Player Profile: Koji Uehara
The blurb I posted on Koji Uehara got a fair bit of traffic, so it seems like a good time to write a more complete profile on him. Uehara has a long-stated desire to pitch for an MLB team, and had requests to be posted denied by his team in 2004 and 2005. The righty met the service time requirements for free agency earlier this year and is a lock to sign with an MLB team this off season.
Uehara has spent his entire nine year career with the storied Yomiuri Giants franchise. In his first season in 1999, he outperformed fellow rookie Daisuke Matsuzaka with 20-4 record and 2.04 ERA, winning the Central League Rookie of the Year Award (Matsuzaka went 16-5, 2.60 and took the Pacific League award). 1999 also saw Uehara take home the first of his two Sawamura Awards* as well as several other awards.
Although he’s never quite matched the numbers he put up in his rookie year, Uehara has been an effective pitcher ever since, and dominant when healthy. His 2002 season (17-5, 2.60 ERA 182/23 K/BB in 204 IP) was good enough for a second Sawamura Award. He’s also played for Japan Series winners in 2000 and 2002, and shutdown Korea in the 2006 WBC semi-final game.
Uehara’s career numbers (up to 2007) can be found at JapaneseBaseball.com.
Uehara relies on a fastball that he can throw wherever he wants, and runs up to 91 mph. He also features a forkball with late movement, a shuuto, and the occasional cut fastball. You can see him in action against Korea in the 2006 WBC on this youtube video. Uehara is a control pitcher, and has never given up more than 28 walks in any season (in 138 IP in 2001). His biggest weakness has been the home run ball.
Rotation or Bullpen?
Uehara has been a starter for most of his career, and that’s where he had most of his success. In 2007, he was put into the closer role after returning from an injury, and not moved back into the rotation for the rest of the season. The manager cited his success in bullpen (32 saves, 1.74 ERA, 66/4 K/BB in 62 IP), but some felt that the Giants were spiting him for his intent to move to MLB. He has also been used as a reliever in international competition. The Giants added fireballing closer Marc Kroon this season, and moved Uehara back into the rotation, but he spent time on injured reserve and will rejoin the team as a reliever.
Uehara has the somewhat quirky characteristic of always wearing a long sleeve shirt when he pitches. He collects baseball memorabilia as a hobby, and is good friends with the Dodgers’ Hiroki Kuroda. Uehara is 33 years old and played college ball at Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences.
Uehara’s intent is to come to MLB after this season, and I think he’ll be one of the more successful pitchers to come over from Japan. Uehara’s playing on a competitive Giants team this season and should be motivated to go out on a high note, so he’ll be fun to follow this season. Look out for more posts on him over the course of the year.
*The Sawamura Award is the award for Japan’s top pitcher, equivilent to MLB’s Cy Young Award. Unlike the Cy Young, it’s only awarded to one pitcher in Japan, rather than one pitcher in each league. Pitchers are judged on performance in seven areas, which I’ll go over in a different post.