Last winter, Yakult Swallows fireballer Ryota Igarashi declined to file for domestic free agency, instead re-signing for 2009 with the subsequent goal of moving to the majors. Igarashi is a righthanded reliever who has spent his entire career with the Yakult Swallows, and just turned 30 on May 28. If I had to pick the top free agent coming out of Japan after this season today, Igarashi would be my choice.
Stuff, Results & Mechanics
Igarashi is known one of the hardest throwers in Japan, and jointly holds the record for fastest pitch* by a Japanese pitcher in an NPB game with a 158 kmph (98.75mph) fastball. Igarashi hit 158 kmph in 2004, when the average speed of his pitches over the course of the season was 154.5 kmph (96.6mph), which is an NPB record he has to himself.
Although he doesn't throw quite as hard as he used to, but still runs his heater into the upper 90's, and augments it with a hard splitter that he throws at around 90mph. He's also got a slider and a curve that he'll mix in occasionally, but is primarily a fastball/splitter pitcher.
Igarashi's weakness has been his control. Over the course of his career through 2008, he's allowed 221 walks and thrown 42 wild pitches over 517.1 innings. I suspect the number of walks would be higher if hitters could lay off the high fastball a little more. On the plus side, he's balanced things out strking out 586 guys. Igarashi showed a significant improvement in his walk rate after returning from injury (see below) last season, allowing just six walks in 42.1 innings. This year he's come back to earth and allowed seven walks in 19.1 innings so far, which is more in line with his career norms.
When pitching out of the windup, Igarashi has a hitch at the beginning of his delivery, a la Daisuke Matsuzaka, but otherwise has a pretty orthodox approach. This YouTube clip from late April 2009 gives a good look at his mechanics. Here's another clip of him striking out a Yokohama BayStars side in 2008.
*trivia question: who is he tied with?
Igarashi had the worst year of his career in 2006, and bounced between the top club and the farm team during the second half of the season. After the season, it was discovered that he had a ruptured UCL in his throwing arm, and he went in for Tommy John surgery. He spent all of 2007 rehabbing, and didn't return to game action for good until around July 2008. He has regained his velocity post-injury and has had a normal work load since last summer.
Igarashi has been mostly a middle reliever in his career thus far, setting up for Shingo Takatsu early in his career and more recently for Chang-Yong Lim. He did spend 2004 as Yakult's closer after Takatsu left, and recorded 37 saves. He's a set-up man again this year.
Igarashi spoke last season of making a "Shinjyo-class" move to MLB, which I took to mean he'd be willing to take less money to try his hand at MLB. Recall that Tsuyoshi Shinjyo, as he spelled it back then, turned down about $12m from Hanshin to take a minimum-pay deal with the Mets. I don't think Igarashi will have to take that kind of a cut, because he's making about $840k this year and I think he'd be able to get at least that much from an MLB team. His best offers may still come from Japan though, as he could probably command an NPB closer's salary.