2010 was supposed to be a year of redemption for Kenshin Kawakami. After signing a three-year, $23 million dollar contract in 2009, expectations were skeptical, but optimistic for one of Japan’s most celebrated pitchers over the last decade. His debut season in the United States wasn’t as successful as he and Braves fans had all hoped it would be, with a widely underwhelming 7-13 record on top of a year that saw high pitch counts, nibbling of the corners, and an eventual demotion to the bullpen to end out the year. There were plenty of excuses thrown around to explain the struggles, from poor run support, league and cultural adaptation, the Japanese six-man rotation versus America’s five, all the way to the texture of the baseball itself, but the bottom line is that the Braves weren’t winning games when Kawakami was taking the hill.
With a year of American baseball under his belt, things were supposed to be different in ’10. It was time to get back to the baseball player that was the Rookie of the Year in 1998, NPB’s Central League MVP and Sawamura (Japan’s Cy Young) winner in 2004, and member of the NPB Japan Series champion Chunichi Dragons in 2007. Yes, 2010 was supposed to be a much different year than 2009 was; and actually, it was.
He was even worse.
In recent years, I don’t think there’s been a more frustrating pitcher to Braves Country as Kenshin Kawakami has been. Guys like Kyle Davies, Chuck James and Jorge Sosa of previous seasons had the luxury of being inexpensive options that could easily be demoted or benched without much repercussion. And in today’s fandom of sports, fans are smarter, more into the numbers, both statistically and financially, and most certainly more opinionated. And somewhere along the line, fans really began to care about the financial aspects of constructing a roster, despite it only being as much of their money as they invested into supporting their teams. And fans really hated when players signed to big-money simply did not deliver, with no excuses. Needless to say, many have already stuck the proverbial fork into KK, and don’t want to see him suiting up for the Braves in any capacity next year.
Kenshin Kawakami finished out 2010 with an embarrassing 1-10 record, and a bloated ERA of 5.15. He started 15 games before being supplanted by the return of Jair Jurrjens and the emergence of Kris Medlen. After a single appearance out of the bullpen, he was demoted to AAA-Gwinnett, where he started five games, before returning to the Major League roster in September, where he made one more start, and one more appearance out of the bullpen, ending out the year with 16 starts and only 87.1 innings pitched. His hair improvement in K/9 (6.08) was negated by his hair regression in BB/9 (3.30) en route to a slightly worse 1.49 WHIP. KK had a noticeable spike in the unlucky department, with a .320 BABIP, as indicative by ground balls going down (39.7 GB%) and line drives going up (22.3 LD%)
It doesn’t take a genius to see that Kenshin Kawakami had an even more disappointing season in 2010 than he did the year prior. Anyone simply watching the games at the park or on television could see that this was a guy that didn’t really have great stuff, wasn’t dominating the opposition, and was getting hit a little too hard, too often. And the numbers at the end of the season quantify most of it. I’m not going to try and convince people that KK’s better than his numbers say, or that he’d be a much more serviceable starter on any of the 29 other MLB teams. I am going to share a lot of facts and numbers, attempt to dispel/justify some popular beliefs, and let you guys come to your own conclusions, however.
Believe it or not, or maybe I’m just jaded, but there are some facets of KK’s game that I was surprised were as good, or comparable to his teammates, as they were. The facts and information were derived from a combination of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference.com, as well as quite literally, combing through game logs of every one of Kenshin Kawakami’s starts, looking for discrepancies and anomalies.
Popular Opinion: Kenshin Kawakami isn’t as good as the others in the rotation.
As shown above in this graph of cherry-picked statistics, it’s clear that it was true that Kenshin Kawakami was the worst pitcher on the Braves staff in 2010. From ERA to walks per nine, to WAR, KK was ranked below the three other prominent starters, with the one exception of having a better K/9 rating than Tim Hudson which shouldn’t be surprise to anyone given Huddy’s GB rates. So after coming to the obvious conclusion that KK was poor, I decided to look at why he was so bad, and the results were a little perplexing.
