Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles

The Uehara Phenomenon

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So, you probably know that this year Boston’s Koji Uehara proved to be harder to reach base against than any pitcher in the history of baseball. That’s a pretty good thing. Here’s the list of the Top 10 WHIPs in baseball history, pitching at least 50 innings:

1. Koji Uehara, 2013, 0.565
2. Dennis Eckersley, 1989, 0.607
3. Dennis Eckersley, 1990, 0.614
4. Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 0.654
5. Mariano Rivera, 2008, 0.665
6. Joaquin Benoit, 2010, 0.680
7. Eric Gagne, 2003, 0.692
8. J.J. Putz, 2007, 0.698
9. Cla Meredith, 2006, 0.711
10. Takashi Saito, 2007, 0.715

A couple of interesting tidbits — at No. 11 on the list in Uehara again in 2011. No. 12 on the list? Pedro. That was 2000, his WHIP was 0.737. And when you consider he threw three times the innings of the rest of these guys, when you consider that his strikeout-to-walk that year was 284-well, it’s no wonder many believe Pedro’s 2000 season was the best season in baseball history.

Anyway, you look at the Top 10 and you see … closers. Well, two of them — Benoit and Meredith — were setup men. But the rest were closers. The fact that eight of the Top 10 WHIPs of all time are closers might throw a little dagger at the myth that the ninth inning is the toughest inning to get outs. But that’s not our point today. No, we’re focusing on Koji Uehara.

Uehara began his career in Japan — he was the first pick in the Japanese amateur draft coming out of Osaka University. He won 20 games his first year, and was a good starter for the Yomiuri Giants and an excellent starter for the Japanese international team at the Olympics and World Baseball Classic and so on. In 2007, at age 32, he became a closer for Yomiuri and was pretty dominant. After the 2008 season, he signed with the Baltimore Orioles as a starter. He struggled. He got hurt. The next year, the Orioles put him in the bullpen. He showed amazing control (five walks in 44 innings) and actually closed a few games for Baltimore. But nobody was too excited about him.

Then in 2011, there was this amazing trade that nobody at all thought was amazing at the time.

The Orioles sent Uehara and some money to the Texas Rangers.

The Rangers sent a struggling starter named Tommy Hunter and minor league first baseman named Chris Davis in return.

I guess what they say is true: You never know when a minor trade will yield a future 50-home run man and a pitcher who will set the record for lowest WHIP in a season. OK, I don’t know if that’s a saying. Uehara pitched well for the Rangers but could not stay healthy. His WHIP while in Texas was an astounding 0.685. He simply did not give up hits and did not give up walks. But he only threw 54 innings in a year and a half and, anyway, the only thing anyone really noticed was that he struggled in his three games in the 2011 postseason. Mostly it was one game. In a game against Tampa Bay in the 2011 Division Series, he came in with a 7-3 lead in the seventh. He promptly walked Desmond Jennings, gave up a line-drive single to B.J. Upton and gave up a home run to Evan Longoria. He was removed.

He also gave up run in his next two outings against Detroit in the ALCS, but I think it was that first outing that left the sour aftertaste. Uehara had not done anything to create an impression in the mind of American baseball fans — he was sort of a blank slate. After the Longoria disaster, everyone had their impression. The next year, he came into the wildcard game against Baltimore with the Rangers already down 3-1. He struck out trademate Chris Davis. He struck out Adam Jones. He struck out Matt Wieters. But it wasn’t a big moment, and it wasn’t memorable enough to erase Longoria from memory.

The Red Sox signed him to a one-year, $4.25 million deal, as minor a deal as they come (though it is now a two-year deal because the vesting option kicked in — much to Boston’s delight). Uehara was going to be the team’s sixth inning option — not their closer, not their setup man and not really their setup to the setup man. Their original closer was hard-throwing Joel Hanrahan — he blew out his elbow nine games in and had Tommy John Surgery.

