Friday, May 20, 2011

More Than Just a Friend

Let's travel back to the winter of 2006, shall we? If you remember correctly, the inaugural World Baseball Classic took place in this year, and the world was introduced to the master piece known as Daisuke Matsuzaka. He dazzled in the tournament, showing off his much-heralded "Gyro-Ball." Every team in Major League Baseball wanted a piece of this guy. His Japanese club, the Seibu Lions, had a silent auction of sorts, with many teams placing offers just to talk to the guy. The Red Sox won the bidding, and eventually signed the Japanese superstar. Around the same time, the team signed another Japanese pitcher, although this guy was slightly less famous. His name was Hideki Okajima, and many people speculated that the move was made mainly because the team wanted a Japanese companion for the team's new superstar.

Fast forward five years, and Matsuzaka has just been placed on the DL with elbow issues, and is becoming an increasingly frustrating member of this team. On the other hand, Okajima was designated for assignment last night, ending his run with the Sox. His last couple of years here were not great, but his legacy should be remembered as so much more than just a companion for Dice-K.

First of all, we will remember his "Okie-Dokie", the affectionate name given to his change up. This pitch was not in his repertoire until then-pitching coach John Farrel tweaked his change-up, giving it the screwball motion that gave hitters fits through out the years. Another thing we will all remember is his quirky wind up. He would come out of the stretch, and as he followed through with the pitch, he would hide his head, almost looking like it was a "no-look" pitch.

Of course, there were his great pitching performances he has to look back on in his time in Boston. His best year was his first. He came to the team in 2007, and was thrust into the set-up role, holding leads for Jonathan Papelbon to get his saves. During that year, hitters were constantly confused and were never able to figure him out. In fact, Gary Sheffield, one of the better hitters of his generation, called him one of the best lefties he has ever faced. For the year, Okajima ended up appearing in 66 games, putting up a 2.22 ERA, a 0.971 WHIP, a 3.71 K/BB ratio and a very nice 215 ERA+ (a stat that adjusts a pitchers' ERA to the ballpark they pitch in, and the league average is always 100). If WAR is more your thing, he posted an impressive 2.6. Maybe you like awards, in which case he was named an All Star and finished 6th in the Rookie of the Year voting. Finally, and probably most importantly, he helped lead this team to a World Series title.

Okajima had a few more successful years and, assuming his time here is indeed done, finished his Red Sox career with a 17-8 record, a 3.11 ERA (149 ERA+), 1.25 WHIP, and a 2.5 K/BB ratio. He will always be remembered as a guy who came to the park and did his job, and did it at a very high level for four years. In Boston, he helped the Red Sox win their second World Series of the decade, and did so with the utmost class. Not too shabby for a guy who was just supposed to be a Japanese friend as Daisuke Matsuzaka assimilated himself into American culture.

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