Baltimore Orioles: Remembering The Legacy Of Koji Uehara
On this day in 2009, the Baltimore Orioles added Koji Uehara to the organization.
Happy Monday morning, Birdland! Will the Baltimore Orioles add another starting pitcher to bring into the mix this week or what about that veteran middle infielder general manager Mike Elias keeps talking about adding? Until more moves are made, let’s continue to look back at some moves that ended up having a big impact in Birdland.
It was on this day in 2009 in which the Baltimore Orioles signed a 33-year-old RHP named Koji Uehara to a two-year/$10 million (worth up to $16 million with incentives). After a 10-year career with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, which included a career ERA around 3.00 and a sub-4% walk rate, Uehara brought his talents to the Orioles, where his impact is still felt today and will be for years to come.
You wouldn’t think that a pitcher approaching his mid-30s, who has never pitched in the States, and has a fastball that averages just 86-88 mph would garner the type of contract offered by the Orioles, but his career was far from being over.
After a successful run as a starter and then reliever in Japan, Uehara pitched out of the starting rotation in Baltimore in his first season, going 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and a 48/12 K/BB ratio across his 12 starts. Elbow and hamstring injuries may have limited him to 66 innings, but Uehara was still worth 1.8 Wins Above Replacement.
Uehara moved back to the bullpen in 2010, striking out nearly 32% of hitters he faced and walking just 2.9%, while posting a 2.86 ERA, a 0.95 WHIP and 13 saves across 44 innings. His success as a reliever earned himself another contract with the Orioles, but he would make just 43 more appearances in an Orioles uniform.
In his age-36 season, Uehara recorded a 1.72 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, and a near 36% strikeout rate for the Orioles before being traded to the Texas Rangers for first baseman Chris Davis and RHP Tommy Hunter on July 30, 2011. The Rangers were looking for bullpen help while the Orioles had their eyes on the future.
Uehara had a decent run with Texas, but hit a major road bump in the 2011 playoffs, giving up five runs on five hits (including three home runs) and not making an appearance in the 2011 World Series against St. Louis.
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His biggest success would come in Boston, where Uehara would go 14-13 with a 2.19 ERA, a 0.81 WHIP, and 291 strikeouts to 37 walks in 226 innings, even making his first and only All-Star game in 2014 at the age of 39.
After one last run with the Chicago Cubs, Uehara returned to Japan to finish his career where it all started, with the Yomiuri Giants, logging 46 more outings between 2018 and 2019 before calling it a career during the season last year.
Uehara may have left Baltimore in 2011, but his impact will be felt for many years to come. Tommy Hunter’s 3.3 bWAR was a nice addition to the trade that sent Uehara to Texas, but the prize was Chris Davis, who enjoyed an impressive five-year display of power before quickly turning into one of the worst players in baseball, raking in the bottom three of WAR value in each of the last two seasons (-4.5 total).
Before his downfall, the trade appeared to heavily favor the Orioles who sent a reliever they didn’t need on a bad ballclub in exchange for a young first baseman they needed and hoped would turn things around after a slow start to his big league career.
Now knowing what the Orioles were able to accomplish and the fact that Davis will be paid until 2037, would you call the trade a success?