Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles

The Uehara Phenomenon


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.

Kyle Schwarber is the feel-good story of the 2016 postseason

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting an RBI single to score Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Most baseball fans and even the Cubs had resigned themselves to most likely not seeing Kyle Schwarber in game action until spring training next year after he suffered a gruesome knee injury in a collision with teammate Dexter Fowler back in early April. Schwarber suffered a fully-torn ACL and LCL in his left leg.

To the surprise of everyone, including manager Joe Maddon, Schwarber was cleared by doctors to play if the Cubs wanted to put him on the World Series roster. So they did. And, boy, are they glad they did it. In preparation, Schwarber saw over 1,000 pitches from machines and pitchers in the Arizona Fall League.

Schwarber essentially crammed for the final exam and unlike most students who do it, it has panned out well thus far. No one was expecting him to look outstanding against Indians ace Corey Kluber in Game 1, but in his first at-bat — his first in the majors since suffering the injury in April — Schwarber worked a 3-1 count before eventually being retired on strikes. Schwarber came back up in the fourth and drilled a Kluber sinker to right field for a two-out double.

In the seventh inning, facing one of the American League’s two scariest left-handed relievers in Andrew Miller, Schwarber worked a full count before drawing a walk. During the regular season, Miller walked exactly one lefty batter. Schwarber made it two. Schwarber would face Miller again in the eighth, going ahead 2-1 before ultimately striking out. He finished 1-for-3 with a walk and a double in the Cubs’ 6-0 loss. Considering the circumstances, that’s amazing.

Schwarber continued his great approach in Game 2 in what turned out to be a 5-1 victory. He struck out against Trevor Bauer in the first inning, but returned to the batter’s box in the third inning and singled up the middle to knock in the Cubs’ second run. Schwarber made it 3-0 in the fifth when he singled up the middle again, this time off of Bryan Shaw, to make it 3-0. Facing Danny Salazar in the sixth, Schwarber drew a four-pitch walk to put runners on first and second base with two outs. Finally, he struck out against Dan Otero in his eighth-inning at-bat, finishing the evening 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles and a walk.

But now, as the Cubs return to Chicago for World Series Games 3, 4, and 5 at Wrigley Field, they have to contest with National League rules, a.k.a. no DH. Will Maddon risk Schwarber’s subpar defense to put his dangerous bat in the lineup? Even if Schwarber is not put in the starting lineup, he can at least serve as a dangerous bat off the bench late in the game when the Indians send out their trio of relievers in Shaw, Miller, and closer Cody Allen. At any rate, what Schwarber has done already in the first two games of the World Series is mighty impressive.

Jake Arrieta flirts with no-hitter, pitches Cubs past Indians 5-1 in World Series Game 2

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gene Puskar - Pool/Getty Images)
Gene Puskar - Pool/Getty Images

Cubs starter Jake Arrieta pitched into the sixth inning before allowing his first hit. Behind his strong performance, the Cubs were able to take down the Indians 5-1 in Game 2 of the World Series to even things up at one game apiece.

Unlike their Game 1 performance against Corey Kluber, the Cubs’ offense was ready early. Kris Bryant singled with one out in the first inning against Indians starter Trevor Bauer and promptly scored when Anthony Rizzo drilled a double down the right field line. The Cubs would score again in the third with a two-out rally as Rizzo walked, then Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber hit consecutive singles to center field, plating one run to make it 2-0.

With Zach McAllister returning to the mound for the fifth after relieving Bauer in the fourth, he walked Rizzo, then gave up a triple to Zobrist. The Cubs continued to press their foot on the gas, with Schwarber hitting another RBI single. After Jason Kipnis committed a fielding error on a Willson Contreras grounder — what should’ve been the final out of the inning — McAllister walked Jorge Soler to load the bases, then walked Addison Russell to force in a run, pushing the Cubs’ lead to 5-0.

Arrieta had a first-inning scare, issuing back-to-back two-out walks, but he escaped the jam and seemed to be on cruise control until the sixth inning. He got Carlos Santana to fly out to lead off the sixth, continuing his no-hit bid, but Kipnis broke it up with a double to right field. After getting Francisco Lindor to ground out, pushing Kipnis to third base, Arrieta uncorked a wild pitch, helping the Indians score their first run of the game. Arrieta then served up a single to Mike Napoli, which proved to be the end of the line. Manager Joe Maddon came out to replace him with lefty Mike Montgomery. Montgomery ended the bottom of the sixth by inducing a weak ground out from Jose Ramirez.

Montgomery struck out the first two batters he faced in the seventh, then got into a bit of hot water by yielding a single to Brandon Guyer, then walking Game 1 hero Roberto Perez. Carlos Santana, however, struck out to end what would be the Indians’ last real chance to get back in the ballgame.

Montgomery remained in the game in the bottom of the eighth. He struck out Kipnis, got Lindor to ground out, then gave up a line drive single to Napoli before Maddon pulled the plug. Closer Aroldis Chapman entered to face Ramirez. As expected, Chapman got Ramirez to whiff on a fastball to send the game to the ninth.

In the bottom of the ninth, Chapman fanned Rajai Davis and got Coco Crisp to ground out for two quick outs. He walked Guyer on five pitches but ended the game as rain drizzled onto Progressive Field by getting Perez to ground out to shortstop.

The World Series is now headed back to Wrigley Field. The two clubs will enjoy a day off on Thursday to travel. Game Three will be played at 8:00 PM EDT on Friday. The Indians will send Josh Tomlin to the hill while the Cubs will counter with Kyle Hendricks.