Red Sox 25 in 25: Koji Uehara

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The Boston Red Sox gave some love to star closer Koji Uehara, last October. General manager Ben Cherington signed the 39-year-old, Japanese righty to a two-year, $18 million deal. “The Red Sox signed Uehara before he became eligible to negotiate with other clubs Tuesday. His deal nearly doubles the two-year, $9.25 million contract he signed with the Red Sox before the 2013 season, before he had been identified as the club’s closer” (Gordon Edes, ESPN.com).

2014 Recap

It’s hard to review Uehara’s 2014 campaign without starting where he left off, because he did the same. After becoming the closer midway through 2013, Koji capped off the season with an MVP performance in the American League Championship Series, shutting out the Detroit Tigers, while striking out nine batters in six innings of work. He followed that up by doing the same to the St. Louis Cardinals in over four innings, with three strikeouts, to lock up the World Series win.

Uehara started 2014 with the same heat that he left in our memories. Before the All-Star Game, opposing batters hit a meager .179, while striking out 57 times to only 6 walks. Koji earned 18 saves in 20 opportunities, while only giving up 8 runs in 27 innings. The only foreshadowing of any slide was the fact that those runs were the product of six home runs. If teams scored, they scored over the fence.

In the second half of the season, the narrative changed. Uehara still only gave up 10 runs and even less home runs (4), but his strikeouts were significantly less (23) and batters started having more success (.282) per plate appearance. He earned 8 saves in 11 opportunities. Part of that was because the Red Sox were struggling as a team to stay close to their opponents to give Koji the chances to appear, while his ailing back made up for the rest. “‘From a health standpoint, he had a little lower back issue at the end of the year, but that was resolved and wasn’t really a concern going forward,’ Cherington said, making the first mention by any Red Sox official that the pitcher’s back had been bothering him” (Edes, ESPN.com).

2015 Prediction

With the money Cherington spread around, this off-season, the paycheck Uehara will receive for the next two years will seem a drop in the proverbial bucket. The Red Sox still need a closer with the experience and capabilities that Koji has proven to possess, especially in big games.

When many fans think of a closer, they think of a dominating fastball, which just burns by batters’ blinks. Well, none of Koji’s pitches goes past 90 mph. Only in 2010 did his two-seam fastball reach over that mark (94.2 mph). Like any aging, yet successful, starting pitcher, what he lacks in velocity, he makes up for in variety. Uehara uses a four-seamer, a two-seamer, a cutter, a splitter, a sinker, as well as a slider, curveball, and changeup. That’s eight pitches, coming in many different directions and deliveries for batters to anticipate, all while still trying to catch up to the pitches’ locations. Koji’s splitter, especially, is filthy to hit. His groundout-to-flyball ratio is only 0.71 last season, but that is consistent with his career history; the hitter may have touched the ball, but could not corral it into a home run or base hit, on a consistent basis.

With his age becoming a possible factor, one should note that Koji’s game has always relied on veteran know-how, instead of having a gun for an arm. There are so many young pitchers requiring surgery from throwing so hard in such a short amount of time, that it seems like Uehara’s strategy will keep him relevant long after the ‘studs’ are gone. Cherington’s not worried. The Red Sox are not worried. Why should we?

In 2015, expect Koji to be giving the love back to the club and Red Sox Nation, as long as they keep giving him the ball with a chance to win.