Red Sox: Time to worry about Koji Uehara?


Boston Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara is off to a brutal start this spring, but are these results something the team needs to worry about?

Spring Training stats don’t matter, at least for a veteran with a secured roster spot that is merely looking to get in some work to build themselves up for the regular season when the games actually count.

That’s what Koji Uehara needs to keep telling himself after getting torched for the second time in as many appearances this spring. The right-handed reliever has surrendered 5 earned runs in only 1.2 innings so far, producing a team-worst 26.96 ERA. This from a pitcher that gave up a total of only 10 earned runs all of last season.

Uehara was roughed up for 4 runs in a loss to the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday, which is twice as many runs as he allowed in any outing during the regular season in 2015. Eddie Rosario connected for a two-run homer and Byung Ho Park added a two-run double before Uehara was mercifully lifted with two outs in the fifth inning.

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Do the Red Sox need to be concerned? Getting knocked around in spring exhibition games has never been an issue for Uehara in the past, as he’s only given up 1 earned run over the last three years in Grapefruit League action. Yet when you factor in that he’s coming off of a season that ended in early August due to a fractured wrist and he is now only a few weeks shy of his 41st birthday, perhaps we should be worried.

While his role will be changing this season after the Red Sox acquired Craig Kimbrel to serve as their closer, pushing Uehara into an 8th inning setup role, his new position in the bullpen hierarchy shouldn’t be effecting his performance. For one thing, Uehara was initially acquired by the Red Sox in 2013 to be a setup man before ascending to the closer role when the bullpen was ravaged by injuries, so it’s a role he’s familiar with. More importantly, the top relievers aren’t left for the later innings in spring training because managers want to get them in while the opposing team is still using their starters. Entering a game in Fort Myers in the middle innings should be nothing new to him.

The good news is that Uehara provided an explanation that should help ease any concerns over his performance.

"“The cutter was a pitch I wanted to work on tonight, so I thew it a lot,” Uehara told the Associated Press following Wednesday’s loss. “I knew up front that I wasn’t going to throw any splits today, so I knew it might be like this.”"

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Uehara’s split-finger fastball is one of the most devastating pitches in the game, capable of making opposing hitters look foolish by getting them to chase as the ball dives out of the strike zone. He doesn’t need to work as much on his splitter, so he’s using spring training as a platform to sharpen his other pitches.

The problem with that approach is that if hitters notice that he’s not using it then they can sit on his fastballs over the plate without the fear of having the bottom fall out. So not only is he actively avoiding his best pitch, but his limited arsenal makes it that much easier for hitters to predict what’s coming. No wonder the results have been brutal.

Age, injury history and his tenancy to wear down late in the season in recent years are all reasons to monitor Uehara closely, but a couple of poor outings in spring training is hardly a reason to sound the alarms.

Next: Spring Training past to present

If his struggles continue into April, then you can feel free to start worrying.