JAPANESE MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHERS: IRABU, SASAKI AND KURODA

HIDEKI IRABU

Hideki Irabu, a 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound pitcher was given a four-year $12.8 million to play for the New York Yankees, the richest contract ever for a rookie. Born Okinawa to a Japanese mother and an American soldier father, Irabu was hailed as the next Nolan Ryan even though he had a unremarkable career in Japan, losing a many games as he won (59) and recording 1,111 strikeouts in 1,102 innings. In 1996, Irabu told his Japanese club, the Chiba Lotte Marines, he wanted to play in the United States---for the Yankees. The San Diego Padres had the right to him, which they ended up trading to New York for $3 million and two top prospects.

Irabu was one of several pitchers from Japan who hoped to duplicate Hideo Nomo's trailblazing achievements in the majors. Although Irabu largely struggled in the majors, he left a lasting legacy. Several big stars, from Ichiro to Hideki Matsui, followed Nomo and Irabu from Japan to the United States. "He was one of the pioneers," Valentine said. "There was a lot riding on his shoulders." "He was an outstanding pitcher on his best days and a horrible one on his worst days,"Robert Whiting, author of several books on Japanese baseball, told AP. "A real puzzle. He seemed to have a lot of anger inside him, which perhaps came from his rather unusual childhood." [Source: AP, July 30, 2011]

Irabu's father was an American serviceman who left Japan after Hideki was born without leaving a forwarding address. His mother was an Okinawan who remarried a restaurateur from Osaka, who raised Hideki. "It was a very sensitive subject to Hideki," Robert Whiting, author of several books on Japanese baseball, told AP. "He did not like being asked questions about it."

Irabu is from Kagawa Prefecture. He was a star at the Koshien high school tournament for Jinseu Gakuin High School. In Japan, Irabu was known for throwing the fastest fastball in Japan. In 1993, he threw a 158 kilometer per hour fastball, a record that stood until 2005. Irabu was a star with the Lotte Marines for 10 seasons and made perhaps hig biggest impact on the game in 1997 when he threatened to sit out the season in response to a deal to trade his rights to the San Diego Padres. Through his agent, he forced a deal that sent him to his preferred team, the Yankees. The case sparked a change in rules that formed the basis of what is now as the posting system in Japan. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

In 1997, Irabu (pronounced ERA-boo) was welcomed to New York with a Tiffany crystal apple from New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and won his first outing as a 27-year-old rookie with a good fastball, a sharp-breaking forkball and slow curve, but after batters figured him out he was hammered mercilessly. New York newspapers ran headlines like IRABOO!, IRABUM, IRABOOBOO, and I-ROB-YOU!; he reportedly became so upset at one game in Milwaukee that he spit on some fans; and was finally sent to minors after only 18 days in the big leagues.

In 1998, Irabu got into a fight with a Japanese cameraman, had a good first half of the season---for a while leading the league in E.R.A. and was briefly mentioned as a possible lead off pitcher in the All Star Game---but he played poorly in second half of the season and didn't even get to play one inning for the Yankees in the World Series.

Irabu in the Japan Leagues

Before going to the major leagues, Irabu was one of the most dominant pitchers in Japanese Professional Baseball. He led the Pacific League in wins in 1994 with 15 and Earned Run Average in 1995 and 1996 (2.53, 2.40) when he played for the Chiba Lotte Marines. In a country where finesse pitchers are prevalent, Irabu's power stood out. In 1993, he threw a 158 km/h (98 mph) fastball which still stands as the fastest pitch thrown in the Pacific League.

As a star Japanese pitcher, Irabu's contract was purchased in 1997 by the San Diego Padres from the Lotte Orions (now Chiba Lotte Marines). However, Irabu said he would only play for New York and forced a trade. The Padres sent Irabu, then 28, to the Yankees, where he signed a four-year, $12.8 million deal and spent three seasons.

Irabu's departure from Japan professional baseball led to the creation of the posting system, which allows teams from the major leagues to sign Japanese players before they become free agents. Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka are among the Japanese players who went to the U.S. under the system.

Irabu in the Major Leagues

Irabu was 34-35 with 16 saves and a 5.15 ERA in six Major League seasons with the Yankees, Montreal Expos and Texas Rangers. After George Steinbrenner called him a "fat toad" because he refused to hustle and cover first base, the Yankees traded him to Montreal, where he for the most part was awful on an awful team. He then was traded to Texas Rangers, where he also performed dismally.

