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The Uehara Phenomenon

Oct 18, 2013, 1:13 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Getty Images

So, you probably know that this year Boston’s Koji Uehara proved to be harder to reach base against than any pitcher in the history of baseball. That’s a pretty good thing. Here’s the list of the Top 10 WHIPs in baseball history, pitching at least 50 innings:

1. Koji Uehara, 2013, 0.565
2. Dennis Eckersley, 1989, 0.607
3. Dennis Eckersley, 1990, 0.614
4. Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 0.654
5. Mariano Rivera, 2008, 0.665
6. Joaquin Benoit, 2010, 0.680
7. Eric Gagne, 2003, 0.692
8. J.J. Putz, 2007, 0.698
9. Cla Meredith, 2006, 0.711
10. Takashi Saito, 2007, 0.715

A couple of interesting tidbits — at No. 11 on the list in Uehara again in 2011. No. 12 on the list? Pedro. That was 2000, his WHIP was 0.737. And when you consider he threw three times the innings of the rest of these guys, when you consider that his strikeout-to-walk that year was 284-well, it’s no wonder many believe Pedro’s 2000 season was the best season in baseball history.

Anyway, you look at the Top 10 and you see … closers. Well, two of them — Benoit and Meredith — were setup men. But the rest were closers. The fact that eight of the Top 10 WHIPs of all time are closers might throw a little dagger at the myth that the ninth inning is the toughest inning to get outs. But that’s not our point today. No, we’re focusing on Koji Uehara.

Uehara began his career in Japan — he was the first pick in the Japanese amateur draft coming out of Osaka University. He won 20 games his first year, and was a good starter for the Yomiuri Giants and an excellent starter for the Japanese international team at the Olympics and World Baseball Classic and so on. In 2007, at age 32, he became a closer for Yomiuri and was pretty dominant. After the 2008 season, he signed with the Baltimore Orioles as a starter. He struggled. He got hurt. The next year, the Orioles put him in the bullpen. He showed amazing control (five walks in 44 innings) and actually closed a few games for Baltimore. But nobody was too excited about him.

Then in 2011, there was this amazing trade that nobody at all thought was amazing at the time.

The Orioles sent Uehara and some money to the Texas Rangers.

The Rangers sent a struggling starter named Tommy Hunter and minor league first baseman named Chris Davis in return.

I guess what they say is true: You never know when a minor trade will yield a future 50-home run man and a pitcher who will set the record for lowest WHIP in a season. OK, I don’t know if that’s a saying. Uehara pitched well for the Rangers but could not stay healthy. His WHIP while in Texas was an astounding 0.685. He simply did not give up hits and did not give up walks. But he only threw 54 innings in a year and a half and, anyway, the only thing anyone really noticed was that he struggled in his three games in the 2011 postseason. Mostly it was one game. In a game against Tampa Bay in the 2011 Division Series, he came in with a 7-3 lead in the seventh. He promptly walked Desmond Jennings, gave up a line-drive single to B.J. Upton and gave up a home run to Evan Longoria. He was removed.

He also gave up run in his next two outings against Detroit in the ALCS, but I think it was that first outing that left the sour aftertaste. Uehara had not done anything to create an impression in the mind of American baseball fans — he was sort of a blank slate. After the Longoria disaster, everyone had their impression. The next year, he came into the wildcard game against Baltimore with the Rangers already down 3-1. He struck out trademate Chris Davis. He struck out Adam Jones. He struck out Matt Wieters. But it wasn’t a big moment, and it wasn’t memorable enough to erase Longoria from memory.

The Red Sox signed him to a one-year, $4.25 million deal, as minor a deal as they come (though it is now a two-year deal because the vesting option kicked in — much to Boston’s delight). Uehara was going to be the team’s sixth inning option — not their closer, not their setup man and not really their setup to the setup man. Their original closer was hard-throwing Joel Hanrahan — he blew out his elbow nine games in and had Tommy John Surgery.