So, everyone moved up one spot. That meant that Andrew Bailey was now the closer. Bailey had won the Rookie of the Year award in 2009 as the A’s closer, and he was dominant again the next year, but then he had all kinds of injuries and travails. He was the Red Sox closer for a little less than three months — then he hurt his shoulder. On June 26, the Red Sox made Uehara their closer.

I’m now going to give you Uehara’s numbers the rest of the season. Please hold your applause until the end.

Innings pitched: 44 1/3
Hits allowed: 14
Hits allowed (seriously): 14
Come on, how many hits did he allow?: 14
That’s ridiculous: I know.
Runs allowed: 3
Home runs allowed: 1
Strikeouts: 59
Walks: 2
OK stop it right now: 2 walks. Look it up.
Batting average against: .097
On-base percentage: .108
Slugging percentage: .152
WHIP: You sure you’re ready for this?
Say it already: Ask nicely.
WHIP: 0.358

Thank you for coming ladies and gentleman. Please drive home safely.

How? OK, it’s only 44 1/3 innings, and small sample size, and closers only throw one inning at a time and … how?? Koji Uehara does not throw hard. Pitchf/x shows his average fastball to be 89.2 mph, right about where it has been ever since he came from Japan. His money pitch, the split-fingered fastball, goes about 81 mph. In a world of 102-mph fastballs, how in the world does Uehara prove to be the impossible to reach base against guy?

Of course, you begin with control. This was always one of the most underrated parts of Mariano Rivera’s brilliance — yes he broke all those bats, and he threw the same pitch again and again, but he almost never hurt himself with the walk. His best season as a closer was probably 2008. He walked six batters in 70 2/3 innings.

Uehara has always had crazy good control his entire big league career. He only pitched 36 innings for the Rangers on 2012, but he walked just three batters. We do fall in love with closers who throw the Kimbrel out of the ball. But there have been many good closers — starting with Dennis Eckersley, but including the great Dan Quisenberry and Doug Jones — who did not throw hard and instead succeeded with pinpoint control and a lot of deception. Uehara obviously has that.

The second thing is this: Uehara’s pitches — his two-seam fastball and splitter, in particular — move so much that major league hitters often fail to hit the ball even when it’s IN THE STRIKE ZONE. This is a big deal. Big league hitters tend to be pretty successful when swinging at balls in the strike zone. This year, hitters failed to make contact on 31.1% of the pitches they swung at in the strike zone. That was easily the highest percentage in baseball.

Top five pitchers at making hitters miss balls in the strike zone:

1. Uehara, 31.1%
2. Ernesto Frieri, 26.9%
3. Aroldis Chapman, 25.6%
4. Greg Holland, 24.2%
5. Kenley Jansen, 23.8%

Now, the same top five with their average fastball speed:

1. Uehara, 89.2 mph
2. Frieri, 94.1 mph
3. Chapman, 98.4 mph
4. Holland, 96.1 mph
5. Jansen, 93.6 mph

So, yeah, you can see the difference. They blow it BY hitters’ bats. Uehara works above and below hitters’ bats. Uehara has two pitches that move in very different ways. His two-seam fastball seems to come crashing in on righties and pulls away from lefties — sort of the opposite of the Rivera cutter. And his split-fingered fastball tends to work as a change-up (it’s 8 mph slower than the fastball, which is close to the idea difference) AND it dives down late. From a hitter’s perspective, apparently, this is like walking out into a field and being unsure if you will be attacked by wasps or zombie arms coming out of the ground. Hitters do not know where to look.

And you KNOW he won’t walk you.

There’s really no escape for now with Uehara is at the top of his powers.

It’s a pretty remarkable array of talents, especially when you consider that Uehara is now 38 years old and the Red Sox tried two other guys before making him the closer. So far this postseason, Uehara has pitched in seven games. In one of them, he gave up the game-winning home run to Tampa Bay’s Jose Lobaton. In another, he gave up two Tigers hits before settling down and finishing the inning without giving up a run. Thursday, he pitched 1 2/3 perfect innings.

