At 41 years of age, Boston Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara looks to be on the verge of a crossroads. If he can’t master his splitter, Boston may split on him.
With the Red Sox regaining the lead against the Chicago White Sox last night, Boston looked poised to win the game as long as they could hold their opponents off of the scoreboard. That is, until the eighth inning. Uehara was brought in to start the frame, but a two-run blast by Melky Cabrera followed by a Brett Lawrie solo-shot put the White Sox in the lead again.
Two home runs given up in just two thirds of an inning. Red Sox manager John Farrell didn’t even let the former closer finish out the frame. He had seen quite enough.
Courtesy of Tony Lee, via ESPN.com, Farrell had this to say: “At times it’s the action to the splitter, hasn’t had that late tumble […] He’s had it on occasions, and tonight was a night where he comes in with ample rest. But it’s been the late action to the split that’s been the difference on a consistent basis versus years past.”
In just 26.1 innings, Uehara has posted a 2-3 record with a 4.78 ERA this season. The key to this trend involves his .214 opposing batting average. If you travel back in time to 2013, the year that Koji pierced through into mainstream conversation, his average was a mere .130. He was as automatic as a closer gets, shutting down sluggers as the Red Sox won the World Series. That was 2013, which must seem like a bygone era for some of the Fenway faithful, as far as Uehara’s concerned.
Farrell said, “Whether it’s a decrease in arm speed, where you see the velocity on his fastball tick down a little bit, the late action is typically a direct result from maybe a little decrease in arm speed.”
Whatever it is, allowing 14 runs in some of the most inopportune times is something that the Red Sox cannot afford at present. Boston has lost seven of its last 10 games, paving the way for American League East division rivals to get ahead of them in the standings. The Red Sox sit two games back of the Baltimore Orioles, while the Toronto Blue Jays have gotten hot in the month of June and have inched just a half game back of Boston.
It’s not like it’s all Koji’s fault, but it’s not helping either. Considering that Uehara throws his splitter over 46% of the time, the fact that he has no action on it by the time it reaches the catcher is very troubling. It’s only coming to the plate at just over 78 mph, sitting there like a giant beach ball to be pounded away. That’s exactly the type of pitch Cabrera sent over the fence last night. The ball barely moved across the plate, sitting up nicely for Melky to extend and bash it, just like he did the hopes that the Red Sox were going to win the game.
If Koji can’t figure out how to put more motion on his splitter, arguably his favorite pitch and the only thing keeping him in the bullpen at this point, then it may be time for Uehara to ride off into the sunset. The Red Sox don’t have much time to allow him to figure himself out. June is coming ever closer to disappearing, much like Red Sox Nation’s dreams of the 2016 postseason.