Koji Uehara is a right-handed relief pitcher with the Boston Red Sox. A native of Neyagawa, Japan, he came to MLB after signing a two-year deal as a non-drafted free agent with the Baltimore Orioles on January 13, 2009. Prior to his MLB career, he spent 10 seasons playing for the Yomiuri Giants (1999-2008) of the NPB. During his five year MLB career, he has played for three teams: the Baltimore Orioles (2009-2011), Texas Rangers (2011-2012), and the Boston Red Sox (2013-Present).
He began the 2013 season as a late-inning reliever in the Red Sox bullpen before being shifted into the role of closer in June, following season ending injuries to Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan. Since becoming the closer, he has been one of the most dominant pitchers in all of baseball, playing a pivotal role in the Red Sox 2013 A.L. East title. He has followed his stellar regular season with impressive post-season performances in the 2013 ALDS and ALCS, helping the Red Sox reach the World Series. In recognition of his performance against the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, Uehara was named the MVP.
Career in Japan
After a standout high school career as an outfielder and pitcher, Uehara enrolled at Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences. He ended his four-year college career with a 36-4 record and was named the top pitcher in the Hanshin University League four times. Uehara gained his first international playing experience while in college, pitching for team Japan at the 1997 Intercontinental Cup and 1998 Baseball World Cup (predecessor of the World Baseball Classic). His other international experiences include: the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, 2003 and 2007 Asian Baseball Championships, and the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
In 1998, Uehara was offered a contract by then Anaheim Angels of MLB upon his graduation from college. However, he turned down the Angels’ offer to join the Yomiuri Giants, after being selected by the team in the first round of the 1998 NPB draft. During his 10 year career with the Giants, Uehara compiled numerous accomplishments and awards including:
- Central League Rookie of the Year (1999)
- Two-time win champion (1999, 2002)
- Two-time ERA champion (1999, 2004)
- Two-time strikeout champion (1999, 2003)
- Two-time MVP for pitcher (1999, 2002)
- Two-time Eiji Sawamura Award (1999, 2002)
- Eight-time All-Star (1999-2005, 2007)
Uehara went 112-62 in his NPB career with a 3.01 ERA, 1,376 K, and a 1.007 WHIP in 1549 IP. He became a free agent after the 2008 season.
Uehara’s success is based primarily on his ability to deceive hitters and properly locate his pitches. His velocity has dipped considerably since the start of his career, limiting his ability to overpower hitters. His fastball currently tops out near 90 mph. His most devastating pitch is his splitter, which he throws in the low 80s with sharp downward movement. The splitter often confuses hitters looking for his fastball, leading to many swings and misses. His deceptive stuff and excellent control have made him one of the best strikeout pitchers in MLB (12.23 K/9 ratio in 2013).
After passing up a chance to join an MLB team out of college, Uehara was determined to reach the United States before the end of his professional baseball career. He originally hoped to come to MLB via the Posting System, but had his requests denied by the Yomiuri Giants. Uehara wished to test his skills against the best players in world, saying he wanted to take on the new “challenge” MLB would provide him with.
Prior to the 2009 season, Uehara signed a two-year $10 million free agent contract with the Baltimore Orioles. He was placed in the Orioles starting rotation and made his MLB debut on April 8, 2009, earning the win against the New York Yankees. However, he was limited by injury during the season and started in just 12 games, going 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA, 48 K, and 1.245 WHIP in 66.2 IP. Uehara was moved into the Orioles bullpen in 2010 and worked as both a setup man and the closer. He finished the season 1-2 with a 2.86 ERA, 13 SV, 55 K, and 0.955 WHIP in 44 IP.
After a successful start to the 2011 season, he was traded to the Texas Rangers on July 30. He finished the regular season a combined 2-3 record with a 2.35 ERA, 85 K, and 0.723 WHIP in 65 IP. His performance earned him a place on the Rangers’ post-season roster. But Uehara failed to record an out while giving up 3 ER during his lone appearance in the 2011 ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays. He then appeared in two games during the 2011 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, posting a 13.50 ERA in just 1.1 IP. In 2012, despite missing two months of the regular season with injury, he went 0-0 with a 1.75 ERA, 43 K, and 0.639 WHIP in 36 IP and was one of the most consistent relievers in MLB. He appeared in the 2012 A.L. Wild Card game against the Orioles and pitched a perfect inning during the Rangers’ 5-1 loss.
Uehara became a free agent after the 2012 season. He signed a one year $4.25 million contract with the Boston Red Sox on December 19, 2012.
2013 Regular Season
Uehara joined a crowded Red Sox bullpen and began the season pitching as a late inning reliever. In late June, he was forced into the closer role due to multiple injuries in the bullpen. Despite the unexpected change, Uehara began dominating hitters after taking over as the closer. From July 9 to September 17, Uehara retired 37 consecutive batters, the second longest streak by a reliever in baseball history (Bobby Jenks with 41). Since July 1, he has allowed only 2 ER heading into the World Series, as well as, not having allowed a walk since August 3. He finished the 2013 regular season 4-1 with a 1.09 ERA, 21 SV, 101 K, and a 0.565 WHIP in 74.1 IP. He walked just nine batters total on the season. His WHIP is the best ever by a relief pitcher in the history of MLB.
Aside from a walk-off homerun allowed in the ALDS, Uehara has continued his dominance from the regular season into the post-season. During the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays, he recorded two saves in three appearances. During his recent ALCS MVP performance against the Detroit Tigers, he earned a win and three saves in five games pitched, allowing no earned runs while striking out nine.
Uehara’s performance is expected to be a critical factor in determining the World Series outcome against the St. Louis Cardinals. Regardless of how he performs in the World Series, Uehara has established himself as one of the best relief pitchers in MLB. At age 38, Uehara is likely nearing the end of his time playing professional baseball. A championship with the Red Sox would put an exclamation point on what has been a long and successful career. After 15 seasons as a professional baseball player, it seems Koji Uehara has saved his best for last.
Photo Credit: Boston Globe
References: baseball-reference.com, ESPN.com, NPBTracker.com, MassLive.com, Boston.com, BleacherReport.com