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.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 23: Rob Segedin #25 of the Los Angeles Dodgers crosses the plate after a solo home run in the second inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on August 23, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Orioles 8, Nationals 1: Kevin Gausman tossed six shutout innings and, even though the O’s had a seven-run lead, Vance Worley got a save because the save rule is kind of dumb. Adam Jones went 4-for-5 and Chris Davis hit his 30th home run. After these past two games in Baltimore they now play two games in Washington. I wonder if they fly into National Airport or Dulles.

Pirates 7, Astros 1: Ivan Nova took a shutout into the ninth inning and, despite allowing one run in the final frame, finished with a six-hitter that took only 98 pitches to complete. Gregory Polanco hit two home runs and the Pirates had a 4-0 lead before making their first out of the game. This, hopefully, freed up fans watching at home to switch over to their Roku players to catch up on “Mr. Robot,” which everyone should be watching. The Christian Slatersainnce is happening, people.

Blue Jays 7, Angels 2: R.A. Dickey allowed two runs on six hits and got a good bit of run support for once, thanks in part to Russell Martin‘s three hits and two driven in. Tyler Skaggs of the Angels walked five dudes including issuing a free pass to Martin with the bases loaded. That’s no way to go through life, son.

Reds 3, Rangers 0: Dan Straily and three relievers combined to shut out the Rangers. Joey Votto singled in one and knocked another in via a sac fly. Billy Hamilton didn’t hit but boy did he field:

Just look at the amount of ground he covered with that catch. He was shading way to right field as it was and still made it over there. It wasn’t just his wheels that helped him there, though obviously most guys don’t catch up to that ball, but his jump and his route was great too. Man.

Royals 1, Marlins 0: Yordano Ventura and three relievers combined to shut out the Marlins. Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton didn’t do anything to help here as they were over 1,100 miles away playing in a different game. The Royals have won nine in a row and their bullpen, for all of its injuries, has tossed 32 consecutive scoreless innings, which is a franchise record. The Royals are still seven and a half back in the division and four back in the Wild Card with a bunch of teams in front of them, but they’re . . . interesting.

Red Sox 2, Rays 1: Clay Buchholz pitched one-run ball into the seventh inning and struck out nine. That’s the second strong start in a row for Buchholz and the third at least decent one since being put back in the rotation. The Clay Buchholziannce?

White Sox 9, Phillies 1: Carlos Rodon continued his good pitching since coming off the DL, allowing only three hits in six and two-thirds. Jose Abreu homered for the third straight game and singled in a run as well. Justin Morneau hit a solo homer.

Brewers 6, Rockies 4: Hernan Perez hit a two-run triple in the Brewers’ three-run seventh inning to help key a comeback win. Brent Suter got his first career win and Corey Knebel got his first career save, and then things got . . . weird:

. . . their teammates doused them in whatever they could find after the game.

“They are going to share the (game) ball, mail it back and forth to each other in the offseason, maybe, to kind of caress and live that moment again,” Milwaukee starter Chase Anderson joked. “But they enjoyed the shower together. I can tell you I did see that — a little mustard, ketchup, all of the above. It was great.”

Baseball After Dark.

Tigers 8, Twins 3: Cameron Maybin walked twice — once with the bases loaded — and singled in two more runs in the sixth, putting the Tigers up for good. Erick Aybar singled in a run and homered. He’s hitting .292/.320/.500 since coming over from the Braves because life makes no sense.

Mets 7, Cardinals 4: Jon Niese got knocked out with an injury in the first inning but Johnny Wholestaff, led by Robert Gsellman, who pitched three and two-thirds shutout innings in his unexpected major league debut, came on and got the job done. Despite never being in the bigs before, he has his cliche game down already, saying after the game that he just tried to “make some pitches.” In all the Mets ran out six relievers to take care of things while Wilmer Flores hit a three-run homer and four other Mets drove in a run a piece for a weird victory.

Braves 7, Diamondbacks 4: With the Braves down one, Matt Kemp hit a bases-loaded double in the eighth. Two of the runs were driven in, a third scored on the play when the outfielder bobbled the ball. After the game Braves manager Brian Snitker said “He’s been there, done that. You know, he’s an RBI guy.”

Yankees 5, Mariners 1: CC Sabathia, who I’ve mentally written off a whole bunch of times, allowed one run over seven innings and struck out seven. So he lives. Jacoby Ellsbury hit a two-run homer, so he lives too.

Athletics 9, Indians 1: Khris Davis, atoning for his bad-looking strikeout to end the game the night before, hit a three-run homer in the first and the A’s never looked back.  Sean Manaea was sharp for seven innings and Oakland had no trouble knocking Danny Salazar around.

Dodgers 9, Giants 5: Remember back when the story was that Madison Bumgarner owned the Dodgers? Yeah, not really operative anymore. He’s dropped quite a few to his team’s biggest rival lately and took a beating last night, allowing five runs on nine hits in five innings. Adrian Gonzalez hit a sac fly and drove in two more with a single. Rookie outfielder Rob Segedin hit a homer off of Bumgarner early and then, in the eighth inning, was switched out of the game because his wife went into labor. Big night for Segedin. His kid is, unfortunately, gonna have to hear the story of the night he/she was born for the rest of his/her life, though.

Cubs 5, Padres 3: Jake Arrieta threw eight scoreless innings of two-hit ball for his 16th win. It’s been an up and down season for Arrieta but he’s back up again. Kris Bryant and Addison Russell homered. Yawn.

Jon Niese leaves start with knee pain

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 17:  Jonathon Niese #49 of the New York Mets delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 17, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
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Mets starter Jon Niese left his start Tuesday night against the Cardinals due to left knee pain.

Niese walked two and gave up an RBI single before leaving with a trainer with one out in the bottom of the first inning. He was eventually charged with three earned runs. Robert Gsellman, just up from Las Vegas, took over, making his major league debut under unexpected circumstances.

Niese, who has not pitched well at all since coming over in a trade with the Pirates, is likely to be placed on the disabled list after the game or before tomorrow’s game.