Sunday, March 22, 2009

No Masa?

Spring Training numbers typically don't mean much for veteran players. For reliever Masahide Kobayashi, an exceptionally poor showing this spring has placed his future with Cleveland in a precarious position. Kobayashi has been rocked just about every time he's taken the mound this offseason, surrendering 8 earned runs on 11 hits in only five innings of work. Masa's 14.40 ERA is by far one of the worst among the Tribe's returning relief pitchers and is only a few tenths of a point better than Tomo Ohka's (he was cut last week). In fact, the only reliever with a worse Spring ERA and at least four IP is Eddie Mujica and I don't like his chances of making the team despite being out of minor league options.

ERA isn't everything in March though, just ask team ace Cliff Lee, proud owner of a freshly minted Cy Young award and an 18.89 ERA in his 6.2 innings so far. What's put Kobayashi in Wedge's doghouse is how ineffective he has looked during camp. Some pitchers get rocked because they're trying to practice a certain pitch against live batters, like Lee and his intentionally fastball-heavy outing against Texas. Others display good velocity or action on their pitches, but don't quite have the complete package ready for Opening Day. Those pitchers typically don't have to deal with much additional pressure from the coaching staff.

I haven't had a chance to see Masa throw this offseason, but the few reports I've heard mention some minor inconsistencies with his delivery and a difficulty in keeping the ball down in the zone. With so many pitchers vying for work in the exhibition games, Kobayashi hasn't had much of an opportunity to act on what pitching coach Carl Willis and company are telling him. Even if Masa's five innings were ugly, they're still only five innings.

Fortunately for Kobayashi, he still has a lot of time to make adjustments during this year's extended Spring Training. As the Major League roster continues to get trimmed there should also be more opportunities for Masa as well. A strong rebound over the final 12 Cactus League games against increasingly more difficult lineups (starters will begin to see more at-bats as the season approaches) will go a long way in regaining some semblance of confidence in Kobayashi from Wedge.

It's still too early to decide Kobayashi's fate, but all he has to do is work out the kinks in his delivery over the next three weeks. He was guaranteed a roster spot heading in and I'd be surprised if Cleveland cut him from the team unless his pitching totally fell off a cliff. Even then, I think a more likely destination would be the disabled list to start the season.

Assuming Kobayashi is healthy (I have my doubts, but Masa says he's fine) his struggles in March are a legitimate concern. The whole point of Cleveland limiting him to six innings in the last two months of the 2008 season was so he'd be ready for 2009. Well, the 2009 season is almost here and Masa is still throwing like the same guy who posted a 10.32 ERA and 2.47 WHIP over 11.1 IP after the All Star break (small sample size, I know, but those numbers are still pretty representative of how bad he actually was). I still believe that Masa just ran out of steam in the second half of last season. I don't even think there was a serious injury involved, Kobayashi just seemed fatigued half-way through his first Major League season.

Regular readers are probably familiar with my take on Kobayashi by now and I'm still very confident that the transition between NPB and MLB is at the root of Kobayashi's struggles. The NPB regular season has only 144 games compared to the 162 for MLB. Combine the longer season with more stressful outings because of the superior hitters and tougher lineups and you can see how the workload can pile up quickly on a 34 year old rookie.

It's possible Cleveland underestimated the toll this transition would take on Kobayashi over the course of an entire season given his age. I'm not sure there was any way Cleveland could have predicted Kobayashi's struggles though; he is the exception rather than the rule. Most Japanese pitchers who cross the pond do so late in their career, especially relievers. Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka are rare cases in that they began their Major League careers at a relatively young age (both were 26). Below are four Japanese pitchers who experienced at least modest success in the Majors.

PitcherTeamSeason (Year)AgeIP (GS)SVK/BBERAWHIPERA+
S. HasegawaANARookie (1997)28116.7 (7)01.803.931.40119

SEABest (2003)3473.0161.771.481.09291

Career --720.3331.683.711.32124

PitcherTeamSeason (Year)AgeIP (GS)SVK/BBERAWHIPERA+
K. SasakiSEARookie (2000)3262.7372.513.161.16145

SEABest (2002)3460.7373.652.521.05168

Career --223.31293.143.141.084138

PitcherTeamSeason (Year)AgeIP (GS)SVK/BBERAWHIPERA+
H. OkajimaBOSRookie (2007)3169.053.702.220.971214

