Meet Naoyuki Uwasawa, the KC Royals next international free agent addition

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The KC Royals and MLB at large still have plenty of time to round out rosters ahead of spring training. It is surprising to see how many high-profile free agents remain unsigned as the calendar turns to another year. Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto was the international market's biggest fish, as evidenced by his massive 12-year deal. While Los Angeles Dodgers spending is rattling fanbases, front offices still have to make improvements to their budgets. The Royals should evaluate all the talent they can, and Japanese pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa could fill a niche role in Kansas City's pitching corps.

Uwasawa is a proven pitcher in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, with 1,118 innings pitched in 173 games across nine seasons. He was primarily a starter for the Nippon Ham-Fighters, where the Royals and five other MLB clubs had scouts watching him. Uwasawa is hardly an elite talent like Yamamoto or Shota Imanaga, but he gets the job done.

Uwasawa relies heavily on location, throwing strikes at a 66% rate in the 2023 season. He limits walks but does not have strikeout stuff, even in NPB games. His 124 strikeouts to 41 walks equal a 3 K/BB ratio, one that would be respectable on the MLB level. For instance, that would rank 30th among all MLB starters last year, which is far better than any Royals with the same extensive workload.

The modern MLB pitcher has more reliance on stuff than location, but Uwasawa has succeeded for years with elite location and an extensive arsenal. According to Sports Info Solutions, this is how his 2023 pitching arsenal and each pitch's average speed break down.

  • Fastball: 44%, 90 MPH
  • Curveball: 14%, 75 mph
  • Slider: 13%, 81 mph
  • Splitter: 13%, 86 mph
  • Cutter 10%, 87 mph
  • Changeup: 6%, 81 mph

The fastball velocity is very concerning, but some metrics say it would be a viable pitch against MLB competition. The Athletic's Eno Sarris said Uwasawa's "fastball vertical movement (19 IVB) and spin (2650 RPM) would be top 5-10% percent in [MLB]." Elevating that fastball sets up his other pitches, while the spin rate makes for less quality contact.

Uwasawa's best off-speed pitch is likely his splitter. The pitch plays well off his fastball, with similar velocity and sharp movement. Just Baseball's Aram Leighton noted, "Uwasawa’s splitter shares some similarities to Ian Kennedy and Carlos Hernández, who held opponents to a combined batting average below .200 with their splitters last season."

So, knowing all this, what would Uwasawa bring to the KC Royals?

If Jordan Lyles were not on the 2024 roster, Uwasawa would be an ideal fifth starter in the rotation. He fills that durable innings eater role that Lyles did for Kansas City in 2023, but Uwasawa has a better pitching arsenal and results, albeit abroad. Kansas City does not have a clear spot starter or long-relief pitcher out of the bullpen, similar to Ryan Yarbrough in 2023.

Uwasawa could fill that role for an MLB team, being in the Royals price range for that as well. He will be 30 by Opening Day, so Uwasawa could have several more years of professional baseball left in him. If Kansas City is willing to break the mold and look to the Pacific for pitching help, they already scouted Uwasawa. Close the deal and raise the pitching staff's floor immensely.