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.

Cubs release Shane Victorino

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File this under “not terribly surprising,” but Shane Victorino was released from his minor league contract with the Cubs yesterday after batting .233/.324/.367 through nine games with Triple-A Iowa. Victorino says he does not plan on retiring, however, and that he plans to try to latch on someplace else.

It’ll be a supreme long shot. Victorino, 35, Victorino suffered a calf injury during spring training and missed all of spring training. Last year he played in only 71 games between the Red Sox and Angels, and 30 in 2014 with the Red Sox. He was last healthy and effective in 2013. In a league where older players don’t do as well as they used to, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to find a gig.

If this is the end of the road for the Flyin’ Hawaiian, he’ll finish with a career batting line of .2750/.340/.425 with 108 homers, 489 RBI, 231 stolen bases and four Gold Glove Awards in 12 seasons. He also has two World Series rings, from the 2008 Phillies and the 2013 Red Sox. He was a two-time All-Star.

Maybe not the way he wanted to end his career, if this is indeed the end, but Victorino had a fine career while it lasted.

Miguel Sano criticized by his manager for dogging it on a defensive play

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Sal Perez of the Royals had a nice night last night, going 5-for-5. One of those five hits was a triple. But it maybe didn’t have to be a triple, as Perez’s hit to right field went over the head of Miguel Sano and off the wall, bouncing back toward the infield.

Sano is no one’s idea of a gold glover so getting on him for not catching a ball at the wall is only going to have so much of an effect. But Twins manager Paul Molitor was rightly upset, it would seem, for how Sano reacted after the ball bounced off the wall. Specifically: he basically just stopped and watched it roll away as center fielder Danny Santana had to spring over and field it as the slow Perez lumbered around the bases. Molitor:

“I think maybe he assumed that [second baseman Eduardo] Nunez or Danny were going to be in better position after he positioned himself close to the wall to make the catch,” Molitor said. “But you want him to go for the ball even if you think there’s somebody else to help you out. Sometimes you get caught assuming out there and it doesn’t look too good.”

You can watch the play below. It starts at around the :37 second mark and is Perez’s third hit in the sequence:

Red Sox reliever Carson Smith to have Tommy John surgery

BOSTON, MA - MAY 09:  Carson Smith #39 of the Boston Red Sox looks on in the seventh inning during the game against the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park on May 9, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Last season Carson Smith was an effective and durable relief pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, appearing in 70 games. In the offseason the Red Sox traded for him and Roenis Elias in exchange for Jonathan Aro and Wade Miley. This year Smith has appeared in just three games. And he will appear in no more as the Red Sox just announced that he will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery today.

Smith last appeared in a game ten days ago and, until today, it was believed that his injury was minor, like the flexor strain injury he sustained in spring training. Sadly, the news was much worse.

Bill “Spaceman” Lee is running for governor of Vermont

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Bill Lee pitched for the Boston Red Sox from 1969 through 1978 and for the Montreal Expos from 1979 through 1982. He’s far better known, however, for being a weirdo, in the best sense of the term. He was outspoken and controversial and funny and aggravating and above all else his own dude.

His most famous comment as a player was when he said that he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes in order to immunize him from Boston bus fumes as he jogged to Fenway Park. Which is patently silly, as everyone knowns you can’t just sprinkle it. You gotta make butter out of the stuff and spread it on the pancakes. Or so I’m told.

In recent years Lee has alternated gimmicky and celebrity baseball appearances with political aspirations. His political aspirations, of course, have never been conventional either. In 1987, for example, he had announced plans to run for President of the United States for the Rhinoceros Party. Which would’ve been a neat trick as it was a Canadian political party. Still, we could’ve used it here, as its platform was fairly intriguing. The Rhinoceroses advocated, among other things, repealing the law of gravity, legalizing all drugs, privatizing Tim Hortons and giving a rhinoceros for every Canadian Citizen.

That campaign didn’t work out for Lee, sadly, but he is undeterred. And now he plans to run for office again. Governor of Vermont, to be specific. And he plans to soak the rich:

Now, he’s throwing his hat into the race to be Vermont’s next governor shaking off campaign contributions and decrying wealth inequality.

“You get what you pay for, if you want change, you vote for Sanders or me. I’m Bernie-heavy, I’m not Bernie-lite. My ideas were before Bernie,” said Lee. “If you want to see money come down from the 2 percent, we’re going to need umbrellas when I’m elected, because it’s going to be raining dollars,” he said.

This is no Rhinoceros Party joke, though. He’s a member of the Liberty Union party, which is where Bernie Sanders got his start. And his platform — legalization and taxation of pot in Vermont, single-payer health care, paid family leave — are all things which have no small constituency in a liberal state like Vermont.

Oh, he has one other platform plank: bringing the Expos back to Montreal. That may be a bit tougher for the governor of Vermont to do, but we’ll probably see some form of New Expos in Montreal in the next decade or so, and Lee will be proven to be on the right side of history. And that’s better than a lot of our politicians can say, right?