As “Sandstorm” blared and Koji Uehara ran out of the Fenway bullpen Tuesday night in a 3-3 game, two thoughts crossed my head: “this reminds me of a high school dance,” and “how many extra innings will this game go?” For most of his two-year tenure as Red Sox closer, a similar pattern has ensued when Koji enters the game: the bullpen door opens, Fenway takes a collective sigh of relief, and fans dance to that Darude classic as Koji jogs out to the mound, where he then delivers a shutdown performance. As my colleague Joe Meehan noted in the recap of that game, “’Koji Time’ is supposed to be safe.”
Tuesday night’s game seemed like an anomaly, as Koji looked off all inning and gave up a number of hard hit balls. Brennan Boesch, hitting a blistering .100 at the time, launched a 410-foot shot over Mookie’s head into the triangle, and then scored the game-winning run on a double by Chris Iannetta. I was genuinely looking forward to staying at Fenway ‘til 1 AM for another 19-inning game with the Angels, but the Sox needed only nine innings to lose this one. Red Sox losses sadly have become standard this season, but Koji losses are still shocking.
Tuesday looked less like a rarity after Friday night’s game, however, Koji’s worst performance in a Sox uniform. The third straight game in which Koji has conceded a run (he also let up a solo homer in last Saturday’s 10-7 win), he let up a whopping five runs and failed to get out of the inning. Granted, the Mariners got a couple of lucky bloop hits, but Koji typically avoids these situations by striking guys out. As Koji walked off into the clubhouse after getting yanked by Farrell, he visually struggled to resist taking off his glove and chucking it into the stands, Happy Gilmore putter-throw style.
Before last Saturday, Koji had not let up a run since July 10. After Tuesday’s game, he was still second amongst major league closers in ERA, WHIP and K/BB ratio (last night’s game demolished his ERA, as he fell outside the top 10 amongst closers). But there are two other areas of statistical concern for Koji. One is his K/9 ratio, which has fallen from 12.2 last season to 11.1 this year—he was 12th amongst major league relievers last year, and is currently 26th. Also concerning is his FIP, which evaluates pitching performance independently of defense and luck. Koji’s FIP has risen from an outstanding 1.61 last year, 2nd amongst all relievers, to 2.66, ranking him 32nd. It was unrealistic to expect him to be as dominant as last season, in which he went a full month without allowing a baserunner (Aug. 17 to Sep. 17). But Koji’s reduced strikeout rate and increased propensity for allowing balls in play are definitely red flags.
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The question is, will the Red Sox pay the man in the offseason, and should they? Along with most of the Red Sox starting lineup (with the exceptions of Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz), Koji has been placed on waivers. While this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, it leaves open the possibility that he could be traded by the waiver trade deadline at the end of August. A free agent at the end of the season, Koji will command top dollar amongst relievers at over $10 million a year, although the 39-year-old will probably only get a one or two year deal. It’s conceivable that the Red Sox would meet this price tag for a short-term deal—Lucchino’s newfound stinginess extends primarily to long-term deals to dominant 30-year-old franchise left-handed pitchers (#PayLester).
Before this recent stretch of poor performance, it seemed like a no-brainer to shell out a big contract for one more year of Koji Time. But with Koji being rattled in three straight games, it may be worth thinking twice about the source of his struggles. Is he simply wearing down after a long season, in need of some R&R to regain some movement on his splitter again? Or is the 39-year-old starting to show the permanent effects of age? Koji has certainly shown less ability to punch guys out, and hitters have figured him out enough to put balls in play. Instead of “Sandstorm,” it may be more fitting to preface Koji’s outings with The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
The Sox still have a decent amount of money tied up for next season in guys like Napoli, Ortiz, and Cespedes, and an additional $12-15 million for Koji is not insignificant. They still need to sign or trade for at least two proven major league starters (#PayLester), and potentially sign a third baseman. It’s unclear how much Rusney Castillo will make next year from his $72 million contract (which is reportedly backloaded), but that’s another factor to consider. There’s still a full month of season to evaluate Koji, but if he fails to regain his form, the Sox should hesitate to pay him eight figures.