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.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Micah Owings' long odds

Micah Owings has long been a favorite of this site. He had a cool name and was one of those rare birds as a pitcher who could hit. The trouble was that despite the constant cheering, he never was much of a pitcher. As a right-handed pitcher, he could get some right-handed batters out, but left-handed batters bashed him to the tune of an .830 OPS against for his career. But he was different because he could hit. In fact, he has sent to the plate as a pinch hitter 48 times in his career. How many pitchers can say that? Now, Micah Owings wants to ditch his pitching career and is in the Nationals' camp hoping to be a first baseman.

We've been down this road before with Rick Ankiel. In fact, Owings has spoken with Ankiel about making the switch. But there are several differences between the two cases. Ankiel was a prodigious pitching talent who flamed out when he suddenly suffered from an inability to throw the ball anywhere near the strike zone. Ankiel was still very young when his pitching career ended. Owings is 30.

Another difference is that Ankiel worked his way back to the majors by spending time in the minor leagues as a batter and fielder after making the switch. Owings is trying to make the Nationals without any such re-training. Since Owings was drafted in 2005, he has all of 316 professional plate appearances, 219 of those in the majors.

By all appearances, Owings is a more talented hitter than Rick Ankiel ever was. Owings owns a major league slugging percentage of .502 and an OPS of .813. He had an .845 OPS in the minors. Perhaps that might be a misstatement. Ankiel did put together an .876 OPS in the minors. But with the exception of one decent season with the Cardinals, Ankiel has not been a good major league hitter with a .729 career OPS.

But also, Ankiel offered at least some value in the field. Perhaps misplaced in center field, Ankiel has at least held his own as a major league fielder with career fielding numbers in the slightly better than average category. And, of course, Ankiel's ability to gun out runners from the outfield is legendary.

Owings wants to be a first baseman. That position is one not considered to have a need for great fielding prowess (though good fielding first basemen have long been undervalued). Owings choice of position shows that he has little to offer as a fielder and will have to make a living as a hitter.

With Ankiel as his model, the odds are not favorable. Will Owings go to the minors if he doesn't make the Nationals and prove he can hit and field? Or will the Nationals simply cut him and end the experiment before it can get started?

It would have been much more fun for Micah Owings to be a fringe starter in the National League and show off his bat every fifth day. That was a fun story. That, we rooted for. But, while interesting, his current project seems to have little odds of success. He is a 30 year old hitting prospect in a young man's game. If some miracle happened and he caught on, that would be cool. I would lay the odds of that happening as the same of finding a warm beach in Maine in February.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jordan Zimmermann - deception, heat and strikes

Jordan Zimmermann might be the best Number 3 starter in baseball. You can argue whether Strasburg or Gonzalez is Number 1, but everyone will agree that those two are your top two. But then you get Jordan Zimmermann on the third day and that is not a picnic by any stretch of the imagination. Gonzalez had a WHIP of 1.129 and Strasburg finished 2012 with a 1.155. Right behind them was Zimmermann at 1.170 and he was second on the team in strikeout to walk ratio. Zimmermann is a terrific combination of deception, heat and strike throwing ability.

What is so impressive about Jordan Zimmermann is that even though he is a young pitcher, he throws strikes and he throws them often. How many pitchers throw the slider for a higher strike percentage than their fastball? Zimmermann threw his slider for a strike 71% of the time and his fastball 68.5 percent of the time.

That combination allowed him to lead off a batter with either pitch for a strike. His first pitch strike rate of 69.2% was second only to Lee of the Phillies. Overall, he was eleventh in baseball for the lowest walks percentage among qualifying starters. And he does all of this despite having a big time fastball.

Zimmerman averaged 93.6 MPH on his fastball which was good for the sixth highest among qualifying starters. His slider had the seventh highest velocity. None of the ten lower walk rates from pitchers ahead of him came close to those velocities. His combination of economy and velocity is rare in baseball. His numbers in 2012 very closely resemble those of Sabathia. And yeah, Sabathia had a difficult season health wise, but to be in the same ballpark as most of Sabathia's numbers is pretty impressive.

You have already been painted a picture of Zimmermann's velocity and ability to throw strikes. The third part of the equation is deception. Zimmermann throws hard and he throws strikes, but he also gets batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. He had the sixth highest O-swing rate among all qualified starters. O-swing rate is the amount of pitches a batter swings at out of the strike zone. They did so 34.4 percent of the time.

Oh, there is one other thing that Zimmermann did really well. Once he got runners on base, he did a real good job of limiting the damage. His strand rate of 79.3 was the fifth best in baseball. A few of the guys ahead of him included Price, Dickey and Sale.

Zimmermann has now made 58 starts in the last two seasons. He has pitched 357 innings and has walked only 74 batters. His homers per nine have been good at 0.7 and 0.8 respectively the last two seasons. His WHIP has been terrific with 1.143 in 2011 and 1.170 in 2012.

Jordan Zimmermann is just a really good young pitcher who at 27 is coming into his own. If he is your Number 3 horse with all of those great stats, no wonder there is so much optimism coming out of the Nationals this season.