It’s going to be a season of celebration down at Petco Park. Win or lose, the Padres will still be conducting many celebrations to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Petco Park, beating the Cubs 30 years ago in the NLCS, and the nightly feelings of gratitude for the fact that Jeff Moorad has left town (figuratively). While Brian Giles, David Wells, and Mark Loretta will return for the second game of the season, I can think of a player who might elicit an even more enthusiastic response from the San Diego faithful. Three letters are all we need here; A-K-I.
Akinori Otsuka spent the first six years of his baseball career with the Kintetsu Buffaloes (a team that now (pretty much) exists as the Orix Buffaloes, after Orix purchased the Buffaloes and merged them with their own BlueWave) of Japan’s Pacific League. Aki requested to be posted in 2002, subsequently going unclaimed by a Major League club. He demanded a trade thereafter (believing Kintetsu had been responsible for his going unclaimed), and joined the Chunichi Dragons. After a successful 2003 season, Otsuka once again requested to be posted. Several teams had interest, but the San Diego Padres won his rights with a $300,000 bid. It was a bargain.
Joining the Padres, Aki immediately became the 8th inning “set-up” reliever. The meat in the sandwich that was Linebrink/Aki/Hoffman back end that elicits cliches such as “shortens the game to six innings”. Dudes were good, basically. If we’re being honest, fans were initially intrigued by the still-novel concept of a player coming to the US from Japan. Aki’s personality and immense pitching talent (which we’ll get to) sealed the deal on Aki being a fan favorite. He also sported a glove that…well, the best description I’d ever seen for its color was “Flamin’ Hot Cheeto”.
Aki started mowing down batters, at a rate of 27.9%/a 10.13 K/9…which is, well, ridiculous. The 8.3%/3.03 BB/9 was fairly average. His 1.75 ERA was best amongst Padres relievers in 2004, and good enough for third amongst relievers in the National League. 2.82 FIP was also best amongst Padres relievers, and good enough for 5th amongst National League relievers. Using park/league-adjusted stats (44 ERA- [4th NL], 46 FIP- [8th NL], and 68 xFIP- [4th NL]) still shows we’re on the right track; Aki was really, really good in 2004.
2005 wasn’t the year 2004 was for Aki, seeing his his ERA rise to 3.59. Strikeouts dropped to 21.7%/8.62 K/9, which…okay, that’s still pretty damned good. 3.45 FIP, 92 ERA-, 88 FIP-, 90 xFIP- are all above-average, but just.
On January 6, 2006, in Kevin Towers’ finest moment, Aki was traded along with Adam Eaton and Billy Killian to the Texas Rangers for Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Young, and Terrmel Sledge. He returned to San Diego one last time in March 2006 with Team Japan for the inaugural World Baseball Classic. I was there, and it’s one of those baseball memories I will never shake. As tribute to his friend and now former teammate Trevor Hoffman, and surely a gesture to San Diego’s fans, Aki entered the championship game to “Hells Bells” (as opposed to his usual Metallica). Recording a 1.2 inning save, Japan defeated Cuba 10-6. Aki never pitched in San Diego again.
Oh, and he starred in what is easily the greatest commercial to involve a Padres player (and the only worthwhile thing I’ll ever upload to Youtube):
The Vocal Minority posts on Mondays, usually after being underwhelmed by the prior evening’s The Walking Dead. Now, I’m just confused. And cold. I guess. Follow me on Twitter.