The Chiba Lotte Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball have signed right-hander Hirokazu Sawamura, according to Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe (Twitter link). Sawamura pitched with the Red Sox in 2021-22 and was reportedly looking to sign on with another MLB team earlier this offseason, but he’ll now instead back to Japan.
Sawamura started his career in NPB, pitching mostly with the Yomiuri Giants from 2011-20 before being dealt to the Marines during the 2020 season. The righty’s first four seasons were spent mostly as a starter, as he delivered some quality numbers and helped the Giants win the 2012 Japan Series, though a full-time move to the bullpen in 2015 turned Sawamura into one of NPB’s best closers. While his effectiveness had a few injury-related ups and downs over the years, and Sawamura was moved to a setup role, Sawamura’s first stint in Nippon Professional Baseball resulted in an impressive 2.77 ERA, 22.1% strikeout rate and a 7.3% walk rate over 868 1/3 innings.
Exploring a move to North America after the 2020 campaign, Sawamura signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox for $3MM in guaranteed money — $1.2MM in salary in both 2021 and 2022, plus a $600K buyout of a $3MM club option for 2024. The contract also contained incentive clauses and a player option for Sawamura, though that became a moot point after he asked to be released in September in order to pursue opportunities with other teams. The Sox obliged, and Sawamura hit the open market after taking a $1MM buyout.
Though Sawamura had a 3.39 ERA and 50.9% grounder rate over his 103 2/3 Major League innings, other statistics weren’t nearly as flattering. Sawamura had a solid 26.3% strikeout rate in 2021 that plummeted to 18.1% last season, and control was consistent problem in both seasons, with a 13% total walk rate. With batters also consistently generating hard contact, Sawamura’s ability to keep the ball on the ground (and a .276 BABIP) might have saved him from more serious damage on the scoreboard. The Red Sox designated Sawamura for assignment and then outrighted him off their 40-man roster in August.
Sawamura turns 35 in April, and he’ll now make his return to NPB for what might be the final act of his baseball career. His brief time with the Marines in 2020 yielded a lot of success, as Sawamura had a 1.71 ERA over 21 1/3 innings.