Koji Uehara and dominance

The Red Sox are back in town to face the Yankees in a four-game series. Both teams have struggled in the early part of the season, they’re both 4-5, but it is still too early to make any judgments.

You probably know Koji Uehara. Well, you know of him. He became the Red Sox closer after they acquired him in December 2012. It’s in my nature to dislike the Red Sox, and I still haven’t adapted to seeing Jacoby Ellsbury in a Yankee uniform, but I’ve always liked Uehara. It’s hard not to after this happened.

The other day I was perusing Uehara’s stats (as one does) and came across some interesting findings. Last year, Uehara had the lowest single-season WHIP for any pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched. What does this mean? It means that, in 2013, Uehara was harder to reach base against than any pitcher in the history of baseball.

And, since the middle of last season, he has probably had the most dominant stretch for any relief pitcher in the history of baseball.

Since June 10th of last year, here are his stats, inclusive of the postseason and the first week of 2014:

68 2/3 innings, 25 hits allowed, 3 earned runs, 3 walks, 90 strikeouts

OK, let’s break this down.

68 2/3 innings, about a full season for a relief pitcher

25 hits allowed. Yes, just 25. That’s an average of 3.3 hits per 9 innings.

3 earned runs allowed. 3! That’s a 0.39 ERA.

3 walks. 3! How?

90 strikeouts. That’s 11.8 per 9 innings.

The best players in the world are hitting to the tune of .110/.121/.162 in a fairly large sample size. His WHIP over that time is an otherworldly 0.408. This is not normal. The MLB average last year was 1.300.

It’s also worth pointing out that he is 38 years old.

Uehara doesn’t throw particularly hard. His fastball last year averaged 89.2 mph, below the leave average. His split-fingered fastball is about 81 mph. I think what it comes down to is that Uehara’s pitches move well WITHIN the strike zone. In 2013, 31.1% of his pitches in the strike zone were swung on and missed, the highest in baseball.

Here’s the thing. It’s hard for major league pitchers to limit hits AND limit walks. In many ways, you can’t because, to an extent, pitching is a zero-sum game. If you are a pitcher with a low walk rate, then you normally throw more strikes and allow more balls in play. If you have a high walk rate, you normally give up fewer hits but you also tend to strike a lot of guys out. Here are two examples:

Nolan Ryan, 1972: 284 innings, 166 hits allowed, 177 walks, 329 strikeouts
Bret Saberhagen, 1994: 177 innings, 169 hits allowed, 13 walks, 143 strikeouts

In ’72, Ryan set the all-time record for fewest hits per nine innings, but he also had 177 walks. In ’94, Saberhagen set a record with a SO/BB ratio of 11.00, but he allowed a lot of hits. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.*

*Am I using this correctly? I don’t know. Replace have your cake with ‘limit hits’ and eat it with ‘limit walks.’

But Uehara has done just that. Since June 10th, Uehara has allowed 3.3 hits per nine innings and has a 30 SO/BB ratio. These numbers eclipse Ryan AND Saberhagen. This is a new level of dominance. And yes, relief pitchers are more likely to have these type of numbers, and they don’t qualify for rate stats, but it is still remarkable.

This, of course, got me thinking about relief pitchers and dominant stretches. Here are a few that stand out:

Mariano Rivera. Well, Rivera had a few dominant stretches:

4/1/08 – 6/4/08: 26 IP, 11 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 26 SO, 0.35 ERA

5/9/05 – 7/30/05: 34 2/3 IP, 13 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 39 SO, 0.26 ERA

7/20/99 – 10/2/99: 32 2/3 IP, 16 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 30 SO, 0.28 ERA

Postseason, career: 141 IP, 86 H, 13 R, 11 ER, 21 BB, 110 SO, 0.70 ERA

Dennis Eckersley. Eck won the Cy Young and the MVP in 1990, helped primarily by this awesome stretch:

6/5/90 – 10/2/90: 50 2/3 IP, 27 H, 7 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 49 SO, 0.54 ERA

Eric Gagne. Converted every single save opportunity and won the Cy Young in 2003. Here was his best stretch:

7/4/03 – 9/27/03: 41 1/3 IP, 16 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 10 BB, 66 SO, 0.22 ERA

And then there was Orel Hersheiser in 1988 … and yes, Hersheiser wasn’t a relief pitcher, but it gives me an excuse to tell a great baseball story. In late August, Hersheiser started an amazing streak of consecutive scoreless innings. In September, he threw FIVE consecutive shutouts. He entered his final start needing 9 more innings to tie Don Drysdale’s record of 58 consecutive scoreless innings, which Drysdale set in 1968. On the last day of the season, Hersheiser did just that, shutting the Padres out over nine innings. But the Dodgers didn’t score, so the game went to extras. This led to an all-time great quote from manager Tommy LaSorda. “Orel didn’t want to go out there for the 10th inning. I said to him, ‘You get your ass out there and break the record.'”*

So on the final day of the season, a reluctant Hersheiser trotted out for a tenth inning of work and broke the record. And then he led the Dodgers to the World Series. He gave up a run on Opening Day of 1989, so the streak ended there at 59 innings (he also gave up runs in the postseason, but that doesn’t count toward the streak). No one has come particularly close since. Here were Hersheiser’s stats:

59 IP, 31 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 10 BB, 38 SO, 0.00 ERA

And, for comparison, Don Drysdale in 1968:

58 IP, 28 H, 0 R, 0 ER 10 BB, 45 SO

*A similar thing happened to Nolan Ryan in 1973 when he was with the Angels. On the final day of the season, he was 15 strikeouts short of Sandy Koufax’s all-time single season record of 382. It’s hard to strike out 15 guys in a game, but Ryan was so dominant that year and after nine innings he had struck out … 15. Except the game was tied, 4-4, so it went to extra innings, and Ryan trotted in the 10th needing one more strikeout. He couldn’t get one in the tenth. Then the game went to the 11th, and with two outs Ryan struck out Rich Reese to set the all-time record. In the bottom of the 11th, the immortal Richie Scheinblum hit a game-winning double. And that’s how the season ended. Pretty cool.

**

Anyway, back to Uehara. Sorry, we got a bit off topic there. There have been other great stretches of pitching in baseball history, but the way Uehara has done it has been unique. Few hits, few walks, a lot of strikeouts, low velocity, 38 years old. It’s difficult to explain why things like this happen. It’s a bit of a mystery. But sometimes a little mystery makes for a good story.

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