So, everyone moved up one spot. That meant that Andrew Bailey was now the closer. Bailey had won the Rookie of the Year award in 2009 as the A’s closer, and he was dominant again the next year, but then he had all kinds of injuries and travails. He was the Red Sox closer for a little less than three months — then he hurt his shoulder. On June 26, the Red Sox made Uehara their closer.

I’m now going to give you Uehara’s numbers the rest of the season. Please hold your applause until the end.

Innings pitched: 44 1/3
Hits allowed: 14
Hits allowed (seriously): 14
Come on, how many hits did he allow?: 14
That’s ridiculous: I know.
Runs allowed: 3
Home runs allowed: 1
Strikeouts: 59
Walks: 2
OK stop it right now: 2 walks. Look it up.
Batting average against: .097
On-base percentage: .108
Slugging percentage: .152
WHIP: You sure you’re ready for this?
Say it already: Ask nicely.
WHIP: 0.358

Thank you for coming ladies and gentleman. Please drive home safely.

How? OK, it’s only 44 1/3 innings, and small sample size, and closers only throw one inning at a time and … how?? Koji Uehara does not throw hard. Pitchf/x shows his average fastball to be 89.2 mph, right about where it has been ever since he came from Japan. His money pitch, the split-fingered fastball, goes about 81 mph. In a world of 102-mph fastballs, how in the world does Uehara prove to be the impossible to reach base against guy?

Of course, you begin with control. This was always one of the most underrated parts of Mariano Rivera’s brilliance — yes he broke all those bats, and he threw the same pitch again and again, but he almost never hurt himself with the walk. His best season as a closer was probably 2008. He walked six batters in 70 2/3 innings.

Uehara has always had crazy good control his entire big league career. He only pitched 36 innings for the Rangers on 2012, but he walked just three batters. We do fall in love with closers who throw the Kimbrel out of the ball. But there have been many good closers — starting with Dennis Eckersley, but including the great Dan Quisenberry and Doug Jones — who did not throw hard and instead succeeded with pinpoint control and a lot of deception. Uehara obviously has that.

The second thing is this: Uehara’s pitches — his two-seam fastball and splitter, in particular — move so much that major league hitters often fail to hit the ball even when it’s IN THE STRIKE ZONE. This is a big deal. Big league hitters tend to be pretty successful when swinging at balls in the strike zone. This year, hitters failed to make contact on 31.1% of the pitches they swung at in the strike zone. That was easily the highest percentage in baseball.

Top five pitchers at making hitters miss balls in the strike zone:

1. Uehara, 31.1%
2. Ernesto Frieri, 26.9%
3. Aroldis Chapman, 25.6%
4. Greg Holland, 24.2%
5. Kenley Jansen, 23.8%

Now, the same top five with their average fastball speed:

1. Uehara, 89.2 mph
2. Frieri, 94.1 mph
3. Chapman, 98.4 mph
4. Holland, 96.1 mph
5. Jansen, 93.6 mph

So, yeah, you can see the difference. They blow it BY hitters’ bats. Uehara works above and below hitters’ bats. Uehara has two pitches that move in very different ways. His two-seam fastball seems to come crashing in on righties and pulls away from lefties — sort of the opposite of the Rivera cutter. And his split-fingered fastball tends to work as a change-up (it’s 8 mph slower than the fastball, which is close to the idea difference) AND it dives down late. From a hitter’s perspective, apparently, this is like walking out into a field and being unsure if you will be attacked by wasps or zombie arms coming out of the ground. Hitters do not know where to look.

And you KNOW he won’t walk you.

There’s really no escape for now with Uehara is at the top of his powers.

It’s a pretty remarkable array of talents, especially when you consider that Uehara is now 38 years old and the Red Sox tried two other guys before making him the closer. So far this postseason, Uehara has pitched in seven games. In one of them, he gave up the game-winning home run to Tampa Bay’s Jose Lobaton. In another, he gave up two Tigers hits before settling down and finishing the inning without giving up a run. Thursday, he pitched 1 2/3 perfect innings.

