Buried among the flurry of minor moves this past week comes an interesting transaction from Japan: 44-year-old reliever Takashi Saito has re-signed with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, the reigning NPB champions.
Saito was excellent in limited action for Rakuten in 2013, as he threw 26.2 innings with a 2.36 ERA and a 2.5 K/BB in relief of Masahiro Tanaka and the rest of the Golden Eagles’ NPB-winning rotation. In the process, he managed to infuse new life into what has already been an amazing career.
For five years, Saito was one of MLB’s best relievers. He broke in with the Dodgers in 2006 and took right to the American game. In 78 1/3 innings in 2006, Saito posted a 2.07 ERA, struck out 107 batters and posted a brilliant 4.7 K/BB. It was a good enough performance not only to receive Rookie of the Year votes amidst a historically good NL rookie class (including Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Dan Uggla, Josh Johnson, Matt Cain, Andre Ethier, Prince Fielder, Russell Martin and Anibal Sanchez) but also an eighth-place Cy Young finish. He followed it up with a well-deserved All-Star appearance as the Dodgers’ full-time closer in 2007. He saved 39 games and posted a 1.40 ERA and 6.0 K/BB over 64.1 innings.
Such domination suggests Saito had just jumped to America after a solid decade of dominance in the Japanese ranks. Not so much. Saito’s career in Japan was respectable — a 3.81 ERA in just over 1500 innings, most spent as a middling starter. In the three years prior to signing with the Dodgers, Saito allowed a 4.65 ERA in 253.2 innings and served up 40 home runs (1.4 HR/9).
But, Saito was much improved in the second half of 2005, his final season in Japan before his return in 2013. “”The last three years of my career in Japan, I wasn’t healthy at all,” Saito told the USA Today in 2008 http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2008-03-02-682190114_x.htm. “That’s the main reason the Dodgers signed me to a minor league contract. The last three months, I was feeling good about myself.”
And Saito had plenty to feel good about as his American career continued. For the next four seasons, as Saito bounced from Los Angeles to Boston to Atlanta and finally to Milwaukee, Saito continued to dominate whenever he was healthy. Each year, he pitched at least 25 innings with an ERA under 3.00. Only Mariano Rivera (seven) and Hoyt Wilhelm (10) posted more sub-3.00 ERA seasons after age 35 than Saito’s six. Even including a disastrous season in 2012 with Arizona, Saito managed to post 10.5 WAR (Baseball-Reference version) in his seven major league seasons. Only eight other relievers have posted at least 10 WAR after age 35:
In the same 2008 USA Today story, Saito himself admitted just how unlikely his success was. “I didn’t expect any of this at all. At that point, there hadn’t been any Japanese players who were successful after signing a minor league contract.” And Saito was not only 36, but coming off injuries that had made him ineffective in the Triple-A-esque NPB.
In the majors, though, Saito was not just effective, but one of the best of his age the game has ever seen. “My only hope,” Saito said, “was to get on the major league mound once.” He did so much more than that, and his career should be celebrated, even as it continues with one more season in Japan.