International Free Agent Profile: Hideki Okajima, Relief Pitcher

Chris McGrath

Veteran Hideki Okajima has expressed interest in returning to North America to pitch this year. Would he be a good fit on the 2013 Mets?

Most Mets fans are likely familiar with Hideki Okajima. For those who aren’t, he debuted in Major League Baseball in 2007 for the Boston Red Sox, perhaps flying a bit under the radar as Daisuke Matsuzaka signed that year, too.

During spring training, a reporter asked Okajima about his relative anonymity, compared to Dice-K’s celebrity, and Okajima was perfectly fine with it, saying, "I'm willing to be a hero in the dark." And he certainly was. His MLB career started out a bit rocky — he allowed a home run to current Mets catcher John Buck on his very first pitch. Then, for the next two months, he did not allow a single run. His dominance, combined with the injuries of other Red Sox relief pitchers, made Okajima Boston’s primary set-up man to closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Okajima’s sophomore season in 2008 was nearly as good as his rookie season. In 2009, he saw an uptick in home runs allowed and a slight decrease in strikeouts, which hurt his value. In 2010, back and hamstring injuries and ineffectiveness — likely stemming from said injuries — hurt his value again, and for the first time in his MLB career, Okajima wasn't above replacement-level, per his 0.0 fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement) and –0.3 rWAR (Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement).

Okajima's 2011 season began very much the same way, and as a result, he spent most of the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. He performed exceptionally well in the minors, however, posting a 2.29 ERA and 2.61 FIP in 51 innings, with his strikeout rate returning to earlier career levels while cutting his walk rate nearly in half. Despite the success, the Red Sox had moved on, and Okajima languished all season in the minors.

A free agent after the 2011 season, Okajima had few suitors. Finally, the Yankees signed him, but the agreement was never consummated as he failed his physical. The problem was has never made public, but whatever it was, the Yankees believed it serious enough to retract their offer. Scared off by his advanced age and failed physical, no other big-league team offered the 36-year-old a contract. Okajima’s did draw interest from the NPB, his former stomping grounds. He and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks signed a contract, and the pitcher was back plying his trade in Japan last year.

Whatever problems the Yankees diagnosed Okajima with must have disappeared in the pure Fukuokan sea air, as the veteran posted his best season in both Japan and North America. He was, to put it simply, unhittable. Literally. He went months before he gave up his first earned run of the season, and when everything was said and done, he allowed only five runs in 47.2 innings, good for a 0.94 ERA.

His MLB stats are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2008 32 2.61 3.62 62 8.71 3.34 7.10 0.87
2009 33 3.39 4.20 61 7.82 3.10 8.30 1.18
2010 34 4.50 4.64 46 6.46 3.91 11.50 1.17
2011 35 4.32 3.39 8.1 6.48 5.40 7.60 0.00

His MiLB stats are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2011 35 2.29 2.61 51.0 8.47 1.59 6.90 0.53

His NPB stats are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2012 36 0.94 2.24 47.2 6.80 1.1 6.40 0.20

After the season, Okajima filed to become a permanent resident of the United States, and expressed his desire to return to the United States and play in the Major League once more. With the season he had, and his established history, it’s unlikely that his wish goes unfulfilled and all 30 teams pass on acquiring his services.

Does He Make Sense For The Mets?

It is highly unlikely that Okajima has a season in 2013 with a Major League team like he did in 2012 for the Hawks. Aside from all of the differences between NPB baseball and MLB baseball, Okajima himself has admitted to being a different pitcher in the United States and in Japan. During the 2012 season, he threw a relatively high number of curveballs, a pitch that he did not utilize very much in the United States.

"The Japanese ball does not slip very much so I think I will throw [the curveball] more often…I could not throw the pitch in Majors because the ball was too slippery, but I am a curve pitcher. This is the type of pitcher I really am," he said, and he was true to his word.

One of the Mets’ biggest weaknesses in 2012 — and really since 2007 — was the bullpen. The Mets have not made any major moves to address the bullpen yet, and going into 2013, it remains a problematic part of the team. Plugged into the Mets' 2013 bullpen, Okajima would be an upgrade. When he was at his best, he was a versatile, late-innings, high-leverage reliever who could get anyone out. The worst-case scenario, assuming he is able to get MLB hitters out, is that Okajima's an effective left-handed specliast. In his MLB career, lefties hit just .218/.277/.323 against him.

Contractually, Okajima is not going to cost very much or demand multiple years. He probably could command a guaranteed Major League contract based on his history, but odds are he’ll get signed to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training because of his advanced age and degradation of value between 2009 and 2011. That is a contract would seem to be right up Sandy Alderson’s alley.

I've long wanted the Mets to sign Okajima, after the Red Sox non-tendered him following the 2010 season and let him walk after the 2011 season. Coming off of a year during which he showed no problems despite his advanced age, it once again looks like the Mets should sign him.

The biggest question mark regarding the veteran lefty was his health. He has already demonstrated that he could make the transition from Japan to North America. After pitching an entire season in Japan — and, take note that the baseball season is much more grueling and exhausting in Japan than it is in the United States — Okajima demonstrated that he still has gas in the tank. That he did so while having a great season is just icing on the cake.

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