- Rating: 5.23
- Age: 35
- 2019 stats: 4.75 ERA, 62 games, 53.0 IP, 4.04 FIP, 94 ERA+, -0.3 WAR
- 2019 salary: $3 million
- 2020 status: Free agent
A former first overall pick in Japan’s Nippon Baseball League, Hirano pitched 12 seasons in Japan for the Orix Buffaloes (which is a very good name for a baseball team), sporting a low-90’s four-seam fastball, a mid-80’s splitter, and a very occasional curveball in his arsenal of pitches. He was the Buffaloes’ closer for the last five years of his career in Japan. After the 2017 season, he opted to cross the ocean and come to the desert, lured to the Diamondbacks by a two-year, $6 million contract.
His debut season in the US was impressive--teaming up with Archie Bradley as the team’s setup duo, he pitched his way to a 4-3 record with 3 saves, 75 appearances, and a 2.44 ERA. This was good enough to earn him votes (albeit not many) for the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year, at the ripe old age of 34.
After that stellar MLB debut, hopes for Hirano second season in a set-up role were high. We had Holland slotted in as our closer, Archie Bradley pencilled in to work the eighth, and Yoshi was supposed to nail down the seventh, and perhaps spell the other two as needed. Sadly, however, it didn’t turn out that way, because in 2019, he...well, he wasn’t very good.
Hirano appeared in fewer games, pitched fewer innings per game, saw his ERA nearly double and his WAR plummet from 1.3 to -0.3. He spent a short stint on the DL late in the summer thanks to right elbow inflammation, but while that certainly didn’t help, he hadn’t exactly been stellar up to that point.
I will admit that I’ve never been a huge Hirano fan. I felt that he was kind of overrated even in his debut year, and that his stats were inflated by the novelty factor--he was an accomplished and cagey veteran that the vast majority of MLB hitters had never encountered before--as well as, when I looked it up, some good luck on balls in play (.250 BABIP in 2018). So it didn’t surprise me that 2019 didn’t go so well for him. My subjective recollection of watching him pitch early in the season was that he’d lost some control and finesse, and that his splitter wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been in his MLB debut year. Looking at his 2019 stats, though, what happened to Yoshi was a bit harder to pin down.
To be sure, regression had something to do with it--his BABIP jumped back up into the expected range, winding up at .310 for the 2019 season. His control, also, degraded somewhat—from 3.1 walks per nine innings in 2018 to 3.7. His WHIP jumped 1.09 to 1.38 as well, which seems to suggest that, when he was throwing strikes (his total strikeouts went up, despite fewer innings pitched) he was in fact throwing far fewer good strikes.
In addition, he was simply a lot less consistent from outing to outing and from month to month this past season than he was in 2018. He made two appearances in March during that initial Dodgers series, but the less we say about that entire series, the better. ALL of our pitching sucked in that first series, so there’s no need to single Hirano out. However, his performance fluctuated wildly from month to month over the remainder of the season:
April: 3.12 ERA (11 appearances, 8.2 IP)
May: 7.45 ERA (13 appearances, 9.2 IP)
June: 1.80 ERA (10 appearances, 10 IP)
July: 3.86 ERA(12 appearances, 9.1 IP)
August: 8.53 ERA (7 appearances, 6.1 IP--went on DL on August 17)
September: 3.86 ERA (7 appearances, 7 IP--returned from DL on September 9)
I don’t recall exactly when, but he lost his status as a go-to setup guy fairly early in the season, and by the time the All star Break had passed, he was a big ole question mark taking the mound even in low-leverage situations.
Needless to say, all of that adds up to a pitcher who, by the end of the year--if not the end of May--no longer filled a spectator with confidence when he came out of the bullpen, but instead with nervousness and a creeping sense of dread. Or maybe that’s just me.
Who knows? He’s on the free agent market right now, and while there was some debate here in the ‘Pit toward the end of the season as to whether we should try to bring him back, and how much we should pay for the dubious privilege of doing so, I don’t think there was a whole lot of consensus on the question one way or the other.
The Diamondbacks front office hasn’t made any gestures as of yet toward resigning him, as far as I am aware, and to my thinking that is probably a good thing. If he’d been on the market this time last year, he’d have probably gotten a very big payday, but what a difference a second full season can make.
I fully expect him to be on a Major League roster by the time the 2020 season rolls around, but probably earning a fair bit less than the $3 million/year we were paying him, and
probably not wearing Sedona red clearly in our bullpen again, because the Snake Pit has spoken. For good or for ill.