Just before the start of the 2003 season, I remember seeing a news piece on Kazumi Saito. Saito was going into his seventh professional season, and despite having a career mark of just 9-4, he had been selected as the then Fukuoka Daiei Hawks' opening day starter. The piece was about how it was time for him to step up and live to his potential, but I was skeptical. I liked Hayato Terahara better and thought that starting Saito on opening day was a bad sign for the Hawks. I was way off on that one; Saito went 20-3 on the season and shared the Sawamura Award with Kei Igawa, as the Hawks cruised to their first Pacific League title since 2000.
Since his breakout season in '03, Saito has been dominant when healthy but otherwise a non-factor. In his three healthiest years ('03, '05, '06), his cumulative record is 54-9(!); the rest of the time it's a more pedestrian 25-14. The difference in his other stats is apparent on his page at JapaneseBaseball.com.
Injury HistoryBefore we go any further, we need to take a look at Saito's Priorian injury history, courtesy of Wikipedia.
1997: "Loose shoulder". Briefly converted to a hitter, appearing in a few games as an outfielder.
1998: Shoulder surgery.
2001: Unspecified shoulder issue.
2004: Missed time due to "not being able to get into shape", hit hard when he was in.
2005: Missed his opening day start due to shoulder pain, rebounded to have a great season.
2006: Sat out of the US-Japan All-Star Series with shoulder inflammation.
2007: Missed time with muscle fatigue in his shoulder.
2008: Surgery in January to repair his rotator cuff from years of hard work. Spent much of the season rehabbing in Arizona.
Like Mark Prior, Saito has a messed-up shoulder. Unlike Prior, who was healthy in college and for his first few pro seasons, Saito been bothered by injuries from a younger age. Saito has been more present in the media over the last year or so, giving me the impression that he has at least a shot at coming back at some point, whereas Prior seems to be a bigger question mark at this point.
I don't have special insight into whether overuse or mechanics are the root cause of Saito's injury trouble, but I will say we've seen a number of NPB pitchers enjoy relatively short peaks due to overuse. Unfortunately, NPB pitch count statistics are not easy to find.
Stuff & MechanicsSaito's stuff begins with a fastball that, if you believe the TV gun, reaches about 94mph. His best breaking pitch is a fork/splitter that breaks straight downward, and he also mixes in a curveball and a slider. (Cue the YouTube footage) One of the better clips I found was this one of a young Saito pitching mop up in the 2000 Japan Series, striking out Hideki Matsui and Domingo Martinez. This longer video shows Saito getting swinging strikeouts with his fastball, splitter and curve.
I'm no expert on pitching mechanics, so I'll share these two videos and see what the audience thinks. This first one is live game footage taken by a fan at a game at Chiba Marine Stadium. The second is slow motion footage of a number of pitchers, and Saito appears from 0:18-0:40. To me it looks like he doesn't extend his throwing arm much and kind of snaps it through his motion. Of course, we don't know what kind of changes he'll come back with following last year's surgery.
In ConclusionEven 100 decent innings from Saito in 2009 would go a long way towards restoring the Hawks' competitiveness. But whether or not he'll be able to compete for a full season or perform at his previous level remains to be seen. Saito just turned 31, so he has some good years left, but there is a lot of wear and tear on that right shoulder.
I occasionally get asked if we'll ever see Saito in the majors. My answer is that I kind of doubt it. Saito is 3-4 healthy years away from free agency, and the Hawks will never post him. I never say never, and he did enjoy his time in Arizona, so if he can stay healthy and has the will... maybe. But it seems like a longshot, and given that Saito's injury history means we won't see him in extracurriculars like WBC and US-Japan Series', this is a guy that Stateside fans will have to enjoy via justin.tv.
The next profiles on this site will be for WBC players, so don't touch that dial...