Sawamura gets key thumbs up on Boston

February 18th, 2021

When it came to the Red Sox being able to agree to a contract with Japanese reliever , deserves some credit for helping to close the deal for his former team.

“Koji Uehara had a lot of influence in my decision-making process. He told me a lot of good stuff about the Red Sox and his experience, and he shared with me all of his experiences,” Sawamura said from Tokyo in an introductory Zoom call on Wednesday.

“Back in 2013, when the Red Sox won the World Series, he was coming out of the bullpen from Fenway with ‘Sandstorm’ as the entrance music -- that was a really cool moment for me, so I started using the ‘Sandstorm,’ the same music in Japan. I think Koji Uehara had a lot of influence and he kind of helped me get to where I am today.”

There could be a night in the not-too-distant future when Sawamura exits the bullpen gate of right-center field at Fenway Park to the catchy tune of “Sandstorm.”

“It’s top secret right now. I cannot tell you,” quipped Sawamura.

The 32-year-old right-hander chose the Red Sox after a recruiting process that was led by Gus Quattlebaum, Boston’s vice president of professional scouting. This, after a solid, nine-season career in Nippon Professional Baseball.

What prompted Sawamura to seek employment in MLB?

“I'm a baseball player, and my job is to pitch at the highest level possible,” said Sawamura. “Over the last couple of years, I kind of started thinking about coming to the MLB. I believe that MLB is the highest level of baseball in the world, and I just want to see how well I can pitch at this level.”

It remains to be seen whether Sawamura ends up getting the chance to close in Boston, like his mentor Uehara did at such a high level. Sawamura spent the first four seasons of his career as a starter. He did get a chance to close for two seasons, saving 73 games for the Yomiuri Giants from 2015-16. Red Sox manager Alex Cora hasn’t named a closer yet for the coming season.

“I haven't really talked to Alex Cora or [the other coaches] about my role or where I'm going to pitch,” Sawamura said. “I'm ready. I've prepared myself to pitch in any given situation, so whenever coaches tell me to pitch, that's when I pitch.”

The Red Sox hope that Sawamura can continue the momentum he built last year when he was traded in midseason from Yomiuri to the Chiba Lotte Marines. In 22 appearances after the trade, Sawamura notched a 1.71 ERA.

The uptick in production had to do with Sawamura placing more emphasis on his splitter and moving from the third-base side to the first-base side for his delivery.

“In the first half of the season, I was using the third-base side of the rubber, and I thought I had the feeling that the baseball was kind of slipping out of my hand,” Sawamura said. “It was kind of hanging towards the right-handed batters. When I was in Japan, I wanted to dominate the batters with strikes, I wanted to get ahead of the count with my fastball. So I changed it to the first-base [side of the] rubber.”

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The Red Sox were impressed by his in-season adjustments, and that played a big role in their interest in him.

“We did extensive video work on him, both while he was with Giants and the Marines,” said Quattlebaum. “We got a feel for the changes he made after the trade. We really came away impressed by our meeting with him on Zoom. He has a strong personality with confident demeanor. He asked us a lot of tough questions about our '20 season. He made it abundantly clear he wants to win and win in Boston.”

The contract Sawamura signed is for $2.4 million over two years. The deal includes a dual club/player option. The club options can earn him between $3 million and $4 million, depending on escalators. If the Red Sox don’t exercise the option, Sawamura can do so himself for a contract worth between $600,000 and $2.2 million, depending on escalators.

Agent John Boggs noted the complexity of the deal but was pleased to see his client wind up with one of MLB’s most historic franchises.

“It was probably one of the most challenging contracts I've done and most intricate, as far as the language is concerned, and the different escalators that were involved and everything else,” said Boggs. “I think we're going try to kind of sort through that as the years go by.”

Boggs also credited the Red Sox for taking a personal approach with Sawamura.

“I think it was Gus’s idea to have a Zoom call with Hirokazu,” said Boggs. “And I think that really kind of set the tone for how things advanced to the level that they did, because I think both sides really came together. And that's really what sold Hirokazu on the Red Sox. Being able to interact and get to know what Hirokazu all about was, I think, very important to the Red Sox, too. And I think that really started things at a different level.”

Sawamura should play a significant role in Boston’s bullpen. He joins a late-inning crew that includes , and . Sawamura has a mid-90s fastball in addition to his nasty splitter.

While Spring Training officially starts for the Red Sox on Thursday, Sawamura will be delayed at least a bit as he awaits his work visa.

“Right now in Japan, I’m trying to stay in shape, trying to get myself ready for the spring camp. And when I get there, I’ll be ready,” Sawamura said. “So that’s what I’m trying to do right now. As far as the visa situation, there’s a lot of uncertainty with COVID and all that stuff. So once the visa gets approved, then I’m ready to come over here.”

Sawamura looks forward to soaking in his new environment, which will first be Fort Myers, Fla., and then Boston. Many other Japanese pitchers, including , , , Uehara and , enjoyed both playing and living in Boston.

“There's an expression: 'When you're in Rome, do as the Romans do.' When I'm in Boston, I'll just go with the Boston way,” Sawamura said. “As for me, I think I'm good at adapting myself to a new environment really quickly. It doesn't really concern me. I don't have any concerns about adapting to the environment, putting myself into the new environment or new culture. I'm really eager to try new things.

“I heard that Boston has some athletic trainers who are Japanese and therapists and all that stuff, so I think they'll be really helpful and they'll help me adapt much quicker.”

In nine seasons in NPB, Sawamura pitched in 352 games, including 88 starts, and had a 2.77 ERA. He spent his entire career with Yomiuri until last season’s trade.