Lost in all the hubbub back when Daisuke Matsuzaka was being posted was Boston’s inking of left-handed reliever Hideki Okajima to a two-year deal with a club option. The signing flew rather under the radar given Okajima was a run-of-the-mill reliever in Japan and many felt the signing was to give Matsuzaka a caddy in Boston. (Fire Brand archive: What About Our Hideki? 2/20/07)
When Okajima came in Opening Day and gave up a home run to Royals catcher John Buck on his first pitch, things looked like they were taking a drastic turn for the worse. 19 scoreless appearances later, he finished with a 0.83 ERA in the first half. (Fire Brand archive: Okajima: Ability or Fortuity? 4/12/07.) He developed a changeup that took on a name called the Oki-Doki. (Fire Brand archive: Can Pitch FX track the Okie Dokie? 12/20/09.)
Fangraphs valued that changeup at 15.5 runs above average. He became a cult figure with the pitch and his unconventional pitching motion, finishing his delivery with his head looking straight down at the ground and away from the batter, creating deception.
Okajima has abandoned that changeup in favor of a split-fingered fastball to go along with his four-seamer and changeup.
In 2008’s sophomore season, Okajima was nothing short of excellent in the ALCS against Tampa Bay. He pitched in 7.1 innings over five games, giving up zero runs, one hit and one walk while whiffing five. (Fire Brand archive: Far more than Okie-Dokie, 10/19/08.)
In all three years, while his effectiveness has tapered off due to league-familiarity, he’s been one of the better set-up men in the game. (Fire Brand archive: Oki-Doki! Okajima getting it done, 4/14/08) He pitches just over 60 innings each year, in high-leverage situations with a total career ERA of 2.72 over 192 innings.
Okajima generally keeps to himself but has ingrained himself into the personality of the bullpen, regularly taking part in the musical band the bullpen set up. He avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal with Boston this winter, after firing his agent. Okajima (and much of the media) had been under the impression that the contract would make him an unrestricted free agent after the original contract expired. This ended up not being the case, but Okajima’s loss is Boston’s gain. He was the best left-handed reliever in the decade for Boston and appropriately belongs on the Team of the Decade.