On May 20, Koji Uehara announced his retirement from professional baseball. The news was significant for several reasons. First, it was announced during the season. Uehara admitted that he “already decided that I would quit this year, and in my mind I felt three months would be make or break.” He also cited that his fastball just doesn’t have enough to compete in NPB anymore and remarked that him being in the organization would reduce chances for other youngsters. It sounds like, all-around, Uehara has resigned to his fate of being a very old man by baseball standards. It’s sad to hear, but that’s just reality.
Second, it simply feels like an end of an era. The man pitched professionally since 1999. Sure, most major league fans weren’t familiar with him until he signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 2009, but even then, he was 33 years old. Personally, I became familiar with Uehara from his dominance in Japan and his exceptional 2006 World Baseball Classic performance (which is never to be forgotten by Korean baseball junkies like myself).
To understand Uehara’s career, it’s essential to look at his time in Japan. His interest in going to the big leagues goes all the way back to his amateur days. As an ace of the Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences, Uehara was courted by the then-Anaheim Angels. It was said that the Angels prepared an amount of 300 million yen (just below $3 million in current currency rate) for the righty. Uehara was intrigued by it, but the Yomiuri Giants, who had coveted him for a long time, managed to convince him to stay in Japan, selecting him in the 1998 NPB Draft. Among the notable names selected in the event were other future big leaguers Kosuke Fukudome, Kyuji Fujikawa, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In 1999, his first professional season, Uehara set NPB ablaze with ridiculous numbers. As a 23-year old fresh out of college, the righty went 20-4 with a 2.09 ERA and 179 strikeouts versus 24 walks in 197.2 innings. He also threw a whopping 12 complete games (!) in 25 starts. He had the most wins and strikeouts and the best winning percentage and ERA, making him the quadruple-crown winner among all pitchers. He, of course, won the 1999 NPB Rookie of the Year, a Golden Glove, Sawamura Award (the NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award), was named to the Best Nine, etc. Basically, Uehara had an entrance of the ages. Here’s a peek at his dominance from that season:
As a starting pitcher, he didn’t reach the same kind of brilliance he showed as a rookie, but he was still great. In 2002 for instance, he won another Sawamura Award by going 17-5 with a 2.60 ERA and 182 strikeouts versus 23 walks in 204 innings. He also garnered some stateside attention in fall 2002. In the first game of the MLB-NPB exhibition series, Uehara struck out reigning NL MVP Barry Bonds thrice. His pitching prowess also impressed former AL MVP Jason Giambi. “He had a great forkball,” he said. “He threw it hard enough that you couldn’t sit on it, and he made quality pitches all night.”
For most of his Giants tenure, Uehara solidified the rotation, eating innings and pitching with his trademark efficiency. He also pitched as a reliever full-time in 2007, missing the beginning of the season due to an injury before converting to the closer’s role. He was immediately brilliant: 1.74 ERA, 32 saves, four holds, 62 IP, 66 strikeouts, and only four walks. It seemed like a foreshadowing of what’s to come in the majors. In 2008, a season before he was eligible for free agency, he announced his intention to play stateside. As a 33-year old, he had an underwhelming seasons with Yomiuri: 6-5, 3.81 ERA, 89.2 IP, 72 strikeouts, 16 walks, and 11 home runs allowed. It was not a bad season, but far from attracting a generational hype from the scouts and media.
However, there’s no denying how great of a career he had with the Giants. Here are some of his numbers in Japan (including the 2018 season as a 43-year old):
He did still get scouting attention, of course. After all, he had a great career with clear strengths (mostly being able to throw strikes). But it wasn’t anywhere near, let’s say, Matsuzaka-level. Here’s what ESPN’s Keith Law wrote about Uehara as he ranked the righty 22nd on his 2008-09 free agent list:
In an ideal environment — National League, non-hitters’ park — he could be a midrotation innings-eater because he’ll allow so few baserunners. In the American League, he’d be more of a fourth starter, but would have to have some luck keeping the ball in the park to keep his ERA under 4.00.
It’s not the most glowing scouting report, but it wasn’t a bad one either. As an Oriole, Uehara came back to the familiar role of being a starting pitcher. He was quite serviceable in 12 starts, going 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA/3.56 FIP in 66.2 IP. However, injuries kept him out of action for the bulk of the season. The list of ailments includes hamstring pain from dehydration anda partial tear of his right elbow tendon. He returned to action in 2010 as a reliever, and he was lights-out. Here are some of his numbers out of the pen in his major league career:
In the majors, Uehara boasted what he also showed in Japan: killer efficiency. He racked up the strikeouts and limited the heck out of walks. That’s usually a formula for success. Just how good was he at that? Among all relievers in the history of the major league baseball – yes, we are including guys from past and present, from Dennis Eckersley to Sean Doolittle – he has, by far, the best K/BB ratio. Here are the historical top 10:
I had the privilege of picking Jay Jaffe’s brain for this post to see how he would stack up against Hall of Fame relievers. The bad news is that, because he had only nine years in the major leagues, he won’t be qualified to appear on a ballot. Ignoring that, he had a 13.7 WAR, 12.8 seven-year-peak WAR, and a 13.2 JAWS, which is 135th among relievers. Here is where it gets interesting: Uehara ranks 8th all-time in bWAR among relievers from age-34 onward:
He is ahead of many recognizable names, including Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, etc. Jaffe added that it would “suggest that a full stateside career might have been Hall-caliber.” That’s a fun thing to imagine, even though his elite skills later in career is not necessarily guaranteed assuming that he pitched in the states from the start.
After pitching for the Cubs in 2017, Uehara, once again, was available in the market. If you don’t recall how the market was that offseason, well, it wasn’t great. There weren’t many clubs who were eager to sign up a 42-year-old reliever who was showing signs of decline. Initially, Uehara said that he would retire if he didn’t sign with a major league club, but he had a change of heart. “I have been training believing I would sign a contract, and I would hate to quit this way,” he said. He ended up going back to where it all started: the Yomiuri Giants. In 36 relief appearances, Uehara was 0-5 with a 3.63 ERA and 24 strikeouts versus 5 walks in 34.2 IP. Respectable numbers, but his 2018 season ended up being his swan song as he announced his retirement without an appearance with the ichi-gun squad in 2019.
Uehara had a fantastic career, spanning across nearly two decades between the two biggest professional leagues on the planet. What is so remarkable about him is that he came to the majors in his mid-30s and still found a way to be exceptional when many pitchers would usually experience an inevitable decline. If there were news of a 33-year-old Japanese pitcher with high-80s velocity coming over to the majors, there wouldn’t be too many eyebrows raised. Many would expect him to pitch for a few seasons until the later part of decline curve hits hard. However, for Uehara, his finest seasons as a reliever came in his late-30s, and he was still earning saves for a major league baseball team at age 41. And boy, he was mighty fun to watch. There’s a lot of poetic ways to describe how he blew spin-rich 88-mph fastballs past hitters while befuddling them with sinking, diving splitters — all while painting zones at his will. Barring a reversal, they are sights never to be replicated again, but we are lucky to have witnessed them.