The BoSox Injection staff reflects on the 2016 season by grading each member of the Boston Red Sox based on expectations for them entering the season.
Koji Uehara went into this season as a $9 million back up. Elite closer Craig Kimbrel was acquired in a multi-prospect deal from the San Diego Padres. Uehara became very expensive insurance for Kimbrel and also became a set up man for what was supposed to be a powerhouse bullpen with Carson Smith from the Seattle Mariners handling the seventh inning.
Smith pitched all of 2.2 innings this season, eventually needing Tommy John surgery, making Uehara even more important in his new role.
Koji started off the season well, unscathed until a disastrous appearance on April 18. Manager John Farrell had to use Koji seven times in the first ten games, and it seemed to catch up with the 41-year-old Uehara. Entrusted with an eighth inning lead, he allowed two walks and a hit-by-pitch to go along with an infield single, a passed ball, and an error. Kimbrel came in to relieve Koji, but he allowed all three runners to score, destroying Koji’s ERA.
Uehara seemed to right the ship with eight straight scoreless appearances, lowering his ERA to 2.93 by May 14. His next six weeks were terrible allowing six homers in 14 appearances, a total of 11 runs over a 14 inning span. This cratering couldn’t be blamed on Kimbrel’s inability to bail out his set up man. The splitter wasn’t working as well and his velocity was down. Uehara can be unhittable at 88 mph; however, if his fastball velocity falls to 85 and the splitter stays flat, those kinds of results can happen.
After his June 27 appearance, Uehara’s ERA stood at 5.08.
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The Red Sox remained confident in their former closer, plugging him back into the role when Kimbrel went on the disabled list with a knee problem in the first week of July. He notched four straight saves and seemed to be getting back to his old dominance. Uehara sustained an injury of his own in late July, which put him on the shelf with a strained pectoral muscle. The Red Sox obtained Brad Ziegler for the stretch run as Uehara recuperated.
When he came back in early September, Koji was his even more dominant than his July run. He allowed just six hits over 11 scoreless innings, walking two and striking out 12 batters. In the Red Sox ill-fated three game playoff run, he allowed only one hit in two scoreless innings.
The problem with Koji is looking objectively at this season, because he dominated so effortlessly in 2013. His 1.09 ERA that season with a 0.56 WHIP was one for the ages. He struck out 101 batters that year and walked nine. Making it look so easy for a stretch is impossible to live up to year in and year out.
Three years out, he certainly isn’t going to dominate like that again. Age is the ultimate equalizer. With all of his struggles in the first half of the season, he came through with a 2.19 second half ERA, allowing just two runs over his last 18.2 innings covering 20 appearances. One might expect more production than a 3.45 ERA in a season for a guy making $9M, but for stretches he was as good as he ever was in 2013.
The Red Sox should look to retain Uehara’s services for 2017. This isn’t a guy who is guaranteed to be healthy for a season, and he might have stretches where he is quite hittable. He is going to be 42 in April. Uehara has a comfort level in Boston and people haven’t forgotten what he did for the team in 2013. A one-year deal of $5M with some incentives for reachable appearance totals, starting at 40 let’s say, might be able to bring him back. The fact that he struck out 12.1 batters per nine innings and still only walked 2.1 per nine shouldn’t be ignored. If Kimbrel escapes that April 18 jam, Koji’s season ERA falls to 2.87. Bring Uehara back for next year and let him have one last run.