After a terrific nine-year run in Major League Baseball, veteran reliever Koji Uehara has returned to the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, the team announced (link via the Japan Times). Carlos Yamakazi of the Tokyo Sports Press had previously tweeted that Uehara would sign there and that the deal would be announced today.
Now entering his age-43 season, Uehara began his professional career with the Yomiuri organization nearly two decades ago. Uehara spent 10 seasons with the Giants, making 205 starts and another 71 relief appearances as he worked to a 3.01 ERA with 8.0 K/9, 1.2 BB/9, 112 wins, nine shutouts and 33 saves before making the jump to Major League Baseball after the 2008 season.
Uehara initially landed with the Orioles on a two-year deal prior to the 2009 season and turned in a solid but injury-shortened season as a starter. He moved to the bullpen full-time the following season and never looked back, establishing himself as one of the more effective relievers in all of baseball for much of the next decade.
From 2010-15, Uehara was something of a perennially underappreciated star. The righty twice posted a sub-2.00 ERA in that six-year stretch and averaged better than 10 strikeouts per nine innings each season along the way. Overall, Uehara logged a stellar 2.08 ERA between the Orioles, Rangers and Red Sox in that time, and his K/BB numbers were particularly astonishing over that dominant stretch: 11.4 K/9 against 1.2 BB/9.
Perhaps his crowning individual achievement, though, was being named the 2013 ALCS MVP with the eventual World Champion Red Sox. Uehara’s postseason career featured 18 innings of 3.00 ERA ball with a 21-to-2 K/BB ratio, and he was utterly dominant in that 2013 League Championship Series, tossing six shutout innings with just four hits allowed, no walks and nine strikeouts against the Tigers.
Uehara was still effective in 2016-17 and still posted quality K/BB numbers, but he became more homer-prone in the two most recent seasons, averaging 1.5 homers per nine innings pitched between the Red Sox and his lone season with the Cubs (2017). The righty had been holding out hope for a big league opportunity and at one point said he was weighing retirement if such an offer did not materialize. However, Uehara recently indicated that he still had the passion and competitive drive pulling him toward the playing field and reconsidered interest from several Japanese clubs.
“There is only one thing for me to do, and that is to play my heart out,” said Uehara upon signing with the Giants (via the aforementioned Japan Times report). “Other Japanese clubs showed interest, but the Giants were the team whose approach was enthusiastic, and I am grateful.”
It seems likely that this reunion could spell the end of Uehara’s time in Major League Baseball, and if that’s he case he can look back with pride at what was an outstanding career in North America. In 480 2/3 innings, Uehara delivered a 2.66 ERA with 10.7 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 1.12 HR/9, 22 wins and 95 saves. Baseball-Reference pegged him at 13.8 WAR in his career, while Fangraphs’ RA9-WAR largely concurred at 13.7. In all, he earned just north of $50MM in his MLB playing career.