The Red Sox are absolutely on fire.
In case you’ve blinked between now and Wednesday, this bearded group of extraordinary gentlemen have pounded out 17 home runs, 62 hits, and 54 runs, in their last 4 games.
But the unsung hero throughout all of this is a man who’s never even touched a bat this year, a man with no facial hair, a man who dishes out dangerously painful high fives.
His name is Koji Uehara.
After losing, not one, but two closers during the season, the Red Sox were facing a bit of a dilemma. What was supposed to be one of the deepest bullpens in baseball, quickly turned into a scramble to fill roles. Joel Hanrahan, acquired from the Pirates in the offseason, went down very early in the year with elbow trouble, costing him the entire season. Andrew Bailey, acquired from the Athletics two years ago, was having an up-and-down year (mostly down), when he was put on the shelf with an injury as well.
Early on, a lot of names were thrown out there as to who would close for the remainder of the season, but John Farrell made no hesitation when asserting Uehara into that spot. At the time, I disagreed with the decision because I thought Uehara was far too valuable as the set-up guy. He had excelled in that role during the time of the switch, so I was worried about the domino effect it would have on the rest of the ‘pen.
It’s laughable how wrong I was.
Uehara is undeniably the Cy Young of the 2013 Boston Red Sox. With an ERA of 1.12, 18 saves, a 0.59 WHIP, and 89 strike outs, Uehara is having the season of his life, and possibly one of the best seasons a reliever has ever had. According to Mike Axisa of CBS Sports, the previous record for the lowest WHIP for a pitcher with at least 60 innings pitched was 0.61 by Dennis Eckersley in ’90. That’s pretty good company to have.
His recent stretch in the most important part of the year is a huge reason why the Sox have pulled ahead in the division by 8.0 games. A run hasn’t crossed the plate on him in 26 innings, and if that’s not enough, he’s retired the last 27 batters that he’s faced. I don’t think Ben Cherington knew Uehara was going to be THIS good when he signed him, but it makes you wonder why any team with common sense would let him go.
Digging a bit deeper, the reasons for Uehara’s success start to appear.
He throws strikes at a level unknown to man. His 9.89 K/BB is 3rd best in the Majors, and 1st among relievers with over 60 innings pitched. So there’s no painting the corners or messing around when he comes into the game. He has also limited opponents batting average to a mere .131 this season without ever throwing a pitch above 90 mph. So how does this guy get away with throwing so many strikes without getting pelted?
The answer is the splitter.
A pitch he throws 32.2% of the time is Uehara’s bread and butter. This pitch is the sole reason why they created “That’s Nasty” on Baseball Tonight. There are relievers out there who can throw it, but nobody on earth who can throw it with as much control and consistency as Uehara. The value of his splitter this year is at 13.8 runs above average. Putting that number in perspective, Mariano Rivera’s cutter, undoubtedly, the best pitch over the last decade, is at 11.6 runs above average this season. Impressive. Also, since the All-Star break, opponents have only put 14.6% of his split-fingers in play, while striking out 40% of the time. Simply phenomenal.
A playoff run for the Sox is dependent upon his health, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they ease off of him in September to keep him fresh, but right now, this incredible run by the Red Sox can only be matched by the incredible run of their closer.