All in all in the postseason, he has pitched eight innings, given up four hits. His WHIP is 0.500. He has not walked a single batter.

  1. jcmeyer10 - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:23 PM

    The most amazing part? He planned on being a freakin’ gym teacher.

    http://deadspin.com/the-red-soxs-best-reliever-once-aspired-to-be-a-gym-te-1440931766

    • jcmeyer10 - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:24 PM

      And this quote:

      “My college was not really a baseball school,” Uehara said, “so the manager told us just choose whatever position you want to play. The last year in high school, I pitched five innings and I thought it was fun. I thought pitching would be fun.”

  2. jarathen - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:23 PM

    I hadn’t seen him pitch before last night and was amazed at how lost the Tigers looked against him. They were just flailing.

  3. Jack Marshall - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    My wife is lobbying for Fenway fans to adopt an “OOOOIEEE!!” chant for Uehara, echoing well-remembered chants of the past like “Doooiie!” for Dwight Evans and “Loooie!” for Luis Tiant….not to mention “Yooook!”

    We use it in our house, and every time we do, the Jack Russell starts barking….

    • jcmeyer10 - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:28 PM

      You mean the Jack Marshall starts barking :D

      • Jack Marshall - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:01 PM

        That too.

    • gerryb323 - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:00 PM

      I think a re-make of the Oki-Doki song is in order.

      Koji-Koji!

    • eightyraw - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:13 PM

      You might be interested in how the Japanese pronounce his name, in the context of a baseball game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZ4bxQ2W-f8

    • joestemme - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:20 PM

      I prefer a simple Yoji!!

  4. unclemosesgreen - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:32 PM

    Enthusiastic high fives for this post!

    • jcmeyer10 - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:10 PM

      We need a David Ortiz to jump on.

  5. cur68 - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    I hate his ass. If the Sox had just not acquired him…sigh. Who am I kidding? He’s fekkin’ awesome. I DREAD the very sight of him walking out to the mound. The show is over, right there. Extinguish hope. Go home.

    • offseasonblues - Oct 18, 2013 at 6:55 PM

      You know there have been a few times when I’ve wondered what it must be like in the opposing dugout. At first I thought they must be saying – hey, he only throws 89, how hard can it be to get a hit? As the season wore on, I was more and more convinced that what they must be saying was – oh shit, I’m up this inning.

      He really has made this incredible season possible.

  6. monkeyjuice313 - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    There is still time, Koji!

    -Detroit Tigers

  7. Jay Seaver - Oct 18, 2013 at 1:49 PM

    And this post doesn’t even really get across how much fun he is outside of mete results. He makes great hitters look like they have no business playing baseball.

    His enthusiasm is infectious, too. The high-fives after a HOLD (before he got the ninth-inning assignment) would probably draw the wrath of the Baseball Fun Police if they weren’t so giddy and genuine.

    • jcmeyer10 - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:11 PM

      Brian McCann is in the stands in a trench coat and glasses waiting for him to cross the line.

  8. billgatesbarber - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:05 PM

    He has one more thing going for him as well. His pitching motion is very deceptive. He doesn’t have a traditional release point, for hitters the ball appears to be coming from right behind Uehara’s ear.

  9. scoutsaysweitersisabust - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:10 PM

    I always was a big fan of Koji. He was a really good player while in Baltimore, and really seemed to enjoy the area. While I certainly wouldn’t trade him back for Davis and Hunter, I was sad to see him go. He was always underrated simply because he does not throw in the high 90s, and people never could get why he was so good. It’s really nice to see him finally getting the recognition that he deserves, even if it has to come while on a division rival.

  10. joestemme - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:24 PM

    Koji’s run is one for the history books.

    And, thanks for pointing out again, how remarkable Pedro’s 2000 season (and several years surrounding it) was. To have stats as a starter that match up with some of the greatest closer seasons ever is still astounding.