All in all in the postseason, he has pitched eight innings, given up four hits. His WHIP is 0.500. He has not walked a single batter.

Alex Rodriguez lands on the 15-day DL with a strained hamstring

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez follows through on a single to right off a pitch from Texas Rangers' Shawn Tolleson in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. The Yankees lost 3-2. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez strained his right hamstring running out a ground ball in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s loss to the Orioles. The club announced it has placed him on the 15-day disabled list and recalled pitcher James Pazos from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Rodriguez lands on DL hitting .194/.275/.444 with five home runs and 12 RBI in 80 plate appearances.

Dustin Ackley replaced Rodriguez in Tuesday’s game, but the Yankees will likely cycle a handful of players in and out of the DH spot while Rodriguez heals.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Wednesday evening’s action

Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Nola pitches to a Milwaukee Brewers batter during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, April 22, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)
AP Photo/Tom Lynn
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We were treated to a handful of games this afternoon but we still have eight night games left. Let’s talk about the Phillies.

I wrote this preview of the Phillies just before the season started, predicting them to win only 65 games, which would mark only a marginal improvement over their 63-win season last year. In my defense, I wasn’t alone, as almost every expert as well as the projections had them finishing under 70 wins. And yet, here they are 27 games into the season with 16 wins. That’s on pace for a 96-win season. What the heck.

Aaron Nola pitched seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in a 1-0 victory on Tuesday, marking the Phillies’ sixth shutout of the year, the best mark in the majors. Even as the Phillies prepared to draft him, Nola was described as “major league ready” but no one expected him to be quite this dominant. In his first 19 major league starts, Nola has a 3.37 ERA with a 112/26 K/BB ratio over 117 2/3 innings. This year, not only has Nola been extremely stingy with the walks, but he’s been missing bats at an elite level. He’s only 22 years old.

Nola is joined in the rotation by Vincent Velasquez, the pitcher who highlighted the return from the Astros in the Ken Giles trade. The right-hander made headlines in April with a 16-strikeout performance against the Padres and currently stands with a 1.44 ERA with a 39/10 K/BB ratio in 31 1/3 innings. Unlike Nola, Velasquez was billed as a future ace or a dominant eighth- or ninth-inning guy.

Then there’s Jerad Eickhoff, who came over in the Cole Hamels trade last year. Though he has a ho-hum 4.15 ERA, Eickhoff is occasionally dominant as evidenced by his 32/5 K/BB ratio over 30 1/3 innings. He has a pretty curve. Look at it. Eickhoff probably won’t be an ace, but he wasn’t considered to be a future mainstay in the rotation when the Hamels trade went through. All he’s done so far is exceed expectations. Nola-Velasquez-Eickhoff makes for an outstanding start to a long-term starting rotation.

The offensive tools aren’t quite where the pitching is yet for the Phillies, as third baseman Maikel Franco has wavered between looking like Mike Schmidt and looking completely lost at the plate. He has only five hits (zero home runs) in his last 37 plate appearances. Shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford isn’t there yet, nor is outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro, and outfielder Cornelius Randolph. There’s certainly a lot of hope on the horizon.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Phillies fan, but wearing rose-colored glasses isn’t a crime of which I’ve been often accused over the years. It has been one headache after another being a Phillies fan between 2012-15. The front office under former GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. was stubborn and out of touch. Now, under new president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak, the team has a goal and is seeing it through. No, the Phillies won’t win 96 games this year — they probably won’t even win 80 — but they’re certainly further along than a lot of us gave them credit for being.

The Phillies play game three of a four-game set in St. Louis tonight at 8:15 PM EDT. Lefty Adam Morgan will oppose the Cardinals’ Mike Leake.

