Today’s player is probably the least likely to appear in a major league game in 2007, but not including him on this list would be criminal. Kazumi Saitoh, a right-handed starting pitcher for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, is easily the best pitcher in Japan not named Matsuzaka, perhaps even better than his more renowned countryman.
Saitoh just finished an absolutely dominant 2006 in heartbreaking fashion, losing both playoff starts he made 1-0. Fortunately, he can take solace in winning the 2006 Sawamura Award, the third time in the past four years he’s done so (sharing the 2003 award with Kei Igawa). According to this chart, he’s 6’2″ tall and weighs about 200 pounds; he’s not huge, but neither is he undersized. He turned 28 years old this year and is at the peak of his abilities.
Saitoh is likely to succeed initially in MLB both because of his unique windup and his good stuff. During his full windup, he pauses briefly with his hands over his head, and again as he gathers his weight above his plant leg before finishing his delivery. His follow-through is reminiscent of Pedro Martinez with its high leg kick. Check out this thread on Detect-O-Vision for an in-depth analysis of Saitoh’s mechanics.
Although hitters may initially be befuddled by his windup, Saitoh has legitimately nasty stuff; therefore, his success is very likely to translate well in America. His best pitch is probably a diving forkball that he uses as a strikeout pitch to both righties and lefties, but Saitoh also can dial his fastball up into the low-to-mid 90s (mostly sitting at 90-91). He also throws a slow overhand curve, a slider, and a pitch that runs away from left-handed hitters (probably a shuuto – see the entry on Hiroki Kuroda for details). He won’t need all of those pitches to be successful in the majors – I expect him to pare his arsenal down a bit. In any event, I have no doubt that Saito has the arsenal to succeed against major league hitters.
Unfortunately, Saitoh still has two seasons left on the contract he signed with SoftBank. Thus, we are unlikely to see him posted this offseason (although he will be a very good candidate to be posted a year from now). I hope for our sakes that he comes over as soon as possible so we can witness his career at its apex.
I’ll save a full projection for later this week; however, Saitoh looks to be nearly Matsuzaka’s equal. While his fastball is not quite up to par with Matsuzaka’s offering, his splitter is (in my eyes, at least) every bit as good a strikeout pitch as is Matsuzaka’s slider. I’d expect a season along the lines of this: 32 GS, 200 IP, 165 K, 55 BB, and 3.50 ERA. Not too shabby. Expect him to command a posting fee north of $15 million and an annual salary approaching $10 million. Expect him to be well worth it.
Saitoh 2006 Statistics:
W L ERA GP GS CG ShO Hld GF Sv IP H R ER HR BB SO 18 5 1.75 26 26 8 5 0 0 0 201.0 147 50 39 10 46 205