Obviously, I’ve chosen to focus on the volume of pitches in relation to strikes and contact, and what we have is the following:
Admittedly, I was surprised to see that on average, KK was only throwing 3.73 pitches per batter. And for a guy that it always felt like he was getting into deep counts with every single batter, or not throwing first pitch strikes, I figured that the other strike scenarios were probably way worse than his counterparts.
Surprisingly, KK’s peripherals in this case aren’t that far off from his fellow starters. In fact, he threw a higher percentage of 1st pitch strikes than Lowe and Hudson, and was practically as efficient at getting hitters to whiff as Hanson and Lowe. It was my assumption that batters were able to foul off a lot of pitches to drive up his pitch counts, but at 27%, he’s no worse off than Tommy Hanson. The only thing that stands out to me really is the 82% contact-ability of his pitches, and despite the fact that Tim Hudson also has 82% of his pitches touchable, that’s actually his objective.
So what makes KK so different than his counterparts? Given the first graph, it’s obvious that the .320 BABIP and 22.3% LD% rate really hurt him, but I also noticed this little discrepancy between KK and the others:
KK’s percentage of hits that are extra-base hits are almost double than Hanson, Hudson or Lowe’s, and an alarming 46% of balls put into play on KK result in extra bases (factoring in extra bases from errors). The league average is 33%, and although it’s nice to see the other three bettering that, KK is way off in the other direction.
So my hypothetical answer to the question of why Kenshin Kawakami isn’t as good as his teammates, the answers lie in the facts that he walks a noticeable amount more batters, and too many balls put in play, which land for hits, and way too often, for extra base hits. But otherwise, he’s as efficient at throwing strikes, striking out batters, and statistically throws a comparable amount of pitches at a contactable rate than the others.
Popular Opinion: Kenshin Kawakami doesn’t go deep into games / throws too many pitches.
KK averaged 5.1 IP per outing over his 16 starts. He didn’t go deep into games, consistently, yes.
Rule of thumb is that good pitchers should throw 12-15 pitches per inning, and typically be capable of getting to around 100 pitches. If that’s the case, then KK misses the mark in both cases, because he averaged 16.74 pitches per inning, and 88.86 pitches per start. That would equate to roughly 100 pitches per six innings, which doesn’t sound at all too bad, but the results haven’t been too kind to KK, and he’s typically being removed due to ineffectiveness or deficit requiring a pinch-hitter. I honestly felt that the averages there were a little on the low side, but he did have five games where he averaged 20+ pitchers per inning, and went 5.1 IP or fewer, which spiked that notion.
Oddly, seemingly contradictory to the graph above of pitches per batter, KK averaged 6.45 balls per inning, and 32.63 balls thrown per start. It doesn’t feel that correct, given that a 3.73 pitches per PA seems more than adequate, but those are the numbers. So given the average of pitches he throws a start, 37% of KK’s pitches per start are balls. I thought that would be high, but compared to the Big Three, it’s right on par; but keep in mind that the three of them average roughly 96 pitches per start.
Popular Opinion: Kenshin Kawakami got no run support.
Kenshin Kawakami averaged a meager 1.94 runs of support in innings pitched (not support/9). The bottom line is that no pitcher can expect to regularly win without borderline flawless stuff, with that little support. The Braves as a team, averaged 2.91 runs per innings 1-6 on the year as a whole, and it’s anyone’s guess to if KK’s record would have been better with an additional run of support each game. Possibly, and considering the Braves averaged 1.83 runs from the 7th on, they would have been efficient at plating some insurance RIBz in the process.
Popular Opinion: Kenshin Kawakami can’t hold onto leads.
KK has blown seven leads. Three 1-run leads, two 2-run leads, and one aberrational 4-run lead.
Here’s an interesting fact: On average throughout his 16 starts, Kenshin Kawakami got better as the game progressed. Batters subsequently got worse the second and third times through the order against KK. But more importantly, a corresponding effectiveness was in pitches 1-75; KK was very hittable in his first 25 pitches, not so much in his next 25 pitches, even less hittable between pitches 50-74, but 75-100 is typically where the fatigue set in for KK, and he became mortal again. Times through the order didn’t support my theory that KK was often left in too long, but based on pitch counts, it does.
More food for thought: Considering the average KK outing was done by the 6th inning, I’m subjectively going to break down his outings as "early" – 1st and 2nd innings, "mid" – 3rd and 4th innings, and "late" – 5+.
