AL EastAnalysis

Koji Uehara & the 2013 Red Sox: A Year of Unexpected Dominance

Koji Uehara was a special pitcher. He made his Major League debut in 2009 at the spry, young age of 34. After nine seasons with the NPB’s Yomiuri Giants, he came to the United States to join the Orioles. Koji was a starter for the Orioles in his first season. He was successful in this role, posting a 113 ERA+ over 66.2 innings while appearing in 12 games, all as the starter. He never started another game in the big leagues, as he was transitioned into a bullpen role for the 2010 season. He was even given some closing opportunities, as in his 43 appearances, he finished 22 games and earned 13 saves. Koji had established himself as a quality Major League pitcher.

At the trade deadline in the following season, the Orioles traded Koji to the Pennant bound Texas Rangers for Texas’ Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. It is difficult for a trade that includes such high profile players as Davis and Uehara to be as insignificant as this one was at the time. When the trade was made, Tommy Hunter had the highest career bWAR out of the group. He had 4 career bWAR. After a season and a half in Texas, Koji signed a contract in Boston, where he would later cement his legacy as a postseason legend in October of 2013.

The 2013 Red Sox were an interesting team. They were recovering from a last place season in which they were managed by Bobby Valentine. To replace their fired manager, they recruited former pitching coach, John Farrell. They also brought in a myriad of 30-something free agents, alongside Koji, in hopes of injecting some new life into a team coming off of very disappointing seasons in each of the last two years. This included outfielders Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino, pitcher Ryan Dempster, and infielders Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli, among others. 

These additions were not seen as the impact moves they would later become. As a result, Bleacher Report projected a second straight last place season for the Red Sox in their preseason predictions. Who can blame them? I do not see many high predictions of the last place Tigers after bringing in Jonathan Schoop, CJ Cron, and Ivan Nova. Were the 2012 Red Sox as bad as the 2019 Tigers? No. But they were both last place teams who signed some middling major league talent in the offseason. For the Red Sox, this lead to a World Series Championship. For the Tigers? Well, we’ll have to wait and see on that one, but there’s a reason that Vegas has them pegged to win under 50 games.

Despite the low preseason hopes, the Red Sox got off to a hot start. Entering play on Monday, April 15th, they sat at 7-4 and had a 1 game lead in the American League East. On that Monday, as the Red Sox were preparing for a road trip to Cleveland after celebrating a Mike Napoli walk off double to push them to 8-4, tragedy struck the city of Boston, as two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The Red Sox felt it was their duty to be a light for a city in mourning. They knew they could serve as a distraction from all that was wrong in the world. They had more on the line than any other team in the league. The players said themselves that after that they were no longer teammates. They were family. The team played the rest of the season with a jersey hung up in the dugout with “Boston Strong” written across the back and with the number 617 – Boston’s area code. Later that year, Jonny Gomes would get off of his duck boat during the World Series parade at the marathon finish line, place the Commissioner’s Trophy on the line, and drape the jersey over it. That moment was the culmination of a truly great season in Boston; A season manufactured out of tragedy.

However, it was not all smooth sailing for the Red Sox team. They had one apparent Achilles’ heel in the early parts of the season: the bullpen. Both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey got a shot at the closing duties, and both ultimately lost the position through a combination of poor performance and injuries. This eventually left the role of closer in the hands of Koji, who got the job at the end of June. And oh boy did he excel. 

In 74.1 innings, Koji posted a 1.09 ERA, 21 saves, and struck out 101 batters. This gave him an ERA+ of 379, which is outstanding. It would be outstanding for any pitcher in any sized body of work, but both of these things work against Koji here. As mentioned, he threw 74.1 innings that year. This was the 18th highest total among all relievers in 2013. He was also 38 years old. A thirty-eight year old man prevented runs at a historic rate in an abundant work load. Such dominance at such an advanced age is unheard of. Here is a list of players to post an ERA+ of 200 or more in their age 38 season or older, sorted by most innings pitched.

Hoyt Wilhelm89.02301967
Marv Grissom80.22431956
Doug Jones80.12321997
Mike Timlin80.12032005
Koji Uehara74.13792013
Mariano Rivera70.23162008
Billy Wagner69.12752010
Mariano Rivera66.12622009
Russ Springer66.02022007
Joe Nathan64.22972013

While Koji is not at the top of this list, his ERA+ blows everyone above him out of the water. No pitcher in the history of major league baseball has been as dominant at run prevention while being as old as Koji Uehara in 2013. Such a mark stands out among all pitchers, regardless of age. Below is a list of players with an ERA+ of 350 or greater, again sorted by innings pitched.

Tim Burke91.03561987
Blake Treinen80.15252018
Chris Hammond76.04412002
Fernando Rodney74.26412012
Koji Uehara74.13792013

Koji dominated in terms of run prevention. Few have done so as effectively in as many innings. The way he did this was simple. He prevented runners from scoring by preventing runners from reaching base at all. His WHIP, which is particularly important for closers given that they are often in situations with no room for error, was a mind-boggling 0.565. Zero point five six five. Five hundred and sixty five thousandths. That is really good. Below is a list of pitcher seasons in which a pitcher’s WHIP was .600 or lower, sorted by the most innings pitched.

