On the cusp of spring training, the Red Sox appear on the cusp of adding a reliever who dominated down the stretch in Japan last year.
According to multiple reports in Japan, the Red Sox have reached agreement with righthander Hirokazu Sawamura. Sankei Sports reported that the deal is for two years and $2.4 million with additional incentives. The 32-year-old has a high-octane fastball — one evaluator saw him working at 94-97 m.p.h. — and a hard swing-and-miss splitter, along with a below-average slider.
Sawamura is coming off a mixed 2020 campaign. He struggled early with the Yomiuri Giants to the tune of a 6.08 ERA in 13⅓ innings, with 11 strikeouts (a 17.2-percent rate) and eight walks (12.5 percent), resulting in a demotion to the minors (where he performed poorly) and a surprising midyear trade to the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Yet after the deal, Sawamura proved dominant, forging a 1.71 ERA in 21 innings, his strikeout rate more than doubling to 35.4 percent and his walk rate holding at 12.2 percent. Multiple evaluators believe Sawamura benefited chiefly from a change of scenery.
The performance was reminiscent of his 2015-16, his first two years in the bullpen following a four-year run in the Yomiuri rotation, which included Central League Rookie of the Year honors in 2011. In those two years as a reliever, Sawamura had a 1.97 ERA with a 20.8 percent strikeout rate, 7.8 percent walk rate, and 73 saves.
A shoulder injury wiped out his 2017 season, and left him with diminished velocity when he did return in 2018. However, his power stuff was back in 2020, and increased splitter usage helped produce impressive strikeout rates.
Multiple evaluators saw Sawamura as at least a seventh-inning reliever, a pitcher who alternately dominates the strike zone with elite stuff and then loses the strike zone completely. Still, based on his peaks in the NPB, there’s a chance for an even more prominent late-innings role.