Game lost early: 5
Game lost mid: 0
Game lost late: 5*
* pitch counts: 65, 102, 79, 79, 110
In all ten of KK’s losing decisions, the game-deciding run plated within the first two innings, or in a KK-late inning scenario. This supports that he obviously has issues in early innings from time to time, but certainly settles down quite nicely, until the pitch count rises, fatigue sets in, and then he’s left in, "too long," in terms of pitches, and not innings.
Popular Opinion: KK’s demotion was handled poorly.
Sent to the bullpen on June 27th, a day after recording his first and only win of 2010. 19 days later, on July 16th, KK makes an appearance out of the bullpen, in a game against the Brewers while the Braves were down 6-3. He gave up three earned runs in an inning of work, throwing 22 pitches. 13 days later, KK is demoted to AAA-Gwinnett, where he makes his first start in 32 days, pitching 2.2 innings. He is given 4-runs of support, while only surrendering 1 earned run, but Gwinnett blows the lead, resulting in a no-decision. After a month of starting pitching on a regular schedule, KK is recalled on September 1 back to Atlanta. On September 3rd, KK is started in place of Derek Lowe who took the start off due to bone chips in elbow. Against the Marlins, he allows five hits, four walks, and five earned runs in three innings of work, throwing 73 pitches in the process. He doesn’t start another game. Six days later, against the Cardinals, KK makes an appearance out of the bullpen, down seven in a blowout. He allows another run to plate. KK is never seen again for the remainder of the year.
Come to your own conclusion on this one.
Don’t let David Ross catch Kenshin Kawakami. In the 23.1 innings where David Ross caught KK, batters were hitting .319/.391/.543, and plated 21 earned runs. KK’s ERA with Ross is an even more bloated 8.10 ERA. His BABIP jumped up even more, to .341. And to think Ross bragged about his brief experiences catching Japanese pitchers in Los Angeles and Boston being beneficial compared to McCann’s zero experience.
Kenshin Kawakami should do whatever it takes to avoid three ball counts. Once three balls were in the count, the at-bats were pretty much a forlorn conclusion. 3-0 counts led to 10 walks, or became 3-1 counts, which led to five walks, or batters mashing .600/1.533OPS. If he managed to get another strike over, 3-2 counts resulted in 17 walks, 10 strike outs, and hitters still clubbing at .314/1.243OPS. As a whole, getting KK into a three ball count yielded a .628 OBP for batters.
On the year as a whole, KK weaned off the 4-seam fastball, and threw a lot more cutters and splitters. One of the biggest problems with KK’s arsenal was that his curveballs weren’t reliably being thrown for strikes, and his cutters and splitters weren’t nearly as untouchable as he’d wanted them to be, as evidenced by the 82% contact percentage of his pitches. The bottom line is that it was fairly too easy for hitters to foul off or wait out KK’s pitches. Looking back through PitchFX graphs of KK’s starts, the most commonly seen outcomes were hanging splitters to RHBs, and LHBs seemingly waiting for the 4-seam fastball.
If the Braves can’t trade him, whether you like it or not, expect Kenshin Kawakami to remain a Brave throughout 2011. Now whether or not you should expect to see him actually play baseball is another thing, but typically, teams as financially conscious as the Braves generally don’t like guys earning $7.3M sitting on their butts doing nothing. Despite the fact that KK doing nothing, could still "be doing" the team a favor. I see two realistic outcomes for Kawakami the Brave in 2011: KK enters the season slotted in the bullpen, whether it’s as a long man or simply middle relief. Or he’ll be put into the AAA-Gwinnett rotation, to keep stretched out and actually working, in a lower pressure environment. But with the emergences of Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, combined with the projected starters of Hudson, Hanson, Lowe and Jurrjens, there’s already a small logjam of starting pitching that’s not going to have any room for Kenshin Kawakami.
Out of all the players I’ve been tasked to review, seriously, none of them have been as complex or enigmatic as Kenshin Kawkami has been. Where as all the other players have solitary Word files, KK's got an entire folder with several text documents of notes and observations. All for a guy who might not even be back, too!