After my Reds finished off the Cardinals 6-2 last night, I flipped the channel over to the MLB Network and caught the end of the Red Sox-Yankees game. The game was tied 8-8 with Boston batting in the top of the 10th inning.
Apparently I had missed what my old high school coach would have dubbed a “whale of a game”. New York, down 7-2, surged back and scored six runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to pull ahead by one run. That lead held into the top of the ninth, before Boston, down to its last strike, remarkably rallied against Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of our generation.
I tuned in just in time to see the Red Sox take a 9-8 lead in the top of the 10th inning, which in turn gave Boston’s current closer – a relative unknown prior to this season – the opportunity to do what Rivera couldn’t.
Koji Uehara came on, faced three batters and retired them all for a scoreless 10th inning and his 18th save of the season. Uehara has not just been effective (he’s earned his 18 saves in just 21 opportunities), but of late he has been near unhittable. The modest, unassuming right hander has retired all of the last 24 batters he’s faced and has a 1.14 ERA on the season.
So who is this guy? Where did he come from? And how in the heck is he doing this?
Uehara’s professional career began in Japan, where he spent 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants. There, he was a starter – which was the role he expected to assume when he first migrated to the big leagues on a two-year $10 million contract with Baltimore.
In 2009, Uehara made 12 starts for the Orioles before elbow tendonitis shortened his season. When he returned in 2010, the Orioles made him a reliever. From 2010 to 2012, he bounced a couple of times between Baltimore and Texas, working primarily as a middle reliever.
The Red Sox brought him on in December, signing the then 38-year-old Japanese righty to a one-year, $4.25 contract. He started out, again, as a middle reliever and advanced to set-up man before circumstance changed his role into one that has made him one of the most important players on the American League’s best team.
Uehara wasn’t Boston’s first choice for closer. He wasn’t even their second or third. Would-be closers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan suffered season-ending injuries and an attempt to replace them with Junichi Tazawa failed miserably. The Red Sox were desperate, and they knew that Uehara at least was not afraid to throw strikes and attack hitters. So they gave him a shot.
Uehara has now emerged as the hottest reliever in all of baseball. Though it’s still hard to comprehend how.
According to Stats LLC, Uehara’s average fastball speed is just 89.2 miles per hour. That ranks second slowest among closers with at least 10 saves this year. Yet he still manages to get swings and misses on more than 36.3 percent of the time (second only to flame throwers Greg Holland and Aroldis Chapman).
Instead of heat, Uehara prefers the deceptive nature of the split-fingered fastball, which dives downward at the end of its flight path from pitcher’s mound to home plate. Uehara also has an uncommon ability to spot the pitch on both sides of the plate, whereas most guys who utilize the splitter throw theirs down the middle and rely solely on its natural movement. Uehara has enjoyed the same type of success relying on the split finger fastball that Cardinals impromptu closer Edward Mujica (FanGraphs broke down Mujica’s success back in May).
Batters are swinging and missing at Uehara’s splitter at a rate of 43.4 percent. Since taking over the closer role in late June, Uehara has pitched 33 1/3 innings, struck out 45 batters, walked just two and averages just 13.0 pitcher per inning. Oh, and his ERA as closer is 0.27. No, that’s not a typo. The decimal point is in the right place. Zero point two seven!
The effectiveness of that pitch is coupled with a fearless aggressiveness and what Uehara’s teammates describe as a sixth sense: an innate ability to just know what a hitter is looking for, perhaps even before the hitter himself knows.
For most of his professional career, Uehara started games. When he came over to America, Uehara wanted to do nothing but start games. It’s somewhat ironic that at 38, Uehara is just now achieving Major League notoriety, and he’s doing so by ending games, not starting them.
I’m sure Uehara himself didn’t realize how amazingly well-suited he was for this back-of-the-bullpen role. But he and the Red Sox have certainly found that out together this season.
It’s better late than never.