Former Yomiuri Giants pitcher Koji Uehara made his major league aspirations known early on.
Not wasting any time after fulfilling the requirements for free agency, Uehara announced in April he intended to pitch in the majors in 2009.
Following his somewhat brazen announcement, Uehara struggled to the point that he was demoted to the minors during the first half of 2008. He rebounded with a solid second half after the Olympics and ended the year 6-5 overall with a 3.81 in 26 appearances (12 starts).
Now that he’s apparently gotten his wish (reportedly in the form of a two-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles as a starter) it’s time to see if Uehara finds the form in the majors that made him a star in the NPB.
Uehara would be the first Japanese to play for the Orioles, though the club is no stranger to Japanese pitchers, most notably being no-hit by former Boston Red Sox hurler Hideo Nomo in the only no-hitter in Camden Yards history on April 4, 2001.
Uehara is known mostly for his control and an effective forkball. He can be masterful at times with his ball placement and he’ll need that expert command in order to succeed in Baltimore’s hitter-friendly park.
The park could be one of the main obstacles in his maiden voyage in the majors, however, should he revert back to the form that saw him give up 24 or more home runs in four consecutive seasons (2003-06).
He also faces the challenge of joining an Orioles staff in desperate need of improvement.
Only the Texas Rangers had a higher team ERA than Baltimore’s 5.13 mark last season. Orioles pitchers gave up an American League-high 184 homers and 810 runs (fourth- and third-highest MLB totals last season.
Opposing teams batted .277 against them at home and they posted a 5.11 ERA in Camden Yards’ not-so-friendly confines.
Jeremy Guthrie was the team’s best pitcher in 2008, leading the club in wins (10), ERA (3.63) and strikeouts (120).
Their second best pitcher, statically at least, was Daniel Cabrera, who signed with the Washington Nationals.
Baltimore’s rotation last season consisted of players all under the age of 30 and despite not playing in the majors, Uehara is a veteran pitcher who’s faced high-level opposition for years.
He has been one of Japanese baseball’s most celebrated players for the past decade.
He hit the ground running in 1999, going 20-4 as a rookie and winning the Sawamura Award, CL Rookie of the Year honors and breaking the rookie record with 15 consecutive wins while leading the league in wins, strikeouts (179) and ERA (2.09).
He won another Sawamura Award in 2002, going 17-5, as he helped lead the Giants to the Japan Series title.
Injuries landed him in the Yomiuri bullpen in 2007 and he responded with a then-franchise record 32 saves in 55 appearances.
Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka has set the standard for Japanese MLB pitchers in recent years going 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA in 2007 and 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA last season.
Matsuzaka and Uehara were each named their league’s top rookies in 1999 (Matsuzaka claimed the Pacific League honor) and for a period of time reigned over the NPB.
In the majors, Matsuzaka has walked the walk. Now it’s Uehara’s turn.
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