Koji Uehara (上原 浩治, Uehara Kōji, born April 3, 1975) is a Japanese professional baseball pitcher for the Chicago Cubs of Major League Baseball (MLB). He has played in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) with the Yomiuri Giants and in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.
A right-handed pitcher, Uehara has a solid MLB career strikeout rate, with 10.73 K/9 and walk rate of 1.36 BB/9 (through the 2016 season). Through the 2016 season, his career 7.91 K/BB is the best in MLB history for a player with at least 100 innings pitched. Uehara won the 2013 ALCS MVP Award, and closed the final game of the 2013 World Series. With his World Series win, Uehara became one of four players in history to have won both a World Series and a World Baseball Classic.
Uehara graduated from the Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences, and was drafted with the first pick by the Yomiuri Giants in 1998. He had a successful rookie year in 1999, with 15 consecutive wins that broke the all-time rookie record, claimed the Rookie of the Year, Eiji Sawamura Award, and led in wins, ERA, strikeouts and winning percentage.
In 2001, he finished with a 4.02 ERA, the highest of his career. However, in 2002 he rebounded leading the Central League in wins and collected his second Sawamura Award.
He was injured before the 2007 season which made him a late appearance, and in that season, he became a closer instead, recorded an 1.74 ERA with 4 wins, 3 losses and 32 saves. Though showing a good ability both starting and closing, he returned as a starting pitcher in the 2008 season. He left the Giants after that season becoming a free agent and allowing him to play in Major League Baseball.
Uehara is renowned for his performance in international competition. He participated in international events since he was in University, he also participated in Olympic Games twice, as well as the first World Baseball Classic, and participated in Asian Baseball Championships. He has 12 wins and 2 saves, without a loss in his 25 appearances from the above events.
He was a member of the Japanese national baseball team which competed in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The team eventually won the bronze medal.
In 2006, he joined Team Japan for the World Baseball Classic and earned 2 wins, improving his unbeaten record in international competition (including amateur appearances) to 12 wins in 21 appearances. In the World Baseball Classic, Japan beat Cuba to win the championship; Uehara led the tournament with 16 strikeouts. He was a closer in 2007 Asian Baseball Championships, played in two games and earned his first international save against Korea.
Uehara moved to another team in April 2008. He remained in the 39-out-of-77 men candidate list towards the Beijing Olympics in late June, and was selected to the final 24-men list in mid-July. He was expected to be a setup pitcher before the Olympic Games, but he appeared as a closer in his first appearance against Chinese Taipei, pitching a shutout inning without yielding a hit, as his team won 6–1. He earned his first Olympic save against Canada, holding a 1–0 victory two days later. Japan finished fourth in the Games. Uehara chose not to participate in the World Baseball Classic in 2009.
Inclination for MLB
In 1998, Uehara rejected a contract worth $3 million from the then-Anaheim Angels and signed with Yomiuri. The Angels had expressed their continued interest in Uehara, as scouting director Eddie Bane had stated that acquiring either Uehara or Daisuke Matsuzaka was a top priority for the team. However, many other teams, including the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Mets, and Orioles had shown interest in bidding for Uehara if and when he were to become available.
Uehara asserted his preference in public to be transferred to a Major League Baseball team through the posting system. His efforts had been rebuffed by the Yomiuri Giants front office. He was expected to be eligible for free agency in 2007 (but that was postponed to 2008 due to injury). He became eligible for free agency in April 2008.
In 2002, he represented Japan in the Major League Baseball Japan All-Star Series and on November 11 became the first pitcher in over a year to strike out Barry Bonds three consecutive times in one game. This achievement raised his profile in American Major League Baseball.
He is also a friend of Roger Clemens after Clemens visited Japan in 2004 as a member of the MLB All-Star team. MLB.com showed a video in which Clemens gave Uehara his game-used black glove with autograph.
Baltimore Orioles (2009–2011)
On January 13, 2009, Uehara signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. He started the 2009 season as the number two starter behind Jeremy Guthrie. Uehara made his big league debut on April 8 against the New York Yankees. Uehara earned the win, going five innings and allowing one run. His second outing resulted in a win against the Texas Rangers.
