Is Kawakami the key to the rotation?

We know about Derek Lowe. We know about Javier Vazquez. But we don't know much about Kenshin Kawakami. What should we expect this season from one of the Braves newest pitchers?

The Atlanta Braves pitching staff will be the key to the 2009 season. We all know that. But while knowing, or at least assuming, what veterans Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez could do for this pitching staff, there is one big unknown factor.

Kenshin Kawakami.

We've seen his video on You Tube. We've checked out his stats from Japan. But face it, we really don't know what to expect from this 33-year old right-hander.

He's been successful in Japan, 112 wins and 72 losses in 11 seasons. He's won their equivalent of the Rookie of the Year Award and their Cy Young Award. He's thrown a no-hitter. He's been very, very good.

But until we see Kawakami with our own eyes, it's hard to know whether we even like him or not. It's hard to determine exactly what we all should expect from this new Braves starter.

Let's look a bit at the history of Japanese starting pitchers that have jumped to the major leagues, and maybe get a historical perspective on what's realistic for our expectations.

The first major Japanese pitcher is arguably the most successful. Hideo Nomo was the Rookie of the Year (over Chipper Jones) in 1995 with the Dodgers. He had 318 big league starts, most by a Japanese pitcher in the major leagues, and pitched for eight teams in 12 seasons. Nomo was 123-109 in his career with a 4.24 ERA.

Tomo Ohka was a right-handed pitcher was who 50-63 in nine big league seasons with five different teams. He had 172 big league starts.

Masato Yoshii had 118 starts in five seasons in the majors, with the Mets, Rockies, and Expos. Yoshii was 32-47 in his career. Kaz Ishii was 39-34 in his four seasons in the big leagues, making 102 starts for the Dodgers and Mets.

Perhaps the biggest flop of all the Japanese pitchers is Hideki Irabu. After Nomo came over in the mid-1990s Irabu was the next big catch. The Padres caught him, but he was traded to the Yankees when Irabu refused to play for anyone else. Irabu lasted only three seasons in New York, before being traded to Montreal. With the Yankees, Expos, and Rangers Irabu made 80 starts and was only 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA.

Daisuke Matsuzaka could one day surpass Nomo as the most successful Japanese pitcher to make the trip to the States. The Red Sox paid a fortune just to sign him, and in his first two seasons (61 starts) Dice-K has been outstanding. The 28-year old is 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA.

After the Red Sox got Dice-K, the Yankees had to make their own splash and signed Kei Igawa. So far, he's been a huge disappointment. Igawa has made 13 starts for the Yankees and is 2-4 with a 6.66 ERA.

The pitcher most used as the comparison to Kawakami is Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda. Unlike most of the pitchers on this list, Kuroda was in his 30s when he came over to play for the Dodgers last season. Kuroda was 9-10 with a 3.73 ERA in 31 starts in 2008.

Perhaps Kuroda, and subsequently Kawakami, is an in-between of Nomo or Dice-K and Kei Igawa. It's hard to imagine Kawakami flopping as Igawa has so far in his time in New York. And hopefully Kawakami will be closer to the success Nomo had and Dice-K has had in his first two seasons.

It's easy to take Kawakami for granted, since we just don't know much about him. But this guy was good in Japan. He was really good. And therefore it's exciting to see what he will do in the major leagues.

In Kawakami's last five seasons in Japan, he averaged 13 wins and seven losses. If he can put that type of season together, the Braves will be getting their money's worth.

The Braves are only counting on Kawakami to be a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. They hope Lowe and Vazquez can hold down the top of the staff. But what if Kawakami is better than that? What if he can be like a Hideo Nomo, or like Kuroda was for the Dodgers last season? Or what if he could be as successful as Dice-K?

Could Kawakami's success be the key for the season? Well, if your middle-of-the-rotation starters overachieve, it probably means your team is going to be in good shape. So therefore, if Kawakami is better than advertised, the Braves could be in for a very successful season.

Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show. He is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at

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