On July 10, 1997, Irabu made his major league debut against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium and earned his first victory. "He was a world-class pitcher," said former major league manager Bobby Valentine, who managed Irabu in Japan in 1995. "When Nolan Ryan saw him, he said he had never seen anything like it. There were just some days when he was as good a pitcher as I had ever seen. A fabulous arm."

After an impressive debut with the Yankees that summer, he was a disappointment to the Yankees and himself during three seasons in the Bronx. Instead, he was forever tagged with a label from late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who called him a "fat . . . toad" after Irabu failed to cover first base during an exhibition game. Irabu was a member of two Yankees teams that won the World Series, but his only postseason action was a single relief appearance in the 1999 AL Championship Series when Boston tagged him for 13 hits. His best season came in 1998, when he posted a 13-9 record with a 4.06 ERA in 173 innings. He followed that up with an 11-7 record, 4.84 ERA. After the 1999 season, he was traded to the Montreal Expos, where he appeared in just 14 games. In the two seasons with the Expos, he was 2-7 with a 6.69 ERA over 71 1/3 innings. Before the 2002 season, Irabu signed with the Texas Rangers as a free agent. He spent his final season as a reliever, appearing in 38 games with 16 saves. Irabu posted a team-leading 16 saves---the only saves of his major league career---with Texas in 2002.

Irabu and His Suicide After the Major Leagues

He then returned to Japan for the 2003 season and enjoyed renewed success, earning a win in the All-Star Game, going 13-8 and helping the Hanshin Tigers win their first league title in 18 years. He also played for Hanshin in 2004.

In August 2008, Irabu was held on assault charges after being arrested at 5:30am for assaulting a bar owner in Osaka after after drinking 20 mugs of beer and learning his credit card would not be accepted. In 2009, Irabu played for the Long Beach Armada in the Golden Baseball League at the age of 39. In September 2009, Irabu was released from the Kochi Fighting Dogs in the Shikoku-Kyushu League.

Irabu made a comeback in April 2009 in the independent Golden Baseball League, going 5-3 with a 3.58 ERA for the Long Beach Armada. He then returned to Japan and was introduced that August as a member of the Kochi Fighting Dogs, saying, "I have high expectations for myself."

Irabu was released from the Kochi Fighting Dogs in 2009 after suffering a knee injury. He then moved to Rancho Palos Verdes in suburban Los Angeles. In May 2010, he was arrested for drunk driving near his home. Police saw him drifting outside traffic lanes and pulled him over after he nearly collided with a parked car. "I think that he was one of his own worst enemies," Valentine said.

In recent years, Irabu lived with his family in Southern California. But neighbors believe Irabu had grown despondent recently because of a split with his wife. Mary Feuerlicht said she was about to go pick up her son on Wednesday morning when a man came running down the driveway from Irabu's large two-story home, perched atop a hill with views of the harbor and downtown Los Angeles, pleading with her to call police.

Feuerlicht said she was later told by sheriff's deputies and the man who asked her for help that Irabu's wife had left him, taking their two young daughters. She hadn't seen Irabu's wife and children for two months, but said the family regularly left town for the summer. "When I saw him for the past month or so he seemed kind of down," she said.

In July 2011, Irabu was found dead at the age of 42 in his house in Rancho Palos Verdes, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. "He was found dead by an apparent suicide," Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. Michael Arriaga told AP. Later it was revealed he hung himself. He didn’t leave a note.

The Yankees released the following statement: "We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Hideki Irabu. Every player that wears the Pinstripes is forever a part of the Yankees family, and his death is felt throughout our organization. Our sympathies and support go out to his wife, Kyonsu, his two children, and all of his friends and loved ones."

HIDEO NOMO

See Separate Article

Kazuhiro Sasaki

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Kazuhiro Sasaki was a relief pitcher for the Seattle Mariners from 2000 to 2003. Known to Seattle fans as Kazu and Daimajin, he was voted rookie of the year in 2000 at the age 32, making him the second oldest rookie in Major League history, and the second Japanese player to win the award (Nomo was the first).

Before coming the U.S. Major League Sasaki was known as the relief king in Japan and was the all-time save leader. He appeared in 405 games with the Yokohama Baystars, and had 229 saves, and a 2.31 earned run average. He was named MVP of the Central League in 1998, with 45 saves and an 0.64 ERA, when his club won the Japan Series.

