Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Welcome to Uehara Watch. This is yet another spinoff of the Yankees blog Canyon of Heroes. Perhaps you've come here from COH, or the wildly popular Matsuzaka Watch. It's possible that you've found me via the lesser known, and extremely neglected Darvish Watch or Baseball Japan. However you've come to find Uehara Watch, you're joining the chronicles of the next big name Japanese player to cross the Pacific to the Major Leagues.

Unlike the madness surrounding the posting of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Koji Uehara will be able to select the team for which he wishes to play. Like his Yomiuri Giants teammate of many years ago, Hideki Matsui, Uehara will be entering the market as a free agent in the offseason of 2007. He has repeatedly asked to be posted, but the Giants are clinging desperately to their fanbase and could not afford to let him walk. It is our aim to bring you the best of this fine pitcher before he is on the international radar. As with Matsuzaka Watch, I expect this blog to begin slowly. By the end of the posting process, Matsuzaka Watch entertained more than 10,000 visitors a day and was the subject of more than one piece in major media outlets. The same may be said of Uehara Watch come October and November of 2007, so get on the bandwagon now. Amaze your friends and family with your knowledge of this stellar starting pitcher from the Far East. He's not the once in a lifetime talent that is Daisuke Matsuzaka, but he is a big game pitcher with Major League star quality. Where Matsuzaka is overpowering and throws lighting bolts, Uehara is accurate and throws darts. Let's begin things today with a look at his background and the major points of emphasis to focus on going forward.

The vitals: Uehara is a right handed pitcher, standing 6 foot 2 inches and weighing in at 190 pounds. He features a 88-90 mph fastball, a nice cutter, two kinds of forkball, and an outstanding slider. His pitches are all thrown with tremendous accuracy, and he is rarely behind in the count. His motion is nice and easy.

Koji Uehara was born in Osaka, Japan in 1975. Osaka is a hotbed for baseball in Japan and is home to the wildly popular Hanshin Tigers. Baseball was an important part of young Koji's life as he participated in youth baseball in his hometown and was managed by his father Ryuichi. He was unable to play in Junior High School as his school did not field a baseball club, and he took up track and field instead. This is a rare circumstance in Japan, as baseball is as essential a part of school life as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Upon entering Tokaidai Gyosei High School, Uehara was able to participate in baseball as an outfielder and reliever, while another future professional baseball player, Yoshinori Tateyama of Nippon Ham, played the role of starting pitcher. His was virtually unknown at the time, as he was overshadowed by his teammate, and fellow Osakan Kazuo Matsui, who was the talk of the town.

Uehara decided to forgo the allure of professional baseball to play at Osaka Taiiku University, where he went 36-4 and was the top pitcher in his league all four seasons. Uehara initially failed the entrance examination for Osaka Taiiku, and sat out a year to work on his game and his test scores. He wears the #19 to commemorate that difficult year of his life. His university years also saw the dawning of an international powerhouse. Koji has been Japan's #1 choice for big game starts since his college years and he began with a bang by ending Cuba's 10 year, 134 game unbeaten streak in major international baseball competition at the 1997 Intercontinental Cup. That competition is little known to the average baseball fan in the United States, but represented the most important international tournament play in the sport, prior to the World Baseball Classic.

As his amateur career wound down, Uehara found himself the target of Major League scouts from the Anaheim Angels organization. The Angels made an aggressive pitch to the young Japanese righty, only to find him more interested in joining the famed Yomiuri Giants as their #1 pick. He cites the extraordinary pressure by people around him to join the prestigious club, as the reason he went in that direction. I turn to the Baseball Reference wiki listing for Uehara for the description of his rookie season:

"It was a grand year(1999) for rookie pitchers in Nippon Pro Baseball - Daisuke Matsuzaka led the Pacific League in wins, while Uehara led the Central League. Both were named Rookies of the Year in their respective circuits. Koji was 20-4 and won 15 games in a row at one point. Uehara edged Matsuzaka as the Sawamura Award winner, made the Central's Best Nine, won a Gold Glove and was an All-Star. He led the Central League in ERA (2.09, .56 lower than runner-up Shigeki Noguchi and strikeouts (179) in one of the best debuts in NPB history. He walked only 24 batters in 197 2/3 innings."

Uehara has had some very nice moments for the Giants in his career. During their most competitive years, Koji helped lead the legendary club to two titles in three years, capturing the 2000 and 2002 Japan Series crown. The Giants have finished no higher than 3rd place since their last title, and the franchise is sinking into mediocrity to the dismay of their loyal fan base. Uehara's performance has been somewhat inconsistent during that period, but a lack of run support can be attributed to his low win totals. His ERA isn't among the most outstanding in the league during that same stretch, although still quite good, but the telling statistic is his uncanny K/BB ratio. He is not a strikeout pitcher, despite averaging about 8 strikeouts per 9 innings over his career. He simply does not walk batters, in the mold of David Wells or Brad Radke. Get ready for this number.....

Koji Uehara's CAREER K/BB ratio is 6.66

I put that on a separate line to highlight it's importance. There are only a handful of guys in the Major Leagues that are able to put up a number like that in a single year, let alone over a 10 year period. In 2006, Uehara put up a 7.19 K/BB!!! To give you some perspective on that number, I'll list the top 10 MLB K/BB career numbers for comparison.

1. Tommy Bond (4.439)
2. Curt Schilling (4.382)
3. Pedro Martinez (4.277)
4. Ben Sheets (4.114)
5. Roy Oswalt (3.863)
6. Jim Whitney (3.822)
7. Jon Lieber (3.736)
8. Doug Jones (3.680)
9. Johan Santana (3.673)
10. Bret Saberhagen (3.641)

Now, I know that you are going to say, "Those are Major Leaguers. You can't compare Major Leaguers with Japanese pitchers." You're right. The thing is, if you scour the best pitchers in Japan over the last several decades, there's no one even close to the consistent excellence in this ratio. Uehara is almost freakish with his control. It doesn't tell the whole story, but I like this stat to give a sense of the accuracy and power that a guy works with. It also indirectly shows a player's mound smarts. It shows that he won't give in when he's down in counts, and more often than not gets the batter to swing at something close, or put the ball in play. Combined with some nice ERA figures and other more precise metrics, Uehara is an assasin. His 2003 K/BB ratio of 8.435 would rank him 10th in the history of Major League baseball, behind Schilling, Maddux, and Pedro among others.

Koji attracted the attention of more Major League scouts when he struck out Barry Bonds 3 times in an exhibition game at the 2002 MLB/Japan All-Star Series. He also struck up a friendship with Roger Clemens at the same competition in 2004, and shared a meal and a few offseason training sessions with the future Hall of Famer. The World Baseball Classic was the latest showcase for Major League people, and while Matsuzaka got the press and the MVP award, Uehara matched his numbers and deserved just as much credit for the title. If not for a Bob Davidson blown call in the Japan/US contest, Uehara may have walked away with 3 wins, and the MVP award. A lone Chipper Jones home run was the only blemish against Uehara's line over 5 strong innings.

In the coming weeks and months, I'll attempt to paint a pitcure of this great talent by performing various statistical analysis, recaps of his international competitions, and projecting his numbers to a Major League team. In 2007, I'll follow his start by start performances, counting down to his free agency and Major League move in the offseason. In the meantime, let's keep an eye open for the success of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa in the Majors next season. It will give you an idea of Uehara's translation to the Bigs, as he is somewhere between the two in ability. Look for a 2006 season recap in a few days, including a game log, and World Baseball Classic review. Let the Watch begin.