Takashi Saito: Atlanta Braves 2010 Player Preview

Saito Cartoon

This player preview was written by Jacob Peterson, who posts here as pacgnosis.

Only two Japanese players have ever amassed 50 or more saves in Major League Baseball: Kazuhiro Sasaki (129) and Takashi Saito (83).  Aside from this accomplishment, Sasaki and Saito have quite a bit in common.  They were teammates at Tohoku Fukushi University, and then with the Yokohama BayStars, where they won the NPB championship in 1998.  They were also two of the main characters in the manga (Japanese comic book) Sasaki-Sama Ni Negaio, which roughly translates as "Mr. Sasaki of the Shooting Stars."  In the manga, Saito is Sasaki's gullible, goofy sidekick. Together, they lead the BayStars to the championship -- with a good deal of shenanigans along the way.

In 2010, Saito gets to play the role of the goofy sidekick to a different closer -- Billy Wagner.  Can Saito help Wagner lead the Braves to a title, like he did with Sasaki in 1998?  Will the Braves' 2010 season be chronicled in Mr. Wagner and the Fighting Braves?  Here are 4 keys to achieving these lofty goals:

(1) Stay healthy.  This is probably the #1 key for most pitchers, but it is especially important for 40-year-olds with a history of arm injuries.  While Saito made it through last year unscathed, he did miss 2 months of the 2008 season with an elbow sprain.  Because of worries about his elbow, the Red Sox limited Saito to 56 appearances in 2009.  In addition, Saito only pitched on back-to-back days 3 times, though he did pitch very well on the second day each time.

Saito will probably be used more often in 2010.  After all, Bobby has a history of not treating relievers with kid gloves (Exhibit A: Peter Moylan's 87 appearances in 2009 coming off of arm surgery).  Presumably, the team doctors examined Saito's arm and gave it their seal of approval, but every arm has its limits.  Whether Saito's arm can withstand the rigors of Coxian bullpen management may be the difference between a dominant bullpen and a merely adequate one.  (Is it too early to start crossing my fingers?) 

(2) Regain his National League form.  There is no doubt that Saito had a bit of a down year in 2009.  His 8.39 K/9 and 1.35 WHIP were decent enough, but a far cry from his 11.6 K/9 and 0.91 WHIP as a Dodger. What caused Saito's 2009 decline: age, or the change of leagues and home ballparks?  If he was less effective because of his advanced age, we would expect him to only get worse in 2010.  If, however, his decline was due to changing teams, we might expect him to bounce back to his pre-2009 form, or at least improve on his 2009 numbers.

The team-change hypothesis seems to make a lot of sense.  After all, he did switch from a notorious pitchers' park in a weak-hitting division to the Rugged AL East (I'm pretty sure that's its official name now). Most pitchers would have more trouble with the Yanks' and Rays' lineups than with the Padres' and Giants'.  A return to the NL, and to a pitcher's park, should help Saito somewhat.  Given his age, I would not assume that Turner Field will restore Takashi's Dodger-era dominance, but it is certainly possible that he will discover the fountain of youth somewhere near Ponce de Leon Ave.

(3) Keep his line drive rate down. In the early part of 2009, Saito was getting shellacked; an alarming 29% of the balls hit off of him were line drives.  Meanwhile, he was getting hardly any ground balls-only 18% of the balls hit off of him.  In mid-may, though, his numbers turned around:

  IP ERA H/9 BB/9 K/9 HR/9 WHIP FB% GB% LD%
As of 5/20 15.0 3.60 10.8 2.4 7.2 1.2 1.47 53% 18% 29%
After 5/20 40.2 1.99   7.1 4.7 8.9 0.9 1.30 52% 37% 11%

 

    Around May 20th, Saito appears to have adjusted his pitching style.  His walk rate doubled, but he managed to replace many of those killer line drives with grounders.  Despite the extra walks, all of his other rate stats improved.  My theory is that Saito decided to adopt a "bend, don't break" philosophy, leading to more walks but fewer backbreaking extra-base hits.  
     
    This willingness to make adjustments speaks well of Takashi. (Don't we all hate players -- especially local-born "golden boys" -- who stubbornly refuse to adjust their approach?) All else being equal, of course, Saito should aim to issue fewer walks in 2010.  However, if he no longer has the stuff to challenge hitters when behind in the count, walks are usually preferable to line drives.

    (4) Rediscover his slider.  According to Fangraphs' marvelous pitch type breakdowns, Saito's average fastball velocity was 91.8 mph last year, which is right in line with his career numbers.  His slider and curveball velocities remained the same as well.  Despite this, each of those three pitches was less effective than before.  While his fastball and curveball were still fairly effective (+4.3 runs and +1.8 runs, respectively), his slider was actually below average (-2.5 runs). This is especially worrisome because the slider was once Saito's best strikeout pitch.

    Saito's 2008 elbow sprain may have robbed his slider of some of its bite.  If that is the case, he's not likely to get his slider back to where it was, since, according to reports from when he signed with the Red Sox last year, there isn't much ligament left in his elbow.  More optimistically, the decline could be due to a mechanical flaw, which could then be corrected, allowing him to use his full 3-pitch repertoire with confidence.

    *********

    As long as his elbow holds up, Saito should be a useful piece in 2010, even if he only has 2 effective pitches.  A healthy Saito with a 3-pitch arsenal, though, could make his $3.2M salary seem like a bargain, and could help the Braves close out the few extra victories that they need to return to the playoffs.

    Thanks to Jacob for a fantastic preview, and a great find with the cartoon.

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