Sasaki joined Seattle as a free agent in 2000. He earned 129 saves in four years in the Major Leagues. In his first year in the United States in 2000 he led the league in saves with 37 in 40 chances, had a ERA of 3.16 and helped lead the Mariners into the playoffs. In 2001, he had 45 saves and a 3.24 ERA. In 2002, he had 37 saves and an 2.52 ERA. In 2003, he broke his ribs early in the season after trying to carry some furniture up some stairs and missed most of the season. He appeared in only 35 games, earned 10 saves and left Seattle after that and returned to his old team, the Bay Stars in 2004, signing a ¥1.3 billion, two-year deal with the them. Sasaki finished his 16-year career with the Bay Stars and retired in August 2005.

Kazuhisa Ishii

Kazuhisa Ishii played for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He got of to a roaring start in 2002, winning 9 of his first 12 outings but had trouble midway through the season and had a record of 14 and 10 and an ERA of 4.27 when his season ended prematurely when he took a line drive to the face and sustained multiple face and skull fractures.

Before coming to the United States Ishii played for 10 years with the Yakult Swallows and had a 78-46 record and a 3.38 ERA in 244 games. In his last year in 2001, he was 12-6 with an ERA of 3.39 and helped the Swallows win the Japan Series.

Ishii signed a four-year, $12.3 million deal with the Dodgers. His accident was quite dramatic. He was hit on the forehead by a line drive. He lay unconscious on the field after being hit and was taken away in an ambulance. The Dodgers manger told AP, “He told the guys at the hospital he never saw the ball. When I got the mound the first thing I saw was blood---which scared me to death. But we knew he could hear voices by the way he was responding.”

In 2003 with the Dodger he was 9 and 7 with 3.86 ERA. In 2005, Ishii was traded from the Dodger to the Mets. He was 36-25 with a 4.30 ERA with the Dodgers over three years, but he was erratic and unpredictable and walked a lot of batters. He returned to Japan after a short stint with the Mets.

Hideki Okajima

In 2006, Hideki Okajima, a left handed pitcher, signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract with the Red Sox. He pitched with Nippon Ham in 2006 and before that the Yomiuri Giants. He joined the Red Sox a year before Matsuzaka and played good enough in his role as reliever, maintaining an ERA below 2.00, to make it the All Star Game. Okajima signed a one-year, $2.75 million contract with the Red Sox in 2010.

Over is career with the Red Sox Okajima has been 16-8, with a 3.06 ERA in 238 appearances. He appeared as All Star after signing with the Red Sox in 2007.

Okajima struggled in 2010 with a hamstring injury and went 4-4, with a 4.50 ERA in 56 appearances.Okajima was cut loose by the Red Sox at the end of the 2010 season but then was called back. He has a one-year, $1.75 million contract with the Red Sox for 2011. He started the season in the minors and was called up in mid April. In early May he was put on waivers after seven appearances, a 1-0 record and an ERA of 4.32 and then sent down the minor leagues, playing 3A ball I Pawtucket.

Okajima pitched in only seven games for the Red Sox in 2011 when he was 35 and spent most of his time in Class AAA Pawtucket, where he went 8-1 with a 2.29 earned run average in 34 games, but only eight games finished and no saves. He is one of the rare Japanese pitchers who performed better in the major leagues than he did in Japan. In his first year in Boston in 2007, he had a 2.22 E.R.A. with five saves and was a significant contributor to the Red Sox World Series championship, posting a 2.45 E.R.A. in eight postseason games. But his numbers grew increasingly worse from one year to the next until Boston finally let him go after last season.

Before the 2012 season Okajima was picked up by the Yankees and then released after he failed his physical because of a shoulder problem. David Waldstein wrote in the New York Times, “With two days before spring training even opens, the Yankees made their first cut. The left-handed reliever Hideki Okajima failed his physical, according to a Major http://factsanddetails.com/nucleus/index.php?action=overviewLeague official with direct knowledge of the medical tests. Okajima’s contract will be voided. Okajima agreed to a minor-league deal with the Yankees on Dec. 28, pending the physical. The Yankees had hoped he could reclaim the success he had with the Boston Red Sox and be a second left-handed reliever in the bullpen. That hope is now gone, although at almost no cost since his contract did include guaranteed money. [Source: David Waldstein, New York Times, February 17, 2012]

After being let go by the Yankees Okajima was picked up by the Softbank Hawk. According to Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker Okajima downplayed concerns over his shoulder and told reporters he is eager to "show what he did in America." This will mark Okajima's first season back in his native Japan since 2006. [Source: Steve Adams, MLB Trade Rumours, March 4, 2012] Okajima has recorded a 3.11 ERA in 246 1/3 Major League innings, with a 7.9 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, and 36.8 percent groundball rate. His strikeouts have dipped heavily since the 2008 season, however, and in 2010 his control began eluding him as well. He walked five batters in just 8 1/3 innings in 2011 before being designated for assignment in May when the Sox acquired Franklin Morales. Okajima has earned a total of $7 million in his MLB career to date, according to Baseball Reference. [Ibid]

