What are the Orioles getting in Shintaro Fujinami? A high-ceiling, low-risk bullpen addition

Published 7/20/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT

At first blush, the 8.57 ERA is an eye-popping worry. But the first blush is hardly worth considering when it comes to right-hander Shintaro Fujinami, whom the Orioles acquired in a trade with the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday night.

There’s depth to Fujinami, from his move to the bullpen rather than starting games to his simplified approach and pitch mix that have allowed his strong suits to flourish as his first season in Major League Baseball progresses. The 29-year-old, who joined the Athletics from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, has only improved over the course of the summer — and now he’s leaving one of the American League’s worst teams for one of its best.

As the Aug. 1 trade deadline approaches, this was the main area of focus for Baltimore: adding pitching. In trading for Fujinami, general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias pulled off what could be a coup, acquiring a low-risk, high-upside reliever with a four-seam fastball that has gotten faster into July.

The first major solution for Fujinami was when he left his starting role. As a starter, he pitched to a 14.26 ERA in seven games. As a reliever, that ERA drops to 5.40.

And Fujinami has been even better over the last two months. In June, his ERA was 3.97. Across his eight innings in July, Fujinami’s ERA is 2.25, and he’s doing it with a .154 opponent batting average and a minuscule .493 opponent on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

How, exactly, has this happened?

The San Francisco Chronicle noted in an article from May how Fujinami and Oakland’s pitching coaches worked on his delivery, particularly with how Fujinami’s momentum led him to his follow-through. At times, the Chronicle reported, Fujinami had a tendency to allow his front shoulder to fly open — and in doing so his pitches can miss out of the zone on his arm side.

By focusing on a more linear path down the mound and toward home plate, Fujinami improved his control.

Beyond that, though, Fujinami also altered his pitch mix. His four-seam fastball usage increased to 63.4% in July, and his splitter was his next-most-used pitch. He nearly stopped using his cutter and sweeper altogether this month, but both pitches still crop up time and again out of the bullpen.

With that, Fujinami’s four-seam fastball velocity is sitting at an average of 99.6 mph, up from the 97 mph it was when he began the year as a starter and needed to preserve his energy for longer outings.

On the whole, Fujinami’s fastball velocity is in the 83rd percentile, according to Statcast, and his whiff rate slots in at the 85th percentile.

Baltimore acquired Fujinami in exchange for left-hander Easton Lucas, a 26-year-old who has pitched in Double-A and Triple-A this year. Fujinami is a rental — he joined the Athletics from Japan on a one-year, $3.25 million contract — but the Orioles didn’t need to part ways with a top-30 prospect to secure a new pitcher.

That’s why this is relatively low risk. The Orioles are willing to try their hand at maximizing another overlooked pitcher’s potential. The stuff is there, particularly with Fujinami’s fastball.

Now all that’s left is seeing whether he can continue his impressive June and July performances with Oakland now that he’s entering a playoff race with Baltimore. And Elias deemed that risk well worth it.

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