BOSBest (2007)3262.012.602.611.16177

Career --

PitcherTeamSeason (Year)AgeIP (GS)SVK/BBERAWHIPERA+
T. SaitoLADRookie (2006)3678.3244.652.070.906217

LADBest (2007)3764.3396.001.400.715327

LADCareer --189.7814.711.951.19229

Note that Shigetoshi Hasegawa was the only one to break into the Majors before the age of 30. Interestingly enough, Hasegawa went on to post his best overall season at the age of 34 resulting in an appearance in the All Star game and an ERA+ of 291. Kaz Sasaki and Takashi Saito debuted at ages 32 and 36 respectively and have multiple seasons as top-shelf closers on their resumes. Hideki Okajima developed into an elite setup man for Boston in his rookie season and boasts a 2.14 postseason ERA over 16 games. There is certainly a precedent for Japanese relievers achieving success at the Major League level after the age of 30.

The reason I was so excited about Masa's rookie season was because I thought Cleveland had landed an Okajima or a Sasaki; a veteran reliever whose dominance in the Nippon Pro league would translate well in the Majors. Kobayashi's 227 saves are the most all-time by a Japanese player (Sasaki has the second-most) and he finished with a career 2.79 ERA over nine seasons. Kobayashi's career in Japan was every bit as good or better than the other relievers listed above. But unlike his fellow Japanese All Stars, Masa was merely average with the Tribe. Why did Masa struggle where similar Japanese rookies thrived?

M. Kobayashi3455.762.504.531.4198

Even though each Japanese rookie had to deal with a similar increase in innings, Masa was the only one who failed to reach at least 60 innings, having only been effective for about 50 innings. It's difficult to say how much of this can be corrected the second time around through better conditioning and an improved knowledge of how the full season tends to play out. This is why Kobayashi's lackluster spring is such a concern. The team gave shut him down last season with the expectation that he would be ready to go for 2009, but this has not been the case. Instead, Kobayashi is still exhibiting some of the symptoms he suffered from before, although minor improvements have supposedly been made as of late.

According to Manager Eric Wedge, "this is a time when you need to see some performance to have an idea of what you can count on." Wedge is expecting to see significant improvement out of Masa heading into April or he may have to start drawing up a contingency plan. Eating Kobayashi's $3 million, guaranteed contract is certainly a possibility for Cleveland.

Aaron Fultz was owed $1.5 million entering the 2008 season, but was cut from the team in mid-March. Fultz surrendered 11 ER, 16 H, and 3 BB in 8 1/3 IP during Spring Training and looked so bad the team decided to pay him not to pitch for them. Given that Kobayashi's contract is worth twice as much and there is still a lot of time for evaluation before the season starts, I don't think the team has seriously considered cutting him yet.

I think the best approach would be to give Masa as much time as possible to improve and leave him on the 25-man roster to start the season. If he gets shelled in April and May with little hope of improvement, then the team should set him loose. They're on the hook for the $3 mil either way, so they might as well see what they have by testing him in meaningful innings first. While seeing the $3 million get flushed away would be disappointing, Masa's replacement would likely be playing for a minimum salary.

With all the talented relievers waiting in the minors, Cleveland could receive a significant upgrade to their bullpen and only have to pay another $400,000. Some of these prospects have a real shot at sticking in the Majors right now.

My pick for an early call-up to replace Kobayashi is Tony Sipp. Sipp appears to be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and had a stellar showing in camp. The 24 year-old southpaw gave up only 3 H and 1 ER with 5 K and no walks over 4 IP, earning loads of praise from the coaching staff. Sipp has long been a highly touted prospect in the Tribe's system and word on the street is that he could make a positive impact in Cleveland. Kobayashi wasn't going to see any high-leverage innings anyway, so slotting in a rookie instead would leave the bullpen hierarchy intact.

I tend to view Sipp in a similar lens to Adam Miller in that they're both high-ceiling flamethrowers who have been derailed by injuries. Miller was a lock for the final spot in the bullpen, but complications with a finger ligament in his throwing hand have put his entire career in doubt. If Miller were healthy, now would have been the time to test him in the Majors. Now that Sipp is healthy, should the team afford him a similar opportunity? Maybe not, since Sipp was reassigned to the minors in the last round of cuts. I think he proved that he is healthy though and impressed enough people to be on the short list in case an extra reliever is suddenly needed.

Assuming the team breaks camp with seven relievers, Zach Jackson appears to be the leading candidate for the final spot as a long man, rounding out a pen that includes Kerry Wood, Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, Joe Smith, Rafael Betancourt, and Kobayashi.

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