Koji Uehara had quite possibly the best season that a relief pitcher has ever had in 2013. Picked up a one-year deal worth $4.5MM, Uehara jumped into the setup role and never really looked back. Uehara finished seventh in Cy Young voting while posting a 1.09 ERA with an absurd 11.22 K/BB ratio and a WHIP of 0.57 and leading the Red Sox to the World Series Championship. No doubt, it was a dream season for Uehara and the Red Sox.
However, Uehara is almost 39 years old and given that it is almost literally impossible to build on his 2013 season, it’s likely that we could see him regress a bit in 2014. That’s not to say that he’ll fade away and become mediocre like Fernando Rodney‘s follow-up to his remarkable 2012 season (0.60 ERA, 5.07 K/BB in 2012; 3.38 ERA, 2.28 K/BB in 2013), but there is a good chance that many fans will be disappointed with the results of his 2014 campaign.
“What is the key to not being disappointed?” you might ask. The answer is reasonable expectations. Expecting a 39 year old to put up a season of the caliber of Uehara’s 2013 is near-impossible, but there’s still a solid chance that Uehara will be solid in 2014. He has all of the tools to succeed in Boston’s bullpen: excellent control (the highest walk rate of Uehara’s career was 1.6 BB/9 and he served as a starter that season) and good stuff that is not dependent on velocity (the only season that Uehara has not posted a strikeout rate over 10.8 K/9 was 2009– the year he served as a starter).
Uehara will likely continue to strike out a ton of batters while walking almost nobody. The difference between his 2013 and 2014 seasons will likely come down to how often he gives up hits. Uehara surrendered a microscopic 4.0 H/9 last season and was the beneficiary of a similarly microscopic .188 BABIP– even below his already low career .243 BABIP.
Since he has never given up a huge number of hits– due to his excellent control and good stuff– that part of his game shouldn’t regress too much. However, that small regression could be the difference between his ridiculous 2013 season and something closer to his still great career 2.42 ERA and 0.83 WHIP.
Those numbers would still keep Uehara on an elite level and presumably one of the top ten, maybe even five, closers in the game. However, if one expects him to be as utterly dominant as he was in 2013, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. Uehara will probably not have another season which puts him high on the ranks of best relief seasons of all time, but he’ll likely be a great closer and anchor a very strong Red Sox bullpen, and that’s fine by me.