April 29, 2009 at 12:14 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves, Pitching, Player Analysis
21.2 IP, 24 H, 20 R, 17 ER (7.06 ERA), 11 BB, 18 K, 5 HR. No, that isn’t one of Chuck James’ Grapefruit League lines, it’s Kenshin Kawakami’s line through 4 starts. And it’s ugly. The things that jump out at me in the line are the 11 BB’s and 5 HR. That tells me he’s struggling with command (plus I also watch the games, and he’s struggling with command). I’ve heard people all over the place calling for Kawakami to be moved to the bullpen or optioned to AAA. There’s no question Kawakami hasn’t been particularly good, but too much is being made of his slow start and it is very premature to call for his head. I’ll try to explain some of the reasons why he’s off to a slow start.
1) Adjusting to a 5 man rotation.
In Japan, teams utilize a 6-man rotation. Since Kawakami was the ace of his staff for most of his NPB career, the Chunichi Dragons pitched him every chance they got. He pitched on 5 days rest for most of his career. Now he’s in a 5 man rotation and pitching on 4 days rest (his 3 most recent games have all been on 4 dr). I’ve noticed he’s getting fatigued after the 3rd or 4th inning, this probably has a lot to do with it. In Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 2 starts on 4 days rest in April of his MLB rookie year he gave up 10 ER in 13 innings. It is going to take some adjusting for Kawakami to get used to a 5 man rotation. The problem was exacerbated by the Braves’ half baked strategy of skipping the 5th starter every other time through the rotation. Kawakami, and all of the starters for that matter, could’ve used the extra rest. I’ll save the 5th starter rant for later, but my position on the issue is: pick one. Either run a 5 man rotation and use the ENTIRE rotation or run a 4 man rotation. This 4 and 1/2 man rotation crap hopefully came to an end last night, but we’ll see.
2) Adjusting to a smaller strike zone.
In NPB, the strike zone is a little bit bigger than MLB’s strike zone. Japanese hitters are so contact-oriented that it’s necessary to have a larger strike zone for the game to work. I’ve watched Kawakami throw a 3-2 pitch on the inside corner of the plate slightly below the hitter’s knees (right or left handed batters) and it get called a ball multiple times, whereas in Japan (because the hitters are shorter and because the strike zone is bigger) it would be a called 3rd strike (or swung at because Japanese hitters actually have a 2-strike approach, something most MLB players don’t have). Learning a new strike zone has to be one of the hardest things to do, but Kawakami is a veteran and I’m confident he’ll be able to make the adjustments necessary to be successful with MLB’s smaller strike zone. Kawakami is all about mixing speeds, changing the eye level of the hitters, keeping them off balance, etc. He has pinpoint control, but he can have tons of success in MLB pitching to contact.
3) Adjusting to a larger ball.
I previously mentioned that Kawakami is having trouble getting deep into games and is showing fatigue after the 3rd or 4th inning. I attributed this somewhat to pitching on 4, rather than 5, days rest. Some of this also has to do with the fact that NPB utilizes a ball smaller in both weight and diameter. Throwing a heavier ball requires more arm, shoulder, and lower body strength. It isn’t much for 1 pitch, but over the course of 100 pitches (plus warm up pitches), the extra effort adds up and results in fatigue. I also blame some of his lack of control on the larger baseball. When you’ve made a career out of controlling your pitches with a smaller baseball then you’re handed a larger one and asked to do the exact same thing, you’re going to struggle. Once again, like Matsuzaka and Kuroda, I’m confident that Kawakami will be able to adjust to the larger baseball. It will require him to build more strength and stamina in his arm, shoulder, and legs, but I’m confident he will.
4) A slow start.
Sometimes people just get off to a slow start. Cole Hamels is currently 0-2 with a 7.27 ERA. Jake Peavy is 2-3 with a 5.74 ERA. A.J. Burnett is sporting a 5.47 ERA. Josh Beckett currently has a 6.00 ERA. These are all people that were in the pre-season Cy Young conversation. There’s nothing to explain their slow starts other than they’re having slow starts. Sometimes it happens and there’s nothing you can do about it. But, the good news is they usually (knock on wood) get back on track and finish the year strong. As soon as Kawakami makes his adjustments I’m certain he’ll finish the season strong.
5) Bad defense behind him.
Before last night (when we wisely used Omar Infante at 2B because in addition to not being in a 4 for 39 slump, he doesn’t suck in the field), the Braves were 28th in baseball in defensive efficiency. Defensive efficiency is a metric that tells you how well your defense converts balls put in play by the opposing hitters into outs. Being 28th in that category is completely unacceptable considering the defensively talented group we’ve put together. Kenshin has been subject to particularly bad defense behind him. Only two-thirds of the time do balls put in play against him result in outs. Only Javier Vazquez among our starting staff has a worse defensive efficiency behind him and our defense has flat out embarrassed itself with Vazquez on the hill. Kawakami too, really. A .667 defensive efficiency is terrible and there’s no excuse for it. When your defense is bad, it will make your pitchers look bad. Plain and simple. Such has certainly been the case for Kawakami. Of course, you can’t blame the defense entirely for Kawakami’s shortcomings. The defense isn’t responsible for the 11 walks or 5 homers he’s surrendered. But the defense certainly hasn’t helped him out.
So, why is Kawakami off to a slow start? Well, the answer is probably a little bit of everything aforementioned. It will take time for Kawakami to adjust to MLB. We should’ve all seen this coming. You don’t jump into a completely different way of doing things and immediately have success. It just doesn’t happen. Hopefully Kawakami will be able to transition quickly and enjoy a successful MLB Rookie campaign. And I think he will. But we’ll see.