Takashi Saito

Takashi Saito was 2-1, with a 1.40 ERA and 43 saves and made the All-Star team with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2007 and was 6-2 with a 2.07 ERA and 24 saves in 26 chances in 2006. He signed a minor league contact with the Dodgers after play 14 season with the Yokohama BayStars and then signed a $2 million, one-year contract. Saito turned 38 in 2008. He earned his 100th save in his carrier (52 with the Dodgers and 48 with the Yokohama Bay Stares) as the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Cincinnati red 5-4 in August 2007.

For the 2010 season 40-year-old Saito agreed to a one year, $3.2 million contract with the Braves. He played 14 seasons with Yokohama, two season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, making that National League All Star team in 2007 when he had 39 saves. He played 2009 with Boston and has a 2.43 ERA and 2-2 record as a set up man there. The Braves omitted Saito and Kawakami from their post-season roster. Saito looked poor in a tune-up for the series and Kawakami had a bad season, going 1-10 with a 5.15 ERA in 18 games. 16 of them starts, and was sent to Triple-A.

Saito turned 42 during spring training in 2011. "When I'm playing baseball, I feel five to 10 years younger," he told the Yomiuri Shimbun "When I throw in camp, I want to throw well, when I run, I want to go all out. When I'm working out, I am giving it 100 percent." A native of Sendai, which was hit hard by March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Saito plans to continue to provide whatever inspiration he can. "I've received comments from people who said they were encouraged by my play," he said. "I want to continue to meet their expectations."[Source: Kai Nishimura, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 22, 2011]

In 2011, Saito played for the Milwaukee Brewers on a $1.75 million , one-year contract. He went 4-2 with a 2.03 ERA in 30 relief appearances for the NL Central-champion Milwaukee Brewers in 2011.In October 2011, he picked up his first win in four major league play off games with with one inning of scoreless relief for the Milwaukee Brewers in the sixth after starter Zack Greinke. Entering a 4-4 tie against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 41-year-old old allowed a one out double but got out of trouble with a ground out and a strikeout. The Brewers won the game 9-4

In December 2012, Kyodo reported: “Former major league reliever Takashi Saito will return to his roots, having agreed to play for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The 42-year-old Saito is a Sendai native and played his college ball at Tohoku Fukushi University. He left the Yokohama BayStars to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006, collecting 39 saves and appearing in the All-Star Game the following year. "We hope he does well with us to inspire the Tohoku region," Rakuten president Yozo Tachibana said. "We're counting on him to help the younger players by passing on his experience from the majors." [Source: Kyodo, December 29, 2012]

For the 2012 season, 41-year-old Saito signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract with the the Arizona Diamondbacks. Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. "Takashi brings a great veteran presence to our bullpen and strengthens an area where we already feel very good about our options," Towers said. "He has closed, been a setup man and is versatile enough to fill any role." [Source: Associated Press, December 14, 2011]

As of 2012 Saito was 21-15 with 84 saves and a 2.18 ERA over parts of six seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston, Atlanta and Milwaukee. Opponents have hit .199 against him with 389 strikeouts and 103 walks in 322 games. Saito's best season was as a Dodgers closer in 2006, when he had 47 saves in 50 opportunities. He was a National League All-Star in 2007 as the Dodgers closer. Since 2006, Saito ranks fifth among relievers with a 2.18 ERA. In 10 postseason games, he is 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA. [Ibid]

Hiroki Kuroda

In December 2007, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Hiroki Kuroda, a 32-year-old right-handed pitcher, to a three-year, $35.3 million contract. Kuroda spent 11 season with the Hiroshima Carp, where he had a 103-89 record and a 3.69 ERA in 271 games. In his last season with the Carp he went 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA. In 2006, he went 13-6 and has a league-leading 1.85 ERA. He made the All-Star team his last three season in Japan. His contract with the Dodger’s included eight first-class plane tickets, an interpreter for his family, a personal trainer and masseur, and a $30,000 moving bonus.

Kuroda has a five pitch repertoire that includes a good change up, a slow 90s fastball, a cutter, aforkball, a slider and a shuuto (hard sinker that cuts left). In Japan he was known as Mr. Complete for finishing roughly 30 percent of his starts. When he reached the Dodgers, in the eyes of many, he was well past his prime, Even so his coaches expected good thing from him and felt that what he lost over the years in physical ability he made up for with competitiveness.

