Name (Japanese): ジェフ・ウィリアムス
Birthday: June 6, 1972
Position: Relief Pitcher
Height: 183 cm (6’0″)
Weight: 88 kg (194 lbs)
Wore #: 54
Originally Acquired By: Los Angeles Dodgers (undrafted free agent, 1996)
Acquired by Hanshin: 2002 offseason
Released by Hanshin: November 6, 2009
Jeff Williams was born in Canberra, Australia, and started playing baseball at age 11. He attended Belconnen High School, where he was advised by scouts to move to America and play college ball. He enrolled at Southeastern Louisiana University and majored in psychology. In his senior year, he was named an NCAA Division I all-American. He had a 12-4 record and 125 strikeouts in 128.2 innings of work.
Williams played for Team Australia in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, helping shut down the Japanese team in a 9-6 victory during round robin play. The team would finish in seventh place, but that would not be the end of Williams’ Olympic achievements.
After signing on with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1996, Jeff made his major league debut in 1999. His years with the Dodgers were not particularly successful, though he did record 2 wins and a (career-best) ERA of 4.08 in his rookie season. After a few seasons of struggle, Dodgers coach Jim Colborn suggested he try to throw sidearm. The 2002 season was no better for the southpaw, though, and he was released by the Dodgers at season’s end.
The Hanshin Tigers were quick to pick him up, though, and after Lou Pote (who?) struggled early, they made Williams the closer for the 2003 season. This proved to be the right move when his 1.54 ERA and 25 saves contributed largely to the team’s pennant that year. His presence was so strong that Daiei (now SoftBank) Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh said, “I hate it when they bring him to the mound.” (The Tigers would lose the Nippon Series 4 games to 3.)
The 2004 season would see Jeff leave the Tigers mid-season to appear in the Summer Olympics in Athens. His work in the long relief role helped the Australian team win 1-0 in the semifinal against Japan. They would take the silver medal, losing 6-2 in the finals to Cuba. His season with the Tigers was not terribly successful, as he recorded a career-worst 4 losses and the tag-team closer duo of Williams and Yuya Andoh did not fare as expected.
Despite the substandard year, Williams became the first foreign pitcher in club history to be awarded a multiyear contract in the offseason, signing on for two more seasons. Manager Akinobu Okada employed a new system with his relievers in 2005, teaming Williams up with Kyuji Fujikawa and Tomoyuki Kubota in preserving wins. The trio dominated opponents and appeared in over half the team’s games (75, 80, 68 games respectively). Hanshin media, fans, and even opponents collectively knew them as JFK – Jeff, Fujikawa, Kubota – taking the name based on the order in which they appeared in games. Collectively their ERA was a skinny 1.84 in this championship season, and never climbed higher than the 2.33 it compiled in its final season in 2008. Many attributed the success of the 2005 season – the team ran away with the Central – to the formation of JFK.
Williams felt discomfort in his left elbow during spring training in 2006, and had an endoscopy done, eventually needing surgery to repair meniscal damage. He was able to return to the team in time for interleague play on May 31st, and provided stability in the bullpen, which would become much more crucial the following season. Despite offers from major league clubs in the 2006 offseason, Jeff declared his desire to stay with the Hanshin Tigers.
With starters Andoh and Shinobu Fukuhara both injured, the bullpen was leaned on even more heavily. Williams had a career year, allowing no runs between May 3rd and September 18th. He would finish with a microscopic ERA of 0.96, chalking up over 100 “hold points” and earning accolades from teammates. When asked who the leader of JFK was, Fujikawa did not hesitate to say it was Jeff. The 2007 offseason, however, would be clouded in controversy.
On December 13, the Mitchell Report was released, and Jeff’s name was in it. Evidence appeared to point to his guilt, though he declined the invitation to defend himself to Mitchell himself. It took the Hanshin Tigers just six days to decide on their course with the man from Down Under. Team President Nobuo Minami said, “Jeff told us he was clean, and we have no reason to doubt him.” (Incidentally, Williams never once failed a drug test, including the ones conducted at the 1996 and 2004 Olympics, as well as one by NPB.) On December 19, the club announced that they would renew his contract.
Still, 2008 was much less kind to Williams than the previous year had been. He was often hit early in counts, negating the strength of his 156 km/h (97 mph) fastball and not always enabling him to use his best pitch, a biting slider. Despite a climb in his ERA, Williams was still able to keep a high strikeout rate (10.58 K/9). The 2008 Olympics sent some of the better Tigers to Beijing for the summer, and the Tigers collapsed down the stretch, narrowly missing a chance to win a third Central League title in six seasons.
Jeff signed on for two more seasons at the start of the 2009 season, and that year tied him with Gene Bacque for the longest tenure (7 years) of any foreigner in team history. (This mark would be broken by Randy Messenger in 2017.) The season was not an easy one for Williams, who was placed on the disabled list in June with a sore right shoulder. Upon his return from the injury in July, he re-injured it and was once again unable to pitch. After trying to rehab it on the farm team, he elected to have season-ending surgery and left Japan in August. His return for the 2010 season was in question, as the club held an option on the second year of his contract.
Though the club offered him a position as overseas scout, Williams still wanted to don the pinstripes. He worked hard to make a return in 2010, but once again injured his shoulder while throwing a bullpen session. He officially became an overseas scout for the Hanshin Tigers in March 2011, and has held the position since.