Red Sox Memories: A look at Japanese pitchers in franchise history

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 10: Koji Uehara #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the American League Divison Series at Fenway Park on October 10, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 10: Koji Uehara #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the American League Divison Series at Fenway Park on October 10, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /
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NPB pitchers who took the mound for the Boston Red Sox

Japan’s Hirokazu Sawamura may soon be a member of the Boston Red Sox. The former Yomiuri Giants pitcher is on the cusp of being 33-years-old when he steps to the mound once the season begins be it as a Red Sox reliever or elsewhere. Sawamura is not unique since many Japanese players have played for the Red Sox. All, however, were pitchers.

There is nothing earth-shattering about the right-hander’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) career. A sturdy reliever who initially was a starter. A former Rookie of The Year. Capable of a variety of bullpen roles who does not have a compensation albatross fiscal figure attached to his contract. By now his statistics have been covered, his blood type, velocity, type of pitches, etc. The details were covered recently by BSI’s Joseph Scurto. So just what will happen? A look back at other Nippon players for the Red Sox.

The best place to begin is the best and that is Koji Uehara. Without Uehara, there is no championship in 2013. Uehara had quite a successful run in NPB and came stateside thanks to the Baltimore Orioles. Eventually, Koji signed a one-year deal with Boston and was pinned as a bullpen swingman for 2013.

The swinging was swinging and missing thanks to a 12.23 K%. And Uehara was no soft touch with freebies issue a 1.09 BB/9. Uehara was the last chance for a questionable closer situation and he bagged 21 saves, an ALCS MVP, and a World Series ring. In 2014, Uehara made the All-Star team, went 6-6, and accounted for 25 saves.

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Uehara pitched four seasons with the Red Sox and was quite possibly an all-time top five crowd favorite. In 2013, Koji was almost automatic and retired 37 batters consecutively at one point. Uehara was a joy to watch and when clicking a nightmare to hit.

The good and the bad with Daisuke Matsuzaka. The good was Dice-K’s first two seasons and the bad was the next four. A $104 MM expenditure split between posting fee and his contract. Matsuzaka arrived with much fanfare and Boston won a World Series his first season -2007. Matsuzaka finished 15-12.

In 2014, Matzuzaka showed he was worth all that money with an 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA/4.03 FIP. The red flag warning was 5.0 BB/9 and some nagging injuries. The next four seasons went down the tubes with a combined 16-19 record. The Dice Man is still pitching in Japan.

Junichi Tazawa was unique as he had not played in the NPB. Tazawa played for an industrial league, skipped the NPB draft, and signed with the Red Sox. The contract for the righty was three years at $3 MM. Tazawa arrived in Boston after just 22 minor league starts. Then came Tommy John Surgery and the 2010-2011 seasons virtually disappeared.

Tazawa pitched seven seasons for the Red Sox and all but two of his 300 games were out of the ‘pen. Tazawa pitched in 13 games in the 2013 World Series run allowing just one earned run. He signed a two-year deal with Miami for $12 MM but did little. Then Tazawa made the rounds of multiple organizations before returning to Japan.

Another very successful reliever was lefty Hideki Okajima. He signed a far less noticed deal than countryman Matzuska. A two-year contract at $2.5 MM with an option. Okajima appeared in 66 games that first season and you need no radar gun. His fastball was a tick above Jamie Moyer’s. But Okajima had a great curve and split-finger. What I remember is Okajima allowing a home run on the first pitch he tossed in MLB.

Okajima pitched in 266 games for the Red Sox and all were in relief. He also had six saves but had 16 blown saves. An excellent operative out of the bullpen for the Red Sox and well worth the contract.

Takashi Saito hurled only one season with the Red Sox. Originally Saito was a 36-year-old rookie with the Dodgers where he notched 81 saves over three seasons. Saito signed a one-year deal at $1.5 MM to be a setup out of the bullpen for 2009. He did the job using stealth and a variety of pitches. Saito pitched to a 2.43 ERA/4.25 FIP with a pair of saves in 56 games.

In 1998, the Red Sox went shopping and purchase Tomo Ohka from Yokahama Bay Stars. Ohka became the Red Sox’ first Japanese player. Ohka was outstanding at Pawtucket (7-0, 1.58) and was brought to Boston. He was not impressive as attested by a 14.5 H/9. Back in Pawtucket for 2000 where Ohka tossed a perfect game.

Brought back up I-95, Tomo pitched like expected and then in 2001 did nothing (2-5, 6.19) and was traded to the Expos. Ohka pitched for several other organizations before going back to Japan and then back for another MLB try with Toronto. For the Red Sox, Ohka went just 6-13.

The first big signing from Japan was Hideo Nomo by the Dodgers. A contract loophole allowed Nomo to head stateside and he was a success. The 1995 NL Rookie of The Year, an All-Star. Topping the NL with 236 strikeouts. Nomo had an unusual delivery he called the “Tornado.” Quite baffling.

Nomo signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox for the 2001 season. The righty made an immediate impact by tossing a no-hitter. Nomo also led the American League in strikeouts that season (220) and walks (96). He finished 13-10 in his 33 starts. It was a one and done as Nomo moved on to the Dodgers. Nomo finished his MLB career with a 123-109 record.

Next. Red Sox closing in on reliever Hirokazu Sawamura. dark

All the imports were pitchers and the results were obviously mixed. Sawamura is a worthy low price risk option for Boston which certainly needs an upgrade in the bullpen – if he inks a deal. Will Sawamura be that upgrade? If he pitches like Koji the Red Sox could have a big plus in the offseason shopping.