Hideki Okajima had been a solid reliever in 12 seasons in Japan, mostly as a lefty set-up man, but expectations weren’t overwhelming when the Nippon Ham Fighters posted him after the 2006 season.
The Red Sox signed Okajima in November 2006 and landed an absolute gem for their bullpen.
Okajima was actually more effective against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .182/.235/.512 slash line as a 31-year-old “rookie” in 2007, earning an All-Star berth while appearing in 66 games and posting a 2.22 ERA and 0.971 WHIP in 69 innings, striking out 63 and posting a 215 ERA+.
Okajima had 27 holds in 2007, allowing just four of 28 inherited baserunners to score.
He was lights out for the Red Sox in the American League playoffs, throwing 7.1 scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland Indians before he was touched for three runs in 3.2 innings over three appearances in Boston’s sweep of the Colorado Rockies in the World Series.
Okajima’s effectiveness waned over the next three seasons, but he still posted 23 holds in both 2008 and 2009. He struggled a bit with inherited runners in 2008, allowing 13 of 25 to score, but he was very effective cleaning up others’ messes in 2009, stranding 31 of the 37 runners he inherited.
He missed some time in 2010 with a hamstring injury and was designated for assignment in May 2011.
In parts of five seasons with Boston, Okajima was 17-8 with a 3.11 ERA and 1.246 WHIP in 246.1 innings over 261 appearances, saving six games and posting a 149 ERA+.
In three postseasons, Okajima had a 2.11 ERA and 0.844 WHIP in 17 appearances over 21.1 innings, fanning 16. In Boston’s seven-game loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 ALCS, Okajima threw 7.1 scoreless innings in five appearances, allowing just two baserunners.
He returned to Japan in 2012 before getting a shot with the Oakland Athletics in 2013, appearing in five games. He retired after the 2015 season following two more campaigns in Japan.