Kuroda had a win in his debut with the Dodgers. At the All-Star break be had a 5-6 record and a 3.39 ERA and the Dodgers were satisfied with the acquisition. He was 9-10 with a 3.73 ERA for the season. He had key wins at the end of the season, including one with seven shut-out innings, and was impressive in the playoffs with a key win in last playoff game that finished off the sweep against the Cubs. In that game he pitched 6½ brilliant scoreless innings.

Kuroda won game three of the National League Championships, holding the Phillies to two runs over six innings in the Dodgers 7-2 win . He was also fined $7,500 for his role in a bench-clearing incident when he threw a pitch over the head of a Phillies batter in apparent retaliation for a head-hunting pitch by the Phillies at the Dodger’s star payer Mannie Ramirez.

Kuroda was given the honor of pitching in Opening Day of the 2009 season. He pitched 5 2/3 in 4-1 Dodgers victory. He struggles after that, not getting another victory until June.

In July 2009, Kuroda suffered a serious concussion when a hard hit ball crashed into his skull. He was taken away in an ambulance and remained hospitalized for several days but came back to play later in the season. Kuroda got shelled in Game 3 of the National League championship. He gave up six runs against the Phillies and was taken out with one out in the second inning.

Kuroda went 11-13 with a 3.39 ERA in 31 starts in the 2010 season with the Dodgers. His three-year contract with the Dodgers finished at the end of the 2010 season,In August 2010, Kuroda gave up a single in the 8th inning to spoil a bid for a no-hitter. The Dodgers won 3-0.

Kuroda had a one-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers in 2011. Kuroda was 13-16 with a 3.07 ERA for the Dodgers in 2011 year and 41-46 with a 3.45 ERA in four seasons in Los Angeles after a long career in Japan.

Hiroki Kuroda in 2012 with the Yankees

AP reported: “Kuroda joined the Yankees after four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was given a $10 million base salary last season and earned $1 million more in performance bonuses based on innings. He turned down a $13.3 million qualifying offer from the Yankees, and he would have cost a new team a selection in June's amateur draft. [Source: Ronald Blum, Associated Press, November 21, 2012]

Kuroda was the Yankees' most consistent pitcher during the 2012 regular season. He went 16-11, tying for the team lead in wins, and led New York with 33 starts and 219 2-3 innings. After losing six of his first nine decisions, Kuroda finished with a 3.32 ERA that was second among New York starters behind Pettitte's 2.87. [Ibid]

In November 2012, New York agreed to a $15 million, one-year contract with Kuroda. ''It something that I think fits how we've operated here in the last number of years, to do short-term circumstances on high-end players,'' Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. That's why a one-year deal made sense for Kuroda, a right-hander who turned 38 in February 2012. [Ibid]

Cashman called the agreement ''a relief.'' ''Hiroki Kuroda chose us on a lesser deal last year and I suspect he's done the same again this year,'' Cashman said. ''By coming here, I suspect that he left money on the table. I suspect it was a very aggressive market on him, and I think it is a reflection of he really enjoyed playing here for this city, for this team, for this organization and with these teammates to come back under the circumstances he's coming back on.''

''I am very happy and excited to re-sign with the Yankees,'' Kuroda said in a statement. ''I am very grateful for all of the interest and all of the offers that I received from the various teams that courted me. It was a tough decision for me to make, but at the end of the day, I wanted to try to win a championship with the teammates that I went to battle with last season.'' He joins CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova in the Yankees' projected starting rotation for 2013. Kuroda can earn $500,000 in performance bonuses, $250,000 each for 190 and 210 innings.

Hisanori Takahashi

Hisanori Takahashi is a left-handed pitcher for the Mets. He signed a minor league contract even tough he was among the biggest pitching stars in Japan. He was drafted as a No. 1 pick in 1999 and was a long-serving starter for the Yomiuri Giants, where he played on a Japan- Series-winning team. [Source: David Waldstein, New York Times, March 13, 2010]

Takahashi and Hideki Matsui are former teammates with the Giants and are friends. “I know him pretty well, he was my teammate for three years with the Giants,” Matsui said. “I spent a fair amount of time with him on the field. While I was with the Yankees, I went back to Japan during the off-season and I had dinner with him.” [Ibid]

David Waldstein wrote in the New York Times, “As an accomplished pitcher in Japan, Takahashi could have stayed there and made more money and had more security. He earned $2 million last year and had a chance at a three-year contract with the Giants in which the first year would have been worth $3 million with the next two years to be negotiated later. Instead, he announced that he was leaving to pitch in the United States before he knew if any teams wanted him.” [Ibid]

“On Jan. 31, when his former teammates with the Giants reported to their spring training, Takahashi packed his suitcases and flew to Arizona, without a team to report to and with little hope of getting a guaranteed Major League contract. “Just find me a park where I can throw,” he told Anthony Nakanishi, who works for Takahashi’s agent Peter Greenberg. “It doesn’t matter what color I will be wearing, I will be ready.”

