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Profile: Koji Uehara 上原浩治

by on Nov.12, 2008 @ 12:34 am, under NPB

NOTE: I initially planned to post this article before the start of the Olympics, but for some reason it just kept getting pushed off. Now that the season is over and the Uehara to XX MLB team rumors have started up, I figured now would be as good a time as ever to finally get this out the door.

I have gone back and made a few edits to ensure that the information is as up-to-date as possible.

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Koji Uehara 上原浩治
Free Agent
Pitcher
Birth Date: April 3, 1975
College: Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences
Birth Place: Neyagawa, Osaka
Height: 186cm (6'1") / Weight: 86kg (190 lbs.)
Bats: R / Throws: R
Experience: 10 years
Draft: 1998 1st Round

Koji Uehara was once considered a number 1 type starter on almost any team. In his rookie season (24 years old), he won 20 games, posted a 2.09 ERA and had a 0.90 WHIP. Things couldn't have been better for Uehara after his first professional year with the Yomiuri Giants. But what went up, unfortunately, came down fairly quickly for Uehara.

On July 2nd, 2000, against the Hiroshima Carp, Uehara suffered a hamstring injury in his right leg. His season ended after 20 starts and 131 innings -- he was 9-7 with a 3.57 ERA at the time.

The following season wasn't much better for Uehara. On April 13th, 2001, in a game against the Yokohama Bay Stars, he suffered another hamstring injury, this time in his left leg. And while Uehara was able to return in time to hurl a few more innings (24 starts, 138.2 IP, 10-7, 4.02 ERA), he only ended up hurting his right elbow.

Uehara fared much better over the next 3 seasons. In 2003 he hit career highs in starts (27), innings pitched (207.1), and strikeouts (194). Between 2002 and 2004, Uehara averaged 25 starts, 191.1 IP, 15 wins, and a 2.81 ERA (this despite his season getting cut short in 2004 for the Olympics in Athens).

While his next two seasons were decent, he was again hampered by hamstring injuries. Despite these injuries, Uehara still managed a 3.26 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP over 355.2 IP. To put that into perspective, Uehara's 2005 3.31 ERA in 2005 was third best in the Central League and his 3.21 ERA in 2006 was ninth best in the CL. His won-lost total over this period (17-21) was awful, but that was probably more a product of the Giants' offense. I don't have the exact breakdowns on how many runs the Giants scored for Uehara in 2005 and 2006, but I do know that the Giants offense was less than spectacular in those two seasons: 2005 - 4th in runs, 4th in RBI; 2006 - 5th in runs and 6th in RBI.

2007 ended up being a fairly important year for Uehara. After starting the season on the DL with hamstring problems in both his legs, the Giants decided to shift Uehara into the bullpen to give him time to adjust and make a full return to the rotation. (There are some rumors going around that say the Giants moved Uehara to the pen as punishment for wanting to go to the Majors, but that's another story.) On May 2nd, 2007, Uehara posted his first save against the Chunichi Dragons. Later that year, on September 9th, once again against the Chunichi Dragons, Uehara became only the second 20-game winner ever in the NPB to also record 30 saves. At the end of the season, the Giants rewarded Uehara's stellar effort by re-signing him to a one year, 400 million yen contract (US$3.74M).

Which all brings us to 2008, where Uehara started the season back in the rotation. In his first start, he went 9 full innings and gave up 4 runs on 9 hits for the loss. Shortly thereafter, on April 7th, Uehara held a press conference to announce he would be testing the FA market in the Majors next year. While his second start wasn't all bad, the three starts that followed were something of a nightmare -- 13.1 innings, 15 runs, 25 hits, 6 walks, and only 4 strikeouts. On April 27th, the Giants had seen enough and dropped Uehara to Ni-gun, a first for Uehara. (A point to clarify: Uehara had been dropped to Ni-gun before, but not for performing poorly.)

There are a number of different theories surrounding what has happened to Uehara this season (and perhaps even further back). Some think he shouldn't have spent so much time trying to learn the shuto during the 2008 pre-season. Others cite his hamstring injuries over the years as a potential (psychological) problem. And still others think that Uehara may have placed too much pressure on himself by announcing his desire to test the MLB FA market so early during the season.

Uehara certainly has the tools to be a competant starter. He can throw a fastball, slider, cutter, a forkball with lots of movement (his "butter" pitch), an infrequent curve, and the shuto. When he was in college, he managed to touch 153km/h (95 mph) on the radar gun. Earlier on in his career, he was around the 150km/h range (low 90's). But after making some changes to his delivery, he hasn't really gone much over 140km/h (mid to upper 80's). Last season, as a closer, he was able to throw a little harder and maxed out around the mid to upper 140km/h range (upper 80's, low-low 90's).

Uehara (and those around him) seem to think that he's not following through with his delivery and is pulling up short on his left leg. Footage comparing his delivery between this year and previous years seem to validate this theory. And in a recent interview, Uehara is heard saying that he's afraid of re-injuring his hamstring again, especially in a year when he has declared his desire to test the FA waters in the States. The added pressure of representing Japan in the Olympics probably hasn't helped either.

Ultimately, what may be wrong with Uehara is a convergence of multiple theories, and not just one. Physically, he may be pulling up short in his delivery due to fears of re-injur his hamstrings. It's also possible that he may have inadvertantly changed something to his mechanics while trying to pick up the shuto. And mentally, he may be feeling the pressures of doing well in his final year in Japan and proving that he is / was worthy of a spot on the Olympic roster.

