Blue Jays Make Savvy Move, Add Tomo Ohka

Updated: December 15, 2013

Believe it or not, the Toronto Blue Jays have been virtually upbraided (as in upbraided in a virtual space, the upbraiding has really occurred, I assure you) for their recent signing of former major leaguer Tomo Ohka.

Ohka last pitched in the majors in 2009 and during his 10 year career in the bigs was less than inspiring for the fanbases of the 6 teams he played for. Ohka’s only good season came in 2002 when he posted a 3.18 ERA over 192 innings for the Monteal Expos. I admit, Ohka doesn’t look like a guy who’s addition I should be lauding on first blush.

But there is a wrinkle here. Ohka isn’t the same Ohka he was during his first go around in the MLB. Apparently, he has learned to throw a knuckleball and it’s good enough to get the attention of some big league scouts. Ohka spent last season in the Baseball Challenge League, an independent league in Japan.  Bob Elliot of the Toronto Sun felt the need in his recent piece to remind readers twice that the league has teams named  Niigata Albirex, Shinano Grandserows, Gunma Diamond Pegasus, Ishikawa Million Stars and, the Fukui Miracle Elephants.

(I should take a second here to say that people in glass houses really shouldn’t throw stones. While Elliot might think that teams called the Miracle Elephants and the Diamond Pegasus are chuckleworthy (and he might be right), he should remember that we here in the US of A have some pretty outlandish baseball team names as well. Can I draw your attention to the Peoria Peaches, the Travers City Beach Bums, the Thomasville HiToms, the Normal CornBelters, the Raleigh-Durham Triangles, the Trinidad Triggers, the Norfolk Tars, the Modesto Nuts, and a personal favorite, the Reading Pretzels. While I imagine that Elliot’s point was that the Baseball Challenge League of Japan maybe isn’t the best competition out there and Ohka’s stats maybe shouldn’t be blithely accepted without scrutiny, and that that point is well taken, I will reiterate that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.) 

Ohka faired decently against the diminished competition in the Japanese independent league, posting a  7-7 record and a 3.73 ERA while walking 25 and striking out 59 in 111 innings. Those numbers don’t inspire a ton of confidence, but the Blue Jays must have seen potential in that knuckleball.

Really, that potential is what makes this a good deal, especially for Toronto. First, there’s absolutely no risk associated with this signing. The Jays have guaranteed Ohka no money and he’ll likely start the season in AA New Hampshire. If he bombs, he bombs, no big deal and no one is worse off for the attempt.

Second, the Jays happen to employ a human roadmap for Ohka’s success. Let’s not forget that RA Dickey was a fast fading relief pitcher when he joined the Mets. His career, at 34, seemed very much over. Let’s not forget that Dickey developed a knuckleball so effective that the much derided ‘last resort’ pitch won him a Cy Young Award in 2012.

If I was going to take a flyer on a 39 year old former major leaguer trying to make a comeback with a knuckleball, it would be RA Dickey, above anyone else on the planet, that I would want him hanging out with in Spring Training. Sure, Ohka probably will never make it back to the bigs and the chances that he really helps the Jays are slim at best, but that’s what everyone thought about Dickey for a while too and look at him now. Maybe Ohka’s found lightning in a bottle with this pitch. Maybe he hasn’t. Either way, Dickey can help him get there. Maybe Ohka becomes the story of 2014. I’m excited to find out.

-Max Frankel

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