A week before camps opened, Takahashi signed a nonguaranteed minor league deal with the Mets worth less than $1 million. He was promised nothing. When camp began, Manager Jerry Manuel never even mentioned Takahashi as a candidate. But Takahashi soon impressed the Mets with his pitching at spring training. Later Manuel told the New York Times that Takahashi was “very, very impressive,” and all but put him on the roster, either as a reliever or possibly as the fifth starter. “It would be difficult as of this date to not include Takahashi,” Manuel said. “It would be very, very hard not to include him in our plans.”

Hisanori Takahashi signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels for the 2011 and 2012 season. He went 10-6 with eight saves and an ERA of 3.61 with the New York Mets in 2010.

Koji Uehara

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Uehara in Japan
Koji Uehara of the Giants---who won the Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award, twice in 1999 when he went 20-4 and 2002 when he was 17-5'signed a $10 million two-year contact with Baltimore Orioles before the 2009 season. In his 10-year career with the Yomiuri Giants Uehara went 112-62 with a 3.01 ERA and 56 complete games in 207 career starts Uehara looked good in his first start, allowing one run over five innings in a 7-5 win over the Yankees. Uehara missed much of the season with elbow and other problems. Uehara closed 2010 with a 1-2 record, and served as the Orioles closer late in the season with 13 saves and a 2.86 ER in 43 appearances. He signed a one-year deal with the Orioles for 2011. At the end of the 2011 season, Uehara was shipped from the hapless Orioles to the Texas Rangers, a team that advanced to the playoffs.

In December 2012, ESPN reported: “The Boston Red Sox officially announced the signing of right-handed reliever Koji Uehara to a one-year contract that a source says is worth $4.25 million. The 37-year-old Japanese reliever will immediately bolster the back end of the Red Sox's bullpen. Statistically, he was considered one of the best relievers in the majors in 2012, posting a 1.75 ERA and a 0.64 WHIP. He struck out 43 and walked only three in 36 innings. "First, I am really grateful for the Boston Red Sox expressing the strong desire to acquire me and giving me this new opportunity," he said Tuesday through an interpreter. "Now it's my responsibility to meet their expectation and to give my best performance without getting injured." [Source: Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com, December 19, 2012]

In 2012 Uehara missed more than a month with a injury last season for the Texas Rangers. He'll probably be used as a setup man in a Red Sox bullpen that is already looking like a strength. He joins Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard, Andrew Bailey, Andrew Miller, Mark Melancon, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and possibly Franklin Morales. "I haven't been told any specific role," Uehara said. "My focus is always to give 100 percent to my pitching." He will wear No. 19, which formerly belonged to Josh Beckett.

Hisashi Iwakuma

In 2012, Hisashi Iwakuma started 16 games for Seattle and went 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA over the final three months of the season. He was 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA and 43 strikeouts over his last nine starts. For the season, Iwakuma finished 9-5 with a 3.16 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 125 1-3 innings. [Source: AP, November 2, 2012]

In November 2012, Iwakuma and the Seattle Mariners have agreed to a two-year contract with an option for 2015. Iwakuma signed with the Mariners January 2011. The Japanese right-hander began the season in the bullpen before transitioning into the starting rotation in July, and he thrived in a familiar role. [Ibid]

In January 2011, Jeff Sullivan wrote in Baseball Nation, “Following the 2010 season, Japanese starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma was posted, and the Oakland A's submitted a high bid of $19.1 million. The two sides couldn't reach an agreement, though, and Iwakuma remained in Japan. Following the 2011 season, Iwakuma became a free agent. He expressed a preference for signing with the Seattle Mariners, and, a signing was announced. The Mariners have inked Iwakuma to a one-year contract worth $1.5 million, with $3.4 million available in potential incentives. [Source: Jeff Sullivan, Baseball Nation, January 4, 2011]

