What’s wrong with Koji Uehara, how do the Red Sox fix him and how much money do they offer him in the offseason? If any?
There are more questions about Uehara than recent home runs he has thrown, which after Thursday’s latest one-two at Yankee Stadium, is saying something.
The game-tying and game-losing home runs made Thursday the fifth time in the last sixth games Uehara has been scored on and the third time in the last five games he’s not only blown a save but also the game.
Uehara’s ERA was 1.27 on Aug. 15 after the last of 13 straight scoreless appearances; it’s 19.27 in the 4.2 innings he’s pitched over the last three weeks and more than doubled to 2.64 in the three weeks since.
Uehara has allowed as many runs in that span as he did in all of 2013, postseason included. Charles Pierce wrote about “the joy of watching Koji” last October; that’s been replaced by the dread of watching him this year.
The Sox’s only answer is to suggest that Uehara is fatigued after a long 2013 and the solution is to end his season. Maybe. Uehara pitched 88 innings last season, the most in his career, and 61.1 this year; Yankees setup man Delin Betances has thrown 81 this year with a month left in the season, although he may not have to worry about the postseason.
It may be that Uehara is fatigued, and maybe he shouldn’t pitch again this season.
But its also possible the Koji is tired narrative gives Uehara an alibi, and it’s just as likely the Sox have no more idea how to get him to stop throwing home runs than they do in starting Jackie Bradley Jr. to hit.
What mostly goes unmentioned in the woe of Koji is that the home run binge is not unprecedented. Ask a Rangers fan, if you can find one, and they can explain.
In 2011 Uehara pitched 65 innings and threw 11 home runs, a pace slightly faster even than this year’s (10 in 61.1). And the last two months of 2011 were worse. Traded by Baltimore to Texas at the deadline, he pitched 18 innings and allowed five home runs for the Rangers, then got four outs and threw three more home runs in the postseason.
That’s 18 home runs in 19.1 innings. Forget about fatigue. Uehara was more likely to get hurt jerking a muscle in frustration at one of the many home runs. With a postseason ERA of 34.61, the Rangers shut down Uehara for the season by leaving him off their World Series roster.
(Uehara helped build winners for not one, but two AL East teams — the Red Sox in 2013 obviously; and the Orioles. In return for Uehara, the Rangers traded Chris Davis, who’s hit 111 home runs for Baltimore over the last three seasons, and reliever Tommy Hunter, who’s had a 3.04 ERA over the last two seasons. Ironically, the very first home run Uehara allowed in MLB was as an Oriole to the Rangers’ Davis in 2009. Davis hasn’t hit one off Uehara since. It’s the kind of trade, like last year’s deal for Matt Garza, which explains why the Rangers have baseball’s worst record at 53-87 and have used 63 players.)
Uehara did miss part of 2012 to a non-arm injury, but was very good when he did pitch, which is why the Red Sox signed him.
Last year, Uehara threw 1,049 pitches in the regular season and another 169 in the playoffs — his 1,218 pitches total were 49 less than Fernando Rodney threw for the Rays or 117 less than Kenley Jansen threw for the Dodgers. Like Uehara, both are closers; unlike Uehara, no one is suggesting they’re fatigued. Yes, Uehara is 39, but Rodney is 37.
Uehara has always been something of a thrill-seeker in his six-year MLB career. He’s allowed almost as many home runs (42) as he has walks (46); in 347.1 innings, one of those is a good ratio and one is not. What made him exceptional in 2013 is that he contained the former while maintaining the latter. In the 88 innings he pitched in 2013, he allowed just six home runs — a career-best ratio — and walked only nine.
(The last home run Uehara allowed in 2013 was the game-winner to Tampa Bay’s Jose Lobaton in Game 3 of the ALDS. There was at least one Sox fan in whom that triggered a paranoiac fear of a flashback to the 2011 Koji, which proved unwarranted. He came back to get a four-out save in Game 4 and finished the postseason with 12 scoreless, homerless, walkless innings. He allowed only six baserunners, one of whom he picked off to end Game 4 of the World Series).
The Sox have insisted they want to re-sign Uehara despite his age and despite the last three weeks, which they consider an “outlier.” Maybe the Sox should wonder if 2013 is as much of an outlier as 2014, if not more.
Uehara is the antithesis of his countryman and former Red Sox pitcher Daiseke Matsuzaka, who seemingly threw a dozen pitches to get three strikes.
Uehara throws strikes. And sometimes, as the last three weeks have been a stark reminder, batters hit strikes.