By Nick James
Before unveiling our Fall 2008 Top 40 pitchers in the 2009 Draft Class, we take a quick look at another Japanese right-hander: Koji Uehara. The 6-1 /187 lbs. 33-year old (34 this upcoming May) is looking to sign with a Major League organization this Winter, with the Orioles apparently the only team currently looking at him as a starter.
Motion – 50
Tempo – 60
Fastball – 55
Slider – 50
Changeup/Forkball – 55
Overall Motion – Uehara’s motion is clean with some deception and an interesting thrust upwards at the end of his high-effort delivery. As he enters his leg kick, he gets great bend in his back leg allowing him to get maximum thrust in his stride. His plant is clean and he does an excellent job of keeping his momentum directed towards home. As he releases, he drives upwards with his plant foot, giving him the appearance of rising upwards as the pitch comes. On occasion, he'll enter this thrust before the ball has completely left his hand, leaving the pitch up (though this is much more the exception than the rule). While his follow-through -- both leg and arm -- can be violent at times, it's generally under control and leaves him facing forward. Overall, there is a lot of effort, but the mechanics are clean enough to have helped him avoid serious injury over a good-sized career.
Arm Action – As Uehara splits his hands and enters his stride, he cocks his wrist pulling the ball in and towards his elbow. This action places additional stress on the elbow and is generally a red flag indicating a higher probability of elbow troubles down the line. Given that Uehara has not run into serious elbow injury in his career, it's quite possible this is a non-issue. Still, if Baltimore is looking to use him as a starter, it will be something to keep in mind with regards to pitch counts and inning counts on the season. Otherwise, Uehara's arm action is clean though he throws with some effort. There is a good amount of torque on the shoulder, but his upper-half generally works well with his lower-half, helping to ease some of that tension. His follow-through is generally smooth, though as mentioned above he can get a bit violent at times leading to recoil.
Pace – Uehara keeps a terrific pace, moving cleanly through his motion and keeping all of his parts working together. His upper-half and his lower-half are on the same page, reducing stress in his shoulder (which is key considering his generally high-effort delivery).
Mechanics Grade – B
Fastball – Uehara comes with a low-90s 4-seam fastball that is generally flat and a 2-seamer a couple of miles-per-hour slower with good arm-side run. He commands both pitches well to all four quadrants and mixes them well so as to give the batter a different look. His 4-seamer is a below-average pitch, though it plays-up a bit due to his command. His 2-seamer is an average pitch that plays-up due to the late action and has plus-potential when he is living on the black.
Slider – Uehara's slider is a tight little offering with late bite and not great depth. Like his fastballs, his slider plays-up due to his command, and he's able to keep the pitch inside against lefties and on the low corners against righties. It's an average pitch that should play well against ML hitters provided he keeps it out of the middle-of-the-plate.
Changeup/Forkball – Uehara's other secondary offering is a changeup/forkball with good depth and fade. It's most effective as a chase pitch with two strikes, though he's comfortable throwing it inside to lefties and breaking it over their knees to the low-inside corner. This fringe-plus-offering may be the key to his success or failure as a starter, as it will help keep his pitch count down and produce ground balls if he commands it well.
“Stuff” Grade – B- – Uehara is not likely to overpower anyone at the ML-level, but he has the potential to keep hitters off-balance with three solid to above-average offerings. If he can maintain his plus-command, his three pitch mix should play towards the back-end of a ML rotation. His slider and fastball are not good enough to miss with, so leaving either over the plate will get him into trouble in a hurry. He'll need to work ahead in the count and utilize his change/forkball to get some swings-and-misses or groundouts.
Uehara could be groomed as a reliever or a starter, though it looks like he would prefer to start and Baltimore is currently the only team looking to use him in that role. Plus-command and an adequate if unspectacular arsenal could make him a solid option at the back of a rotation, though given his arm cock (pulling the ball to his elbow) it may make sense to use him in the #5 spot where he can have a couple of starts skipped as a precaution. Were Uehara to struggle as a starter, he could be used as a situational reliever, primarily as a groundball pitcher in the Bradford mold.
Prospect Grade – C+