Iwakuma missed time with a shoulder injury in 2011, which presumably knocked down his price. But though he lost a little velocity, he came back and pitched well, and he still throws his fastball in the 87-91 mile-per-hour range with an assortment of offspeed weapons. If things go right, he could be the new Hiroki Kuroda. If things do not go right, he could be terrible, but it's not like the Mariners have made a big commitment. [Ibid]

Cubs and Kyuji Fujikawa Agree to Two-Year, $9.5Million Contract

In December 2012, the Chicago Cubs signed Japanese closer Kyuji Fujikawa to two-years, $9.5 million contract. Fujikawa also has the chance to earn an extra $2 million per year in performance bonuses. CBC News reported: “Fujikawa, a 32-year-old right-hander, had 24 saves with a 1.32 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 58 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings in 2012 for the Hanshin Tigers in Nippon Professional Baseball. In a six-season career for Hanshin, Fujikawa amassed 202 saves with a 1.36 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 510 strikeouts in 369 2/3 innings. He's an elite closer in Japan. The Angels had been seen as the favorites to land Fujikawa. [Source: Matt Snyder, CBS Sports, December 1, 2012]

Ap reported: “After watching Hideo Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki, Kyuji Fujikawa determined he’s ready for the major leagues. “When I was still a student, I saw Nomo made it to the United States, and that was a big factor for me,” Fujikawa said. “Also, Matsuzaka, who is the same age as I am, struggled a little bit, but his challenge really gave me the motivation to come over here, as well as Ichiro challenge to the major leagues, that motivated me to come over.” [Source: AP, December 8, 2012]

“Facing better-quality hitters was one of my motivations,” Fujikawa said. He joins a team remaking its pitching staff. Without a World Series title since 1908, the Cubs went 61-101 this year for their first 100-loss season since 1966. Carlos Marmol, nearly traded to the Los Angeles Angels last month, remains the Cubs’ closer as Fujikawa gets used to pitching for Chicago. “There’s going to be an adjustment,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We’re crazy to think he’s going to go right into the season and have no issues.” Fujikawa’s strikeouts per nine innings decreased from 13.5 in 2005 to 11.0 this year, when injuries limited his innings and strikeouts to his lows since 2004. [Ibid]

Tsuyoshi Wada

For the 2012 season, the Baltimore Orioles signed Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada to a two year contract worth more than $8 million. Wada was regarded as potential boost for the Orioles weak starting rotation.

Dan Soderberg of Yahoo! Wrote: The 30-year-old Wada spent the last five seasons pitching for the Softbank Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League. Wada, whose fastball tops out in the high 80s, has been compared to a young Jamie Moyer. He posted a 16-5 record with a 1.51 ERA for Softbank in 2011 and, perhaps most importantly for Baltimore, walked just 40 batters in 184 2/3 innings. Given the team's need for reliable starting pitching and Wada's impeccable control he looks like a reasonable risk for the Orioles. Most importantly, Wada was willing to take Baltimore's money. He won't make Orioles fans forget about passing on C.J. Wilson but Wada should provide depth and innings to a team in desperate need of both. [Source: Dan Soderberg, Yahoo!, December Dec 15, 2011]

Then some elbow problems croped up. In April 2012, AP reported: “Wada will get a second opinion on his ailing left elbow from orthopedist Dr. Lewis Yocum. Wade was recently diagnosed with ligament damage after undergoing a magnetic resonance angiogram. The Japanese left-hander intends to visit Yocum to determine whether the ligament is severely torn and if surgery will be required. Yocum examined Wada before the pitcher signed a two-year, $8.15 million contract during the offseason. Since that time, Wada's elbow has evidently worsened."There's some changes there from the original physical," manager Buck Showalter said. "I think after Dr. Yocum sees him, they'll make a decision about what way to proceed." [Source: Associated Press, April 25, 2012]

Wada experienced elbow discomfort in February and was placed on the disabled list before the season. "What he's having now is in a different place," Showalter said. "This is a different side of the elbow." Wada has yet to make his major league debut, and it probably won't happen anytime soon. But the Orioles remain hopeful. "No one's definitively said (surgery) is what has to happen. He could rehab this thing and be back," Showalter said. "There's always the potential of surgery, and if that happens, the way things are nowadays, he could be pitching for us again. Either way, I'm going to stay positive on it. I still think we're going to get what he's got to offer."

Other Japanese Pitchers in the United States

Other pitchers who have made it to the Major leagues include Masato Yoshii of the New York Mets; Takashi Kashiwa of the New York Mets; and Makoto Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Montreal Expos (formally from the Seibu Lions); Tomokazi Oka. of the Montreal Expos; Shingo Takatuso of the Chicago White Sox; and Akinori Otsuka of the San Diego Padres; Oka went 4-5 with an ERA of 4.60 with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007, He signed a $1.5 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2007.