On a side note that I wanted to mention. I wasn't really sure whether or not Uehara would make the final cut for Senichi Hoshino's Olympic Baseball Team roster, but he did. I was a little surprised at first, but then I saw an interview where a reporter asked Hoshino how he felt about Uehara. He replied by saying that while using him as a starter would worry him, inseting him into a game for 1 or 2 innings wouldn't cause him any concern. Hoshino apparently thinks along the same lines as I do, which is that Uehara, at this point in his career, may be better suited coming out of the pen. (Wanted to add another note: during an interview with Uehara gave prior to the start of the Climax Series, he mentioned that he declined the invite to be on the Olympics roster but that Hoshino, in turn, declined Uehara's request to be skipped over.)

My Analysis
Uehara considers himself a starter. But under the right circumstances, I'd have to think that he'd be amenable to a job out of the pen. And this is where I think Uehara can still really be a force. Fewer innings per appearance will mean he can focus more on each of his pitches than in trying to conserve his strength over 6, 7, or 8 innings.

The forkball is Uehara's money pitch. He's not the type to really blow hitters away -- if anything, he's a contact type of pitcher that relies on the ground ball. Any team interested in him will want to make sure they have good defenders in the infield.

Since he has played his career in a league without a DH, it actually might be beneficial for Uehara to go to a team in the NL. A small market team could be better than a large market, since he would have fewer pressure to deal with. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if small market teams will be interested in taking a risk on Uehara.

2008 Appearances

Code:
       ERA   IP   BF  PT   H   HR  SO  BB  R  ER
4/1	   4.00  9.0  37  121  9   2   7   2   4  4
4/8	   3.94  7.0  27  111  6   2   10  0   3  3
4/15   5.85  4.0  24  80   8   1   1   4   6  6
4/20   6.12  5.0  24  82   7   0   1   2   4  4
4/26   6.75  4.1  23  78   10  0   2   0   5  5

            SENT DOWN TO NI-GUN

       ERA   IP   BF  PT   H   HR  SO  BB  R  ER
7/5    6.15  1.1  5   15   0   0   0   1   0  0
7/6    5.97  1.0  3   8    0   0   0   0   0  0
7/10   5.80  1.0  3   13   0   0   0   0   0  0
7/11   5.89  1.0  5   20   2   1   2   0   1  1
7/12   5.92  1.1  7   27   2   0   0   1   1  1
7/13   5.77  1.0  4   14   1   0   0   0   0  0
7/16   6.46  0.0  3   10   2   0   0   1   3  3
7/20   6.15  2.0  6   25   1   0   3   0   0  0
7/22   6.00  1.0  3   12   0   0   2   0   0  0
7/23   5.82  1.1  5   17   1   0   2   0   0  0
7/26   5.68  1.0  3   17   0   0   2   0   0  0
7/29   5.44  2.0  7   32   1   0   3   0   0  0

       ERA   IP   BF  PT   H   HR  SO  BB  R  ER
8/8     --   1.0  5   25   0   0   0   1   0  0    // Team Japan VS PL All-Stars
8/9     --   1.0  4   18   1   0   2   0   0  0    // Team Japan VS CL All-Stars

       ERA   IP   BF  PT   H   HR  SO  BB  R  ER
8/14	--   1.0  3        0   0   1   0   0  0    // OLYMPICS
8/18	--   1.0  3        0   0   0   0   0  0    // OLYMPICS

       ERA   IP   BF  PT   H   HR  SO  BB  R  ER
8/28   5.08  5.0  21  82   7   0   3   0   1  1
9/3    5.02  6.0  26  95   6   1   2   1   4  3
9/9    4.76  5.0  20  100  3   1   6   2   1  1
9/15   4.52  7.1  27  112  5   0   8   0   4  2
9/21   4.46  5.0  17  68   2   2   5   0   2  2
9/28   4.14  8.0  30  106  6   1   5   1   1  1
10/5   3.81  7.0  25  105  5   0   6   0   0  0

       ERA   IP   BF  PT   H   HR  SO  BB  R  ER
10/23  2.25  8.0  28  104  4   2   9   0   2  2    // Climax Series
11/1   2.57  7.0  27  105  5   2   8   2   2  2    // Nippon Series
11/6   2.70  3.0  17  52   7   0   4   0   2  1    // Nippon Series

Awards:
Rookie of the Year (1999)
Sawamura Award (1999, 2002)
Most Victories (1999, 2002)
Lowest ERA (1999, 2004)
Most Strikeouts (1999, 2003)
Best Nine (1999, 2002)
Golden Glove (1999, 2003)
All Star Games (1999-2005, 2007)
Olympics (2004, 2008)
World Baseball Classic (2006)

Sources:

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2 comments on “Profile: Koji Uehara 上原浩治

  1. knucklehead7

    These are great to read. Based on the criteria you posted yesterday, it will be interesting to see where he ends up.

  2. Gwynar

    Hopefully others will find this useful.

    I’m also quite interested to see where Uehara goes and how he does in his first year in the Majors. With the right team, I think he could do pretty well. But with the wrong team, it could be a long year for him.

Comments are closed.