02/19/07 4:58 PM ET
Dodgers closer Saito has notable habit
Closer writes down hitters' sweet zones, then avoids them
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
The steno pad helps remind Saito when and where to throw the fastball and slider.
Before every series, Dodgers pitchers meet to review the advance scouting report of the new opponent. With traveling secretary Scott Akasaki translating, Saito sketches out a nine-section hitting zone for each hitter and marks areas of strength and weakness.
"For the most part, hitters don't like it up and in or down and away, but there are some exceptions and this helps me remember the exceptions so I don't throw it into their strength," said Saito. "It's easier for me to remember when I think about how it looked on paper."
Saito's success last year was all the more remarkable considering he knew virtually nothing about most Major League hitters. But ask Saito too many questions about how he did it and he throws one high and tight.
"I don't want to give away my secrets," he said.
Saito was a pretty well-kept secret himself. One year before Daisuke Matsuzaka came to America amid international fanfare and $100 million in salary and posting fee, Saito left Japan to fulfill a dream to play in America and drew only lukewarm interest and even less media coverage, agreeing to a $500,000 Minor League contract to fight for a job on the Dodgers' pitching staff.
"We had been scouting him four years earlier, when he was a free agent, but he re-signed with Yokohama," said Acey Kohrogi, the Dodgers' director of Asian operations.
"Our scout, Keichi Kojima, followed him in 2005 when he was about to become a free agent again and told us he was healthy and available. Saito was versatile, having started and done middle relief and closed. But he also had injured his shoulder and back and people sort of wrote him off. He could have stayed in Japan for more money, but his dream was to play in America, and his wife told him to chase his dream. We did good scouting work and got very lucky."
The last thing the Dodgers thought they were getting, however, was the successor to closer Eric Gagne. A year ago management thought its bullpen was loaded with closers -- Gagne, Danys Baez, Yhency Brazoban -- so Saito didn't even make the Opening Day roster. But one by one, the experienced relievers fell by the boards.
Meanwhile, Saito spent only a week at Triple-A, recalled when Gagne went down. He had already earned the confidence of manager Grady Little, who liked the 13 strikeouts versus two walks he got from Saito in Spring Training games. Saito inherited the closer role in mid-May and set a franchise rookie record with 24 saves. He was rewarded with a $1 million salary for 2007.
Saito -- 36 last year with 14 seasons of Japanese professional ball and four All-Star honors on his resume -- was a rookie only because of the accepted definition, having never before played in the Major Leagues. But other than English, there wasn't much he needed to learn when he arrived at Dodgertown last spring other than a recommendation of a good sushi bar.
From the earliest bullpen sessions he showed a varied repertoire and the ability to locate it with pinpoint precision.
"He has a super feel for the game and for pitching," said Dan Warthen, Dodgers bullpen coach and a former Major League pitching coach. "The key to his movement is the looseness of his arm action. He never labors when he throws. It's almost Koufax-like, it's so relaxed. That's how he gets so much late life.
"He's also got a really good split-finger fastball, but he only threw it maybe six times all year. Why? Well, did he need it? He's also got a respectable curveball. If he had stayed in middle relief, we would have seen both of those pitches."
Saito went 6-2 with a 2.07 ERA and successfully converted all but two save opportunities. With a repertoire that includes a moving fastball in the low-90 mph range, an unconventional nasty slider and splitter, Saito struck out 107 batters in 78 1/3 innings and limited opponents to a .177 average. Right-handed batters hit only .129 off him.
His catcher said it's the slider that makes Saito special.
"I remember the first time I caught him, he threw that slider and I thought, "What is that?" catcher Russell Martin "It's got different breaks to it. He has that little pause in his windup and you don't think he throws that hard, but the fastball is sneaky. Then that slider, it's hard to explain. It's like it breaks out and breaks back in again and, of course, he locates it real well. Against lefties, he uses it back door and they quit on it because it looks like it's six or seven inches outside. It's weird. It's left a lot of guys wondering what that was."
Saito said Japanese pitchers love to throw the slider, but he learned his from his older brother, Akira, who pitched in college. Saito said he refined it on his own and that it was even better last year in the Major Leagues than it was for him in the Japanese League.
"The American ball, when I throw it right, it has more of a break than the Japanese ball does when I throw it right," he said. "I think the seams of the American ball are thicker and harder and I like the ball better. The ball feels harder and the American hitters react different to it."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.