm and the top team) during the year. I will list several players and their tendencies and attributes, but this is by no means a thorough look at every hurler on the team. As spring training goes on, more players will stand out while others might fade off. OK, let’s get to it. We start with a look at our closer!
The Korean veteran closer made his presence felt in Japan. Last season his fastball induced a swinging strike rate of 15.2% while yielding a batting average of .147. Right. Players swung and missed more frequently than they recorded hits off his fastball. That’s almost unheard of! When he did get hit, as is the case with closers, it often cost the team a win, but his saves rate (39 of 46) is still quite high and the team is hoping he will add a sinker or forkball to the repertoire this spring. Having this weapon in his arsenal will only make him stronger and more intimidating to opposing hitters in 2015. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Oh has expressed an interest in testing his skills in the majors in 2016 (and is already being scouted), so this will likely be his final year with the club.
The elder statesman of the club, Fukuhara also pushes his fastball (around 70% of his pitches) more than any other. It is not nearly as effective as Oh’s, but still he managed to hold down the fort most of the time. At 38 years old, the senior should definitely be used more selectively to conserve his energy and keep his numbers down. As can be imagined, he fared much worse when pitching on consecutive days than when given at least a day’s rest. He’s made 50+ appearances in four straight seasons, but that streak will have to come to an end soon, preferably in 2015.
Another longtime veteran, Andoh saw his numbers spike in 2014 much like Fukuhara’s did. His fastball got tagged pretty badly, and he really did not have any one pitch that could get him out of trouble. His strength comes in his control, and he led the league with the lowest “errant pitch” rate (2.5%). Andoh has also thrown in 50+ games several seasons in a row, and at 37, could stand to be used more sparingly as well. Perhaps giving him and Fukuhara alternating turns down in Naruohama would help conserve them both for the postseason.
Mostly used as a situational reliever in 2014, but showed his worth by getting the team out of countless jams, especially against lefty hitters. Takamiya made Giants’ cleanup hitter Shinnosuke Abe look plain foolish in the postseason, but also posted a perfect ERA against the Dragons and Carp in the regular season. A good spring will get him more innings and put him in a more prominent role in 2015.
Tsuru made a few starts last season and was brought in as a reliever as well. It is difficult to know what his role will be in the future, but he needs a strong spring to make himself a more important part of the puzzle.
After two injury-plagued seasons, the youngster has vowed to remain healthy in 2015 and bring his A-game. He’s got an overpowering fastball and is not afraid to use it, and he could pick up the bulk of the work that opens up as Fukuhara and Andoh wind down their careers. With a little more experience and success, he could be a candidate to close for the team in 2016.
There are a bunch of other names that shall remain just names on this list for the time being. Some played a little last year (Kazuya Tsutsui, Tatsuya Kojima, Kosuke Katoh, Yutaka Tamaki) while others are just trying to make their big league debut (Kojiro Tanabo, Kazuya Itoh, Hiroya Shimamoto, etc.).
I wish I could say the relief is set and that the team’s leads will all be safe, but reality is that this group is quite unstable. We hope Oh will continue to provide rock-solid ninth inning performances and that the old guys have one last good season in them. We hope Matsuda stays healthy and develops into a lights-out set up man or even closer. We hope Takamiya takes on a bigger role and excels as the best lefty reliever on the team. We hope some of the others step up and blossom into great professionals. Unfortunately, all of these things have to work together for the season to be a success. If last season is any indication, fans will be white-knuckled all season long. Here’s to hoping this group develops into a strength.