Shigetoshi Hasegawa, formally of the Orix Blue Wave, played for the Anaheim Angels and Seattle Mariners. In 2003, he was one of the best relievers and savers in the league. He kept his ER below 1.00 much of the year and made it to the All Star Game. Widely regarded as the best English speaker of the Japanese players in America, he wrote a bestselling book in Japan called My Way to Study English. Hasegawa was known as Shiggy in Seattle. In 2003 he had an ERA of 1.48 and won 16 out of 17 saves. He signed a two-year, $6.3 million contract for the 2004 and 2005 seasons but didn’t play that great during those seasons.

Other Japanese Pitchers in the United States in Recent Years

In December 2006, Kei Igawa, a pitcher with the Hanshin Tigers, signed a 5-year, $20 million contract with the Yankees. The left hander had gone 14-9 with an ERA of 2.97 in his previous season with Hanshin and led the Central League in strikeouts. Igawa’s performance was shaky. He looked nervus a lot of the time and gave up a lot of runs.

The Pittsburgh Pirates picked up 38-year-old ex-Giants Masumi Kuwata in 2006. E had problems getting a visa though because the visas allowed to non-Americans to play o the minor had already been used up.

In December 2008, the Boston Red Sox signed 22-year-old Japanese pitcher Junichi Tazawa to $3.3 million, three-year-year deal, after he snubbed the Japanese draft and negotiating directly with major league teams. Tazawa had played four years with Eneos in the Japanese corporate league. In his last season he was 13-1 with a 0.80 ERA and four shutouts. Tazawa also drew interest from Texas, Seattle. Atlanta and Cleveland but insisted on playing with Boston. Japanese pro baseball response to Tazawa’s move was to enact a rule that makes it harder for such players to return to play in Japan.

Kenshin Kawakami signed a three-year contract with the Atlanta Brave for the 2009 season. A pitcher with Chunichi Dragons, he was the 2004 Central League MVP and won 112 games over 11 seasons, He was 9-5 in 2008, missing several weeks because of a strained back. Kawakami was impressive in his debut, pitching six strong innings in a 5-3 victory over the Washington Nationals. Kawakami was relegated to Triple-A by the Braves in 2010 and recalled at the end of the season. The Braves omitted Saito and Kawakami from their post-season roster.

Reliever Ryota Igarashi was signed to a $3-million, two-year contract with the New York Mets for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Igarashi chalked up 65 saves with the Yakult Swallows in the 2009 season. Known as “Rocket Boy,” he pitched for 11 season with Yakult. Igarashi was released by the Mets after the 2011 season. The 32-year-old was 4-1 with one save and 4.66 ERA in 45 relief appearances.

Yoshinori Tateyana played with the Texas Rangers in 2011 as a reliever. He scored his first victory in June by tossing a scoreless 11th inning in a 5-4 win over the Astros.

The Pittsburgh Pirates claimed left-handed relief pitcher Hisanori Takahashi off waivers from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The 37-year old Hisanori Takahashi played for the Angels in 2012. He went 0-3 with a 4.93 ERA in 42 innings pitched. He had 41 strikeouts in 42 relief appearances. In 2011 with the Angels, he went 4-3 with two saves, a 3.44 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 52 punchouts in 61 relief appearances. The southpaw was 79-66 with a 3.70 ERA for the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Central League before he signed with the New York Mets. In his rookie season in 2010, he went 10-6 with a 3.61 ERA with 114 strikeouts in 53 games (12 starts.) [Source: Tom Smith, Pittsburgh Pirates, August 24, 2012]

In December 2012, Jiji Press reported: “Left-hander Hisanori Takahashi, released by the Pittsburgh Pirates after last season, has reached agreement with the Chicago Cubs on a minor league contract. In 2012, his third in the major leagues, Takahashi was traded in August from the Los Angeles Angels to the Pirates. He went a combined 0-3 with a 5.54 ERA in 51 appearances. Takahashi, who joined the New York Mets in 2010 from the Yomiuri Giants, has a career major league record of 14-12 with 10 saves and a 3.97 ERA in 165 games. The 37-year-old Takahashi will receive an invitation to the Cubs' spring camp, where he hopes to join former Hanshin Tigers reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who signed a two-year contract earlier this month. [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) Japan 101 2) 5) 8) 10) 11) 12 Wikipedia 3) 4) 6) 7) 9) 13) Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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