Sunday, August 25, 2019

Koji Uehara

Koji Uehara of the Yomiuri Giants announced his retirement a couple months ago - four days before I left for Japan - but I'm just now getting around to doing a post for him. 

Uehara was the Giants' first pick in the fall 1998 draft out of Osaka Taiiku University.  He immediately went into the Giants rotation for the 1999 season and rewarded them with an outstanding season - going 20-4 with an ERA of 2.09 and 179 strikeouts in 197 2/3 innings (the wins, ERA and strikeouts all led the Central League that season).  He was named CL Rookie Of The Year and also won the Sawamura Award.

He had a couple subpar seasons in 2000 and 2001 (I think he missed some time with a thigh injury) but he bounced back with a 17-5 season in 2002 and followed that by going 16-5 in 2003 and 13-5 in 2004.  He was roughly a .500 pitcher in 2005 and 2006 for very poor Giants teams.  Injuries delayed his start to the 2007 season and once healthy the Giants decided to convert him to closer, a role that he excelled in.  He earned 32 saves with a 1.47 ERA and 66 strikeouts (and only four walks) in 62 innings pitched.  He split 2008 between the rotation and the bullpen - he was reduced to a set up role for new Giants closer Marc Kroon. 

Uehara had requested to be posted in 2006 but the Giants denied the request.  His eligibility for free agency was delay by his injuries in 2007 so he didn't earn his international free agency rights until April of 2008.  He signed with the Baltimore Orioles that November and started the MLB phase of his career the following April.  He missed a lot of time that season with injuries, only making 12 starts and going 2-4 with an ERA of 4.05.  He was moved into the bullpen for the 2010 season and remained a reliever for the rest of his career.  The Orioles traded him to the Rangers in the middle of the 2011 season (the deal that brought Chris Davis to Baltimore) and he joined the Red Sox as a free agent before the 2013 season.  He had an outstanding season for Boston that year, taking over the closer role mid-season and ultimately going 4-1 with 21 saves, an ERA of 1.09 and 101 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings.  He remained with the Red Sox through the 2016 season before joining the Cubs for 2017. 

After the single season with the Cubs he returned to Japan, signing with Yomiuri in March of 2018.  He appeared in 36 games out of the bullpen for the Giants last season, going 0-5 with an ERA of 3.63.  He spent all of this season with the Giants' farm team, pitching only nine innings in nine games with an ERA of 4.00 before he called it a career.

Uehara made the All Star team 9 times in Japan (1999-05, 2007 and 2018 although he didn't play in 2000 due to injury) and once in MLB (2014).  He won the Sawamura Award twice (1999 and 2002), made the Best 9 team twice (also 1999 and 2002) and won a Golden Glove Award twice (1999 and 2003).  He lead the Central League in wins in 1999 and 2002, ERA in 1999 and 2004 and strikeouts in 1999 and 2003.  He played in three Nippon Series, beating the Hawks in 2000 and the Lions in 2002 before losing to Seibu in 2008.  He won an "Outstanding Player" award for the 2002 Series when he pitched a complete game shutout in Game One, striking out 12 Lions while only walking two.  He made the World Series roster with the Rangers in 2011 but did not play in the Series.  He was the MVP of the 2013 ALCS for the Red Sox and pitched in the World Series that year, making him the most recent player to play for both a Nippon Series and World Series winning team.   He played for the Japanese National Team for the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

Here's a selection of cards from his career in Japan:

1999 SCM #1

1999 BBM #329

2000 BBM "Best 9" #B11

2001 Upper Deck #71

2002 BBM Nippon Series #S5

2003 Calbee "Title Holder" #T-19

2004 BBM All Stars #A04

2005 Konami Prime 9 Special Team Packs #PN05TE-039

2006 Upper Deck WBC Moments #CM-22

2007 BBM 1st Version #329

2008 Calbee "Star" #S-02

2018 BBM Giants #G02 (Gold Signature Parallel)

2019 Calbee #053

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