On September 10, 2009, it was announced that Uehara would be out for the remainder of the season. He would finish his injury plagued 2009 campaign with a 2-4 record, 4.05 ERA, and 48 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings in 12 starts. He started the 2010 season as a setup reliever in the bullpen and finished the season 1–2 with a 2.86 ERA, 55 strikeouts in 44 innings, and 13 saves.
In the first half of the 2011 season, he was 1–1 with a 1.72 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 47 innings pitched.
Texas Rangers (2011–2012)
On July 30, 2011, Uehara was traded to the Texas Rangers for Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. The move re-united him with his old high school team-mate Yoshinori Tateyama. After starting the season with superb numbers with the Orioles, his 2nd half with the Rangers would prove to be a rough one. He was 1-2 with a 4.00 ERA after the trade. Matters would get worse in the postseason when he gave up 3 home runs in 1 1/3 innings to rack up a horrendous 33.75 ERA before being left off the roster for the World Series due to his massive ineffectiveness. He would finish 2011 with a 2-3 record, 2.35 ERA, and 85 strikeouts in 65 innings after pitching for the 2 different teams.
In 2012, Uehara remained with the Rangers after his option vested. He would rebound with a successful campaign by keeping his ERA down to 1.75. However, he was limited to 37 games with 36 innings pitched, 43 strikeouts, and only 3 walks after spending some time on the disabled list due to a strained lateral muscle.
Boston Red Sox (2013–2016)
On December 6, 2012, Uehara agreed to a one-year contract with the Boston Red Sox. Uehara transitioned his role from setup man to closer after season-ending injuries to Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan.
Uehara's 2013 season was one of the most dominant by any relief pitcher in baseball history. His 2013 WHIP of 0.57 in 74.1 innings set the record for a pitcher with 50 or more innings pitched. Between July 9 and September 17, Uehara retired 37 consecutive batters, exceeding the previous franchise record of 32, and nearing Bobby Jenks' MLB record of 41 for consecutive outs by a reliever. Uehara finished the regular season with a 1.09 ERA, a 2.08 xFIP, and struck out 38.1% of batters he faced. He was ranked by Fangraphs as the number one reliever of 2013 in Wins Above Replacement.
Uehara pitched in five games of the 2013 ALCS, and was named ALCS Most Valuable Player. In the series he pitched 5.1 innings, allowing 4 hits and no walks; and collected 9 strikeouts. He recorded a save in Game 6 to win the Red Sox their 13th AL pennant.
In Game 4 of the World Series, Uehara picked off St. Louis Cardinals pinch runner Kolten Wong for the last out of a 4–2 Red Sox win. In Game 5, he recorded his seventh save of the postseason, tying the record for most saves in a single postseason. (The next year Greg Holland matched his record for saves in the playoffs, tying John Wetteland, Robb Nen, Troy Percival, and Brad Lidge). Uehara threw the final pitch of the 2013 World Series, closing out a 6–1 win in Game 6.
On July 9, 2014, Uehara was named to his first career All Star Game, replacing injured New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. He struggled near the end of the 2014 regular season and was removed from the closer role on September 5. He signed a two-year extension with the Red Sox on October 30, 2014 after finishing the regular season with a 6–5 record, 2.52 ERA, 80 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings, and 26 saves in 31 opportunities as the Red Sox failed to defend its title by finishing with a subpar 71-91 record. Uehara returned to the closer position in the 2015 season, but on August 7, he suffered a season-ending injury when a batted ball struck his right wrist. He would prematurely end his 2015 campaign with a 2–4 record added by a 2.23 ERA, 47 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings, and 25 saves in 27 attempts as the Red Sox failed to reach the .500 mark for the 2nd season in a row. In 2016, Uehara finished the regular season with a 2–3 record, a 3.45 ERA, 63 strikeouts in 47 innings, and 7 saves after spending some time on the disabled list with a pectoral strain. His team would make the postseason for the first time since the 2013 championship season. In the 2016 ALDS, Uehara pitched 2 games without allowing a run in 2 innings but the Red Sox got swept by the Cleveland Indians in 3 games.
Chicago Cubs (2017)
On December 14, 2016, Uehara agreed to a one-year contract with the Chicago Cubs for $6 million.