Okajima DayMike Edelman over at MVN's "Firebrand of the AL" has written a nice piece on Hideki Okajima, cutting me off at the pass. Before my last piece "The Gut" came up, I was gearing up to do a little feature on the forgotten Japanese pitcher of the 2007 Spring. I won't get into it in great detail here, as I think he's done a nice job covering the basics, but I think my two cents are appropriate having seen him pitch several times.
Like Daisuke, and Ichiro, Okajima married a well-known television announcer named Yuka Kurihara in 2001. She left her NHK job in 2003 to give birth to their first born son in January of 2004, and followed a year later with the birth of their first girl. Mrs. Okajima has worked for many organizations in her career spanning radio and television and was a reporter at the Nagano Winter Olympics some years ago now. She did work for NHK, as I mentioned, Fuji Television's Pro Yakyu News, and even a bit of work for CNN Headline News. She comes from a prestigious academic background, having graduated from the Foreign Language division of Sophia University, with a concentration in French. She was also named "Miss Sophia" while studying at the famous university in Tokyo. I'm certain that she will be an important part of his adjustment to life in the United States, and should make herself well liked by those around the Red Sox organization.
As for the pitcher, Hideki Okajima features an unusually low release point which often makes his control an adventure. His hard looping curve ball is his featured pitch, and he often ties up lefties badly when he is locating well. Lefties only hit Okajima to the tune of .186 last season, while righties managed .254 against him. He had an outstanding season in 2006 for the NPB Champion Nippon Ham Fighters, and has parlayed that success into a Major League deal. His role for the Red Sox should be similar to Mike Myers job before he bolted to the hated Yankees. It would be something of a risk to allow Okajima to pitch to Major League right handers, although he is capable of fooling righties as well. To give you an idea about how he stacks up against other prominent relievers to make the move to the US, I'll highlight career numbers for Kaz Sasaki, Akinori Ohtsuka, and Takashi Saito using a few basic pitching ratios.
As you can see, Sasaki and Ohtsuka are two of Japan's absolute finest closing pitchers. How Texas thinks that Eric Gagne is the man to fill the closer's job for them ahead of their Japanese insurance arm is beyond me. Ohtsuka is the real deal. Saito came in last year and surprised for the Dodgers. I think he'll be hard pressed to duplicate his success in 2007, a year older, and a year longer look for hitters. Okajima at least compares favorably to Saito, but is really a tough comparison in terms of his role with the Sox. Saito is a more traditional pitcher, with a little more traditional approach and delivery. Okajima will be a pleasant surprise, and will shore up the lefty specialist role quickly, but we shouldn't expect him to be a candidate to close. He wasn't even able to consistently hold that job in Japan.
Thats' my two cents. I hope someone pays a little more attention to "Okaji" at camp. He and Yuka should be very nice additions to the Nation....
UPDATE: I may have confused readers with the mention of a "low release point" and Mike Myers in the same story. I want to clarify that what I mean by "low release point" is that Okajima tends to hold the ball a bit longer into his motion before releasing, creating a difficult sight line. He is an over the top pitcher. In the following YouTube clip you can see the curve on a number of occasions and I think there are a lot of places to observe the late release that has the ball drop into the dirt. When I watch it I almost think it's a mistake and that he's not going to throw the ball, but when he does it takes a heck of a drop. You'll also see that he can be a nibbler, which is fine if he's getting the calls (he did in the Japan Series), but if the umpire is feeling stingy, he can get himself into some trouble.
You'll also notice at the start of this clip that Okajima enters the game and walks the first batter, a lefty, to put runners on 1st and 2nd with one out. What does Dragons' manager Ochiai, a great player in his own right, do in this situation with a right handed batter at the plate? He bunts the runners over to make it two outs and runners on 2nd and 3rd. Yes, he has the lead, but the next guy in his lineup is a lefty, and we know that lefties hit .186 off of Okajima in 2006. It boggles the mind.