- Bats Right, Throws Right
- Height 5' 10", Weight 176 lb.
- High School Chuetsu Shogyo High School
Imai played for Niigata Tetsudo Kanrikyoku in the industrial leagues after high school. He was picked in the second round of the 1970 draft by the Hankyu Braves. He made his PL debut in 1971 in lousy form, with five hits, a walk and five runs in 2/3 of an inning for a 67.50 ERA and .714 opponent average. He improved to 1-0, 3.00 in 11 games (one start) in 1972 but allowed 5 runs and 10 hits in six innings in 1973 (going 0-1) and 12 runs and 22 hits in 16 innings in 1974 (again 0-1). He was 0-1 with a 5.74 ERA in 8 games in 1975, his fifth straight season of very limited action. Imai began seeing somewhat regular work in 1976 (3-3, 4.59 in 16 G) and 1977 (1-3, 4.24 in 12 G).
Yutaro burst into stardom at age 28 in 1978, going 13-4 with a save and a 2.39 ERA. On August 31, he threw a perfect game against the Lotte Orions, becoming the 14th NPB hurler to toss a perfecto. He finished second in the PL in ERA behind only Keishi Suzuki. He lost both game two and game four of the 1978 Japan Series, a big reason the Braves fell to the Yakult Swallows in seven games. He was 0-2 with a 7.50 ERA in the Series.
Coach Takao Kajimoto had supposedly helped Imai become a better pitcher by encouraging him to drink more alcohol.
In 1979, the right-hander fell to 11-7 with a 4.27 ERA while making his first PL All-Star team. He was even worse in 1980 at 8-5 with three saves, a 5.93 ERA and .322 opponent average. He rebounded to 19-15 with a 3.73 ERA in 1981. He led the league in innings (231 1/3), batters faced (991), wins (tied with Choji Murata), losses, homers allowed (30) and runs allowed (125). He made his second All-Star team.
Imai continued the roller-coaster trend by falling to 6-11 with a save and a 4.84 ERA in 1982. He made his third All-Star team in 1983 when he was 15-10 with a 4.10 ERA. The Nagaoka native had his second big year in 1984, going 21-9 with a 2.93 ERA. He led the league in ERA by .34 over Hisashi Yamada and also led in wins and shutouts (5). He was named to the Best Nine as the PL's top hurler and made his final All-Star selection. Despite his big numbers, teammate Greg Wells accused Imai of intentionally throwing gopher balls to Hiromitsu Ochiai so that Ochiai would win the home run title instead of Wells, a foreigner. Wells said he and Imai later became friends and that Imai was sabotaging MVP chances by his tactics. He was 1-0 with a 2.81 ERA in the 1984 Japan Series, taking game five, but Hankyu fell in seven to the Hiroshima Carp.
Imai fell to 12-13 with 3 saves and a 4.99 ERA in 1985; he won his 100th game on April 10, the 87th NPB pitcher to do so. He then was 7-13 with a 4.83 ERA and .300 opponent average in 1986 and 4-5 with a 4.69 ERA in 1987. He was 2-4 with a 5.24 ERA and .309 opponent average in only 13 games in 1988 and went 5-5 with two saves, a 4.24 ERA and .303 opponent average in 1989. In his 20th and last year with the Braves, he was lit up for a 7.07 ERA, .364 opponent average and 0-1 record.
Overall, Yutaro was 130-112 with 10 saves and a 4.28 ERA in 429 games in NPB. He later worked as a baseball commentator.