Thursday, February 21, 2013

The under the radar career of Koji Uehara

One of the unsung deals of this off season was when the Boston Red Sox signed Koji Uehara to a one year deal for $4.25 million. He was rated as the 35th top free agent on MLB Trade Rumors before the off season really got under way. But still, the signing went under the radar. And that is only fitting because Uehara's entire career has been under the radar.

Koji Uehara came to the majors in 2009 and started twelve games in his first season with a 98-loss Orioles team. Uehara pitched fairly well that season as a starter, though he did not go deep into games and missed much time due to injury. All of his appearances since the beginning of 2010 have been relief appearances. There are two basic flaws in Uehara's game. The first his the injury bug as he has had trouble staying healthy. That continued in 2012 as he missed much of the season with a lat strain. But when he is healthy, he has been pretty spectacular.

Since 2010, Uehara has led all relief pitchers in several categories. His ability to throw strikes is what sets him apart. His 1.06 walks per nine innings is easily the lowest among all relief pitchers since 2010. He is third among all relief pitchers in throwing first pitch strikes. The last thing you want from a reliever is to come in and start throwing balls and walking people. Uehara hardly ever does that. He has only walked 17 batters in 145 innings pitched!

While walking very few batters, Uehara strikes out batters at a very healthy pace. His 11.36 strikeout percentage is the fourteen highest among relievers since 2010. Add that strikeout rate to his walk rate and you have something pretty special. In fact, his strikeout to walk ratio as a reliever is 10.76 to 1, easily the best in baseball. That is a pretty tight resume.

But there is more. He also is stingy at giving up hits and has only allowed 7.1 hits per nine innings in his career including his twelve starts in 2009. Low hits plus low walks add up to a great WHIP and his 0.77 WHIP leads all over major league relievers since the start of 2010. And his .179 average against is the seventh lowest in that time.

Throwing strikes is one thing. Throwing effective strikes is another. Since the start of 2010, It's not like his 89 MPH fastball is going to blow you away. But his combination of combining a four-seam fastball with a split-fingered fastball have been very effective. He throws each about half the time so you never really know which one is coming and that keeps your eye level guessing.

His split-fingered fastball has been the second highest rated since he started relieving in 2010. And because of that pitch, Uehara has the highest O-swing rate among all relievers since he started pitching out of the bullpen. O-swing measures how many times a batter swings at a pitch out of the strike zone. Uehara's rate stands at an astounding 41.4 percent. It is this ability to get batters to chase that allows Uehara to lead all relievers in total swing percentage at 54.9 percent. And since his swing and miss rate is fourth best among relievers at a 15.7 percent rate, that's a great combination.

I mentioned earlier that one of Koji Uehara's flaws was an inability to stay healthy. The other comes from the fact that he is an extreme fly ball pitcher. His ground ball to fly ball ratio is a very low 0.64. Batters don't hit his pitches very often. But when they do, they hit the ball in the air. That has led to his one other flaw, his home run rate of 1.1 per nine innings.

Koji Uehara has had an average valuation of $5.67 million per season with his pitching. While the Red Sox are not getting a big discount paying him $4.25 in 2013, they should get their money's worth. Uehara has a unique combination of getting batters to swing at his pitches and never walking anyone. If he can stay healthy, the Red Sox will get a very stabilizing pitcher out of their bullpen.

Uehara's career has flown under the radar. Perhaps it is because he has not been a closer (he has saved fourteen games in his career). Perhaps it is because his career has had stops and starts with injury. And perhaps it is because when he went to the Rangers in the middle of a pennant race and was seen nationally for the first time, he struggled a bit. Be that as it may, Koji Uehara has been a terrific relief pitcher.

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