Naoyuki Uwasawa is a potentially underrated international starting pitcher the Pittsburgh Pirates could go after to strengthen their rotation
Everyone’s eyes in the baseball world are focused on what will happen to Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga. They’re two of Japan’s best pitchers and are both looking to secure a contract in Major League Baseball. But there’s a third Japanese starting pitcher looking to make his way to the United States, and that’s Naoyuki Uwasawa. The right-hander has consistently been a quality starter in the NBP and could be in a Major League starting rotation by April 2024, and with the Pittsburgh Pirates needing another starter, Uwasawa could be a good fit.
Uwasawa pitched 170 innings for the Nippon Ham Fighters last season, working to a 2.96 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 3.02 K:BB ratio. Uwasawa is all about limiting home runs and walks. He hasn’t allowed one home run per nine innings in a season since his 2013 rookie campaign. Last year, he had a 0.74 HR/9 for the Ham Fighters. He also had a minuscule 5.9% walk rate, which is a career-high. But he doesn’t strike out many batters, owning a strikeout rate of just 17.8%, and his career strikeout rate clocks in at just under 20% at 19.1%.
Uwasawa keeps batters off balance, not only because of his great command but also because it’s hard to predict what he’s going to throw next. Uwasaw works with six different pitches. His arsenal includes a fastball, curveball, slider, cutter, splitter, and a changeup. Uwasawa sits in the low-90s with his fastball, but the offering plays up because of its ability to ride through the strike zone.
His splitter looked great last season after getting some work in at Driveline, significantly improving his vertical break with less than 1200 RPM. But he can differentiate between his splitter and change-up. He also worked at Driveline to improve his slider. However, his cutter and split-finger both had good chase rates that were far ahead of any of his other offerings, according to FanGraphs.
It might be a lazy comparison, but Kenta Maeda. Maeada only averaged 91 MPH on his fastball, with his splitter being his primary pitch, like many Japanese pitchers. Maeda doesn’t throw as many offerings as Uwasawa, but he has five pitches with at least semi-regularity. Both also have similar builds, with Maeda standing at 6’1”, 185 pounds, and Uwasawa weighing in at 6’1”, 190 pounds. Although he throws a lot harder, Yu Darvish also takes advantage of his myriad of different offerings to throw hitters off, as he used seven different pitches at least 150 times last season.
Uwasawa isn’t the flashiest prospect coming from Japan. He is a soft-tosser who relies on command and his myriad of offerings, and typically, those kind of pitchers don’t project well. But Uwasawa is certainly an interesting and potentially unique case. He throws six different pitches, and all with good command. I think Uwasawa could pitch slightly over his projections, and be a quality no. 4 starter, maybe even a low-tier no. 3 starter.