    • jarathen - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:24 PM

      Not to mention how much hitting was going on at the same time. Just astounding.

      • Glenn - Oct 18, 2013 at 6:04 PM

        He put up Koufax numbers in a hitter’s park during the PED/hitter’s era. Sandy pitched in the pitcher’s era in a great pitcher’s park. Pedro was greater than the perfect greatness of Koufax.

  11. jm91rs - Oct 18, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    I realize the dude will probably never be poor, but it’s a shame that at his current age he will never fully cash in on those remarkable numbers with a long contract.

    • coloradogolfcoupons - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:58 PM

      I don’t know…38 used to be ancient, but nutrition, training, and HGH? other things have Mariano pitching at 43, throwing just one pitch. The dude from San Diego …Trevor Hoffman…threw 3 different pitches, slow, slower, slowest, and pitched forever.

      So Uehara, with just a dive-bombing split-change and a show me FB could well pitch into his 40’s. It does remain to be seen if he can get a contract deserving of this great season, but I hope somebody bites. Watching a master of the pitching craft is a great part of the joy of baseball for me

      • frank433 - Oct 18, 2013 at 5:57 PM

        Hoffmann pitched so long that he was drafted in my fantasy baseball league this year.

  12. luisrivasbuttocks - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:15 PM

    Sure read like a Simmons column.

    • jcmeyer10 - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:58 PM

      No, this is more like a [Zach] Lowe column where he uses stats and not movie analogies to prove his point.

      Thanks Craig for these types of article. I hold Lowe in high esteem for his ability to dig deeper than the average writer focusing on narratives.

      • MLBlogsbig3bosox - Oct 19, 2013 at 2:20 AM

        Actually it was Joe who wrote this, but who’s counting anyways?

      • jcmeyer10 - Oct 19, 2013 at 8:56 AM

        Haha, good call. Sorry Joe, great article!

  13. aceshigh11 - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:28 PM

    And to think Uehara was Boston’s THIRD attempt at finding a stable closer this year.

    Thank Darwin for this guy. Truly a legendary season.

    • jcmeyer10 - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:57 PM

      That’s the idea that struck me most. He was a 6th inning guy to start. I mean, if it wasn’t for injuries, who knows what would have happened?

  14. crackersnap - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:38 PM

    A few times this season I thought about Uehara and Davis and the Rangers, and wondered to myself if having the riches of a deep farm system opens the door to less careful resource management.

  15. bowltr - Oct 18, 2013 at 3:40 PM

    This is not the first story I’ve read recently that references Koji as the Sox 3rd closer option. That is not true he is actually their 4th.
    Hanrahan hurt his hammy very early in the season. The Sox turned to Bailey. Bailey hurt his arm and the Sox turned to Tazawa. They only turned to Koji after Tazawa did not perform well and Hanrahan and Bailey got hurt and out for the season.

    Look it up.

    Never mind I’m feeling charitable today. Here you are

    http://www.weei.com/sports/boston/this-just-in/21283916/farrell-tazawa-will-be-red-sox-closer

  16. frank35sox - Oct 18, 2013 at 4:53 PM

    Not sure how many “well” is, but it must be good!

  17. steveohho - Oct 18, 2013 at 5:35 PM

    “The hara….the hara.” Colonial Kurtz, Cambodia

  18. pastabelly - Oct 18, 2013 at 7:19 PM

    Koji is the difference between the Sox being a good team to being a very good team.

  19. dwishinsky - Oct 18, 2013 at 7:56 PM

    Pedro’s K ratio was 284 to 32. But Pedro was so good, that I actually looked it up thinking just maybe he did have 284 strikeouts per walk.

  20. johnrosstar - Oct 19, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    Baltimore overused him so when he got to Texas he was gassed and couldn’t deliver. All that off-season, the Rangers were trying to unload him with no takers. Then the next season he was nails but the Ranger brass couldn’t re-sign him. They put a bad taste in his mouth. Rangers have a way of riding players till they drop but in that furnace of a stadium is not hard to do.

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