The rest of Wednesday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) @ Cleveland Indians (Corey Kluber), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (CC Sabathia) @ Baltimore Orioles (Tyler Wilson), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Colby Lewis) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Aaron Sanchez), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Rubby De La Rosa) @ Miami Marlins (Jose Fernandez), 7:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Alex Wood) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Drew Smyly), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Clay Buchholz) @ Chicago White Sox (Carlos Rodon), 8:10 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Phil Hughes) @ Houston Astros (Mike Fiers), 8:10 PM EDT

The Marlins are suing a season ticket holder

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins
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A couple of years back the Marlins threatened to sue a season ticket holder who didn’t want to pay because the view they had wasn’t what they expected and the Marlins wouldn’t accommodate their request to move. That apparently got worked out without litigation. A new dispute, however, is now a matter for the courts.

The Marlins filed a lawsuit a little over a year ago against a season ticket holder named Mickey Axelbrand. The suit is just heating up now because the Marlins didn’t move to serve the defendant with the suit until recently. The suit is a straightforward breach of contract case in which the Marlins say that Axelbrand paid for two season tickets on a two-year contract, covering 2011-12, and that Axelbrand didn’t pay for the second year. The Marlins claim that he owes the team $24K+ plus other damages. Seems straightforward, no? You don’t pay, you get sued, right?

Well, there are two sides to every story. I spoke with Axelbrand’s lawyer, Daniel Rose of Delray Beach, Florida, this afternoon. He says Axelbrand has been a Marlins fan since the advent of the team and was as season ticket from the team’s first season in 1993 until the dispute arose. He says that the reason Axelbrand withheld payment was because “most of the exclusive amenities were taken away,” from the ticket holder. Specifically, he said that the Marlins ceased operation of the complementary food service for this exclusive seating area in the 6th inning and that exclusive parking areas and an entrance area for people at this expensive season ticket level were made open to the general public. While that sounds like a first world problem to a lot of us, clubs like the Marlins market these super high-priced tickets to people like Axelbrand on the basis of such exclusivity and people like Axelbrand come to expect it. Not unreasonably.

The suit is in its early stages now and discovery is just getting going. Only then will the merits of the competing claims be determined. For now we just have a claim and a defense and the facts will fall where they may. For what it’s worth, Rose believes he can get financial discovery from the Marlins, opening at least part of their books. I’m a bit rusty by now, but for what it’s worth I’m not sure I see how it gets that far. At the very least, however, Jeff Loria will probably have to spend some time and money fending off discovery requests that go beyond the ticket office.

I think the larger takeaway here is that this appears to have been a dispute between a customer and a business that festered for at least three years and one presumes that there were complaints made to the team and a lot of back and forth before everyone lawyered up. One wonders how a baseball team couldn’t resolve this short of litigation if, as Axelbrand and his attorney claim, it was a dispute over amenities and the like. There are probably a million ways for a club to make this right with a fan that don’t require legal fees. I can’t ever recall a team suing a season ticket holder (update: Oh, yeah, that’s the ticket!) I suppose it happens, but if there’s one thing most teams do better than anything it’s accommodate season ticket holders with the sort of customer service niceties which are in the dang wheelhouse of professional sports teams catering to rich folks. Lunch with Giancarlo Stanton anyone?

As a matter of law it’s for the courts to decide. But I can’t help but wonder how this wasn’t decided as a matter of customer service a long time ago.

The Rangers trade Chris Gimenez to the Indians

Texas Rangers' Chris Gimenez, left, and Rougned Odor celebrate Gimenez scoring during the fourteenth inning of Game 2 in baseball's American League Division Series, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, in Toronto. Texas won 6-4. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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The Cleveland Indians just announced that they’ve acquired catcher Chris Gimenez from the Texas Rangers in exchange for cash considerations.

Gimenez knows his way to Progressive Field. Indeed, this will be his third stint with the Indians organization. He was their 19th round pick in the 2004 draft, made his big league debut with the club in 2009 and stayed through the 2010 season. He came back in 2014 for eight games, now he’s back again. He has yet to play in 2016 due to a ankle issue. He as doing minor league rehab before being DFA’d by the Rangers yesterday.

Come back to Cleveland, Chris. You always will have a home in Cleveland.