It is no secret that consistency is not a strength for Orioles relief pitcher Shintaro Fujinami. Fujinami notoriously struggled as a starting pitcher with the Oakland Athletics early in the season before being moved to the bullpen and eventually traded to Baltimore in exchange for a 26-year-old minor league pitcher in Easton Lucas.
With the Orioles, Fuji has a 4.50 ERA with a 4.08 FIP in 21 appearances. During this past series against the Angels, he pitched a scoreless inning on Tuesday and Wednesday and secured a crucial save for the Orioles in the back-and-forth 5-4 win on Tuesday. The raw potential was apparent from the moment the Orioles acquired Fuji in July with his pure stuff, but issues with command and pitch selection have caused issues and kept him from being a premier reliever.
However, the injury to Felix Bautista has left the Orioles desperate for pitchers to fill the void and the hope for the Orioles is that Fujinami can pitch more consistently and more effectively over the last month of the regular season and into the postseason.
Shintaro Fujinami could be one of the most important Orioles relievers down the stretch
Despite the extreme struggles, the peripherals suggested that Fujinami was not a horrific pitcher in Oakland for the first half of the season. With a 8.57 ERA and 48 ERA+, Fuji also had a 4.90 FIP fueled by his 9.3 strikeout per nine inning rate. Walks were an issue as he allowed 5.5 per nine innings.
Since coming to Baltimore, he has improved in both strikeouts and walks as he has increased his strikeout rate to 11 per nine innings and decreased his walk rate to 3.7 per nine. His strikeout to walk ratio has also improved from 1.70 with Oakland to 3.00 with Baltimore. The home run rate has remained stagnant between the two stops so his ability to keep the ball in the yard has not changed despite the change in scenery.
Obviously, the move from the rotation to the bullpen fueled Fujinami's success, as fatigue diminished his results. As a starter, his effectiveness dipped dramatically between his first, second, and third times through the order. He rarely even faced a batter a second time as a starter, but his numbers were poor in those situations. In the second time through the batting order, Fuji walked three batters for every strikeout, and he never recorded a strikeout in 10 plate appearances when facing a lineup for the third time.
The trend is even more glaring when looking at his pitch count. When he pitches as a starter or reliever, he is most effective through his first 25 pitches. When his pitch count is 25 or below, opponents slash .207/.304/.370. Walks and hard contact are still an issue in this scenario but he records strikeouts at a great rate which helps keep opponent success to a minimum.
From pitch 26 on, Fuji might as well be a batting practice pitcher. Similarly, Fuji has had minimal success as a reliever with zero days of rest but has been one of the most effective relievers in the Orioles bullpen when he has at least one day of rest.
Fatigue aside, another issue for Fujinami has been his inability to avoid hard contact. Notably, Fuji ranks in the ninth percentile for MLB pitchers in hard hit percentage. Essentially, hitters have no trouble making hard contact off him when they do make contact.
Shintaro also has no problem beating hitters with his hard fastball, but he has no deception which contributes to his struggles. While ranking in the 86th percentile for whiff percentage, he only ranks in the fourth percentile for chase percentage. He also ranks in the seventh percentile for average exit velocity which means that when hitters make contact with a Fuji pitch, it is hard and fast contact.
For most of the season, Fujinami had no real breaking pitch and relied on the three variations of his fastball. The fastball velocity is no secret as his average fastball sits at 96.2 miles per hour with great extension which gets on hitters quickly. Along with the four-seamer, Fujinami changed direction with the fastball with a splitter and cutter.
He has pitched 17 sliders and one curveball all season, so those two pitches are essentially non-existent in his repertoire. However, the sweeper has been the pitch that has steadily seen increased usage since the trade to the Orioles.
In July, Shintaro used his sweeper only 3.4 percent of the time and was his fourth most used pitch behind the three fastballs. That usage has increased to 13.7 percent so far in September and is used more frequently than his cutter. This suggests that the Orioles pitching coaches are working with Fuji to increase of that pitch.
Ultimately, September is a big month for the Orioles as they continue to push for the Postseason and the AL East division title but also for Fujinami as he hopes to salvage a rough season in his first year in Major League Baseball. Fuji hits free agency at the end of the season, which means that this month and his performance in the postseason could be the difference of millions of dollars on the open market.
Without Bautista, the Orioles need strong performances out of their bullpen pieces, and they especially need performances that do not turn to complete trainwrecks out of Fujinami over the final month. Utilizing him sparingly and continuing to hone his sweeper to complement his dominating fastball will be the factors that put him in the best scenario for success over September.