The past few weeks have been relatively unkind to several leading American League Cy Young contenders. Since Aug. 28, Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez and Max Scherzer—the last of whom, at 19--2 with a 2.88 ERA, remains the award's likely winner—have each turned in their worst outing of the season as measured by Game Score, a statistic devised by Bill James that boils the quality of a pitcher's start down to one round number.
This is an article from the Sept. 16, 2013 issue
Meanwhile, in Boston, a slight, 38-year-old relief pitcher who rarely produces a radar-gun reading that begins with a nine has experienced no such recent struggles and has quietly been putting together one of the finest seasons by any reliever in baseball history. Last Friday, Koji Uehara finished off the Red Sox' 12--8 comeback win over the Yankees by striking out Robinson Cano, the five-time All-Star, on three pitches. This was far from a new result for Uehara. Cano represented the 27th consecutive batter that Uehara had retired—a perfect game, as it were, spread over nine appearances. Uehara sheepishly admitted that he could not recall the last man he had faced and failed to get out, and you couldn't blame him. It was the Yankees' Lyle Overbay, three weeks earlier.
Uehara extended another streak against the Yankees—appearances without permitting an earned run. He hasn't allowed one since June 30, a stretch during which he has taken the mound 29 times and completed 31.1 innings. His ERA now stands at 1.12, the best among AL pitchers who have topped 60 innings (Uehara has worked 64.1) by nearly six-tenths of a run, and his walks plus hits per innings pitched—WHIP—is even more impressive. At 0.59 it would break Dennis Eckersley's record of 0.61 among pitchers who have exceeded 50 innings, set in 1990.
In an era in which bullpens are stocked with relievers who trot in and fire pitches that exceed 95 miles an hour, Uehara's fastball averages a mere 89.2, and yet he records outs at a rate that far exceeds even the fiercest fireballer. Only 39 of the 231 batters Uehara has faced this year have reached base, and his strikeout rate of 12.45 per nine also leads the league among pitchers who have exceeded 60 innings.
Uehara's success is as easy to explain as it is difficult to replicate. First, he pitches with control that is virtually unmatched: His 1.26 walks per nine innings leads the AL, and the 1.24 ratio he has established during a five-year major league career that has taken him from Baltimore to Texas to Boston is the lowest for any pitcher since the turn of the century—the 20th century, that is.
Second, he possesses what might be the game's most unhittable pitch, which his teammates refer to as his invisible splitter. Uehara throws his split-fingered fastball roughly 47% of the time, and it is considered to be invisible because it appears to be a regular old heater, until it dives toward home plate—tailing in on righties, and away from lefties, often leaving them weakly swinging a foot or more above the baseball, as happened to Cano on strike three last Friday. This season batters are hitting .101 against Uehara's splitter and slugging .193.
It has been 21 years since a reliever won the AL Cy Young Award, when Eckersley did it in 1991. And though he has 18 saves in 21 chances, Uehara is unlikely to add the award to a personal trophy case that includes the two Sawamura Awards (the Japanese Cy) he earned as a starter for the Yomiuri Giants, not with what Scherzer has done while throwing more than three times as many innings. Still, Uehara is having a season for the ages, and by stabilizing the back end of a bullpen that sustained season-ending injuries to a pair of former All-Star closers, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, he has far outplayed the one-year, $4.25 million free-agent contract the Sox gave him. He deserves, at the least, to be in the Cy Young conversation and even to garner a few votes.
39 of the 231 batters Uehara has faced have reached base
12.45 strikeouts per nine innings, which leads the league
89.2 mph, the average speed of Uehara's fastball
70 days, through Sunday, since Uehara allowed an earned run