Shintaro Fujinami joins first-place Orioles after trade: ‘I’ll do my best here’

22 July 2023

The Orioles’ attendance at Camden Yards this season has improved, but it’s far from one of the best in the major leagues.

To Shintaro Fujinami, though, the home crowds he’ll pitch in front of over the season’s final two and a half months will dwarf those compared with his former team.

“A little nervous,” Fujinami said through interpreter Issei Kamada before Friday’s game versus the Tampa Bay Rays in his first time speaking with local media. “A lot more people watching the game. Obviously, some situations, Oakland have some fans watching [me], but this is going to be more fans. A little more pressure.”

The Orioles acquired Fujinami, a hard-throwing right-handed reliever, from the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday evening. He was added to the 26-man roster Friday, with right-hander Logan Gillaspie being optioned to Triple-A. The Orioles, the American League’s best team with a 59-37 record entering Friday, have drawn an average of 21,430 per home game, which ranks 22nd in MLB, according to Baseball-Reference. That’s more than twice the attendance of the Athletics, the majors’ worst club with a 27-72 record. The Athletics’ ownership group is seeking to move the team to Las Vegas, a process that has caused Oakland’s home crowds to regularly dip below 10,000.

Fujinami, 29, said he was “surprised” to be traded but added he’s looking forward to learning from an Orioles bullpen that has “a bunch of great pitchers.” Baltimore acquired the Japanese fireballer in exchange for Triple-A left-hander Easton Lucas in the first deal the Orioles have been on the buy side of a prospect-for-player trade during the season since executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias took over before the 2019 campaign.

“I got to meet him a little bit ago. It was a pleasure,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “A real classy, professional guy. Had a great conversation with him about his time in Oakland, but also about being here, and he’s excited to be here and we’re excited to have him.”

Fujinami began his professional career as a young phenom in Japan. He played in high school against Los Angeles Angels two-way wonder Shohei Ohtani, and the two were selected in the same Nippon Professional Baseball draft a decade ago. Fujinami was posted by his NPB team this past offseason and signed a one-year deal with the Athletics.

He struggled to begin his major league career, going 0-4 and allowing 19 hits, 12 walks and 24 runs in 15 innings across his first four starts. He was moved to the bullpen and improved as the season progressed, honing his pitch mix and sharpening his command. In his past 18 1/3 innings, the 6-foot-6 right-hander has a 2.45 ERA and 19 strikeouts versus just six walks.

“The stuff is really good,” Hyde said. “He was pitching really well in Oakland the last 10 or 15 appearances.”

Fujinami credited his recent success to adjusting to baseball in the United States. The strike zone, approach from hitters and the physical baseball are all different in MLB than in NPB, he said. The baseball is less tacky in MLB — a common challenge that many Japanese pitchers face.

“I wasn’t very comfortable with my pitching mechanics at the beginning of the season and the ball is a little different, more slicky here,” Fujinami said.

Fujinami has thrown seven different pitches this season, but he’s ditched most of them since becoming a reliever. He almost exclusively throws his four-seam fastball — which averages 98 mph and touches triple digits — and a 92.6 mph splitter. If that combination sounds familiar, it’s the same one closer Félix Bautista sports.

“One thing is I came here from starter to reliever, so I had to cut down the pitches,” Fujinami said. “And also beginning the season I struggled with command a little bit, so focus on less pitches and get better at them. The pitching coach told [me] that my fastball and split is elite level in the big leagues, so I focused on those two.”

Hyde said the goal is to “ease” his new reliever in with low-leverage appearances. But given the Orioles are in the midst of a four-game series with the second-best team in the AL, that might not be likely.

“Have you been watching our games?” Hyde quipped when asked about potentially placing Fujinami in low-pressure environments, referencing how often the Orioles play close games.

Fujinami is a free agent at the end of the season, and he said he would prefer to go back to being a starting pitcher in the future. For now, he understands his role as a bullpen arm for the best team in the AL.

“At this point, the big leagues value me as a reliever, so I’ll do my best here,” he said.


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