Koji Uehara74.1.5652013
Sean Doolittle45.0.6002018
Mike Adams37.0.5952009
Ed Cushman36.0.3611884
Sergio Santos25.2.5842013
Steve Howe22.0.5451992

Since 1885, the pitcher with the most innings to match or beat Koji’s 2013 WHIP, was Steve Howe, as shown above. Steve Howe pitched in less than 30% of the innings that Koji did. Simply reaching first base was a tremendous accomplishment itself against Koji. Every pitcher in history to prevent baserunners as effectively as Koji did was only able to do so in less than half as many innings as Koji.

Above is a graph of the 200 best single season WHIPs, plotted by innings pitched in the season, with a minimum of 20 innings pitched (data is through the end of the 2018 season). Being up and to the left is desirable on this graph, as the higher up you are, the more innings you threw, and the farther left you are, the lower your WHIP was. If there are no dots above and left of a given dot, then that means that nobody in baseball history allowed baserunners as a lower rate in as many innings as the season represented by that dot. All of these seasons are in a unique color on the above graph. Here is a list of these seasons:

Christy Mathewson&390.20.8271908Yellow
Ed Walsh&369.20.8201910Orange
Walter Johnson*&346.00.7801913Green
Pedro Martinez**&217.00.7372000Teal
Clayton Kershaw149.00.7252016Blue
Eric Gagne**82.10.6922003Dark Blue
Koji Uehara74.10.5652013Red
Ed Cushman360.3611884Purple
  • & denotes HOF inductee
  • * denotes won MVP in given season
  • ** denotes won Cy Young Award in given season

So within this group of seasons there are four hall of famers, a future first ballot electee in Clayton Kershaw, Eric Gagne, who won the Cy Young as a reliever in the relevant season, Koji Uehara, and a man who was born under the presidency of Millard Fillmore (1852) and died before women had the right to vote in the United States (1915). These are historically great seasons, and the men who accomplished them were at the peak of the game and their careers when they did so. Mathewson’s 1908 WAR total (11.7) is nearly two wins greater than his next best season. Walsh’s 1910 campaign is essentially tied with his 1912 in terms of most WAR (11.1 and 11.4, respectively). Walter Johnson’s 1913 season has the highest single season WAR total for any pitcher post 1900 (15.1). Pedro’s 2000 season, like Mathewson’s has nearly a 2 WAR lead on his next best season (11.7 and 9.8 respectively). Clayton Kershaw’s 2016 was his best season by ERA+, but was cut short due to injuries. Eric Gagne’s 2003 was his best season by both WAR and ERA+, and it saw him take him his only Cy Young award. Koji’s 2013 in on this list with not only all time great pitchers in MLB history, but it stands with the best seasons of these pitchers. If there was a Hall of Fame for single seasons, Koji’s would go in on the first ballot, and would be knocking on the door of unanimity. It is arguably the greatest single season by a reliever ever. He was simply untouchable. He was the best reliever that I have had the privilege to watch in my lifetime, and I cannot say for certain that I’ll ever see anyone do it as well as Koji did.

Splits are a fun piece of baseball statistics. They look at a player’s performance within certain parameters. They can help tell a story that might not be present in a player’s overall stats. Maybe a guy crushes right handed pitching but is useless against southpaws (see: 2019 Joc Pederson) or maybe a guy really excels at hitting in his home ballpark. Koji’s splits are as fun as anybodies. OPS+ is a statistic that normalizes a hitters OPS to his run scoring environment. By definition, 100 is league average. sOPS+ is very similar, but it is for a particular split. For instance, if a hitter has a 100 sOPS+ at home, that means that relative to how other hitters perform in their own home ballpark, he is exactly average. For pitchers, we can look at sOPS+ allowed to get an idea of how well (or in Koji’s case, not well) hitters fared against a particular pitcher in a particular split.

One of the most often looked at splits in platoon splits. In general, hitters will hit better against pitchers of the opposite hand, and hit worse against pitchers of the same handedness. Koji, however, had reverse splits. While he dominated everybody in his path, lefties stood absolutely no chance. Against lefties that year, Koji allowed an sOPS+ of -6 (30 against righties). This should serve as a friendly reminder not only of Koji’s dominance, but also of the fact that + stats can actually go negative. It just requires some truly extreme performance. Koji achieved this by holding his left handed opponents to a putrid slash line of .115/.153/.185 for an OPS of .338. He allowed just 21 left handed hitters to reach base all season.

I briefly touched on Koji’s path to the closer role earlier. It was not his to begin with. He started the year as just a relief pitcher. After Hanrahan and Bailey failed to lock down the 9th inning, the job fell to Koji. By late June, Koji was the defacto closer. While he managed 8 saves in the first half in his limited time as the closer, he truly flourished in an unbelievable second half of the season. After the All-Star Break (to which he was not invited), Koji pitched 32 innings. He had an ERA of 0.28. He allowed one earned run for the entire second half of the season. He allowed just 10 men to even reach first base (9 hits and 1 walk). This resulted in a WHIP of 0.313. His K/BB ratio was an astronomical 41.0 K/BB. Opposing batters slashed a pathetic .087/.095/.136, for an OPS of .231. In the second half of 2013, Uehara held hitters to an OPS lower than the career batting average of Chris Davis (.234), who is famously bad at hitting for average.

Outside of 2013, Koji had a good but ultimately insignificant career. In 2014 he earned his sole all star selection. He is not going to receive any kind of serious Hall of Fame support. He won’t even appear on the ballot as he failed to reach the 10 year minimum requirement, despite playing until he was 42. He was never a bad pitcher. In any given season, his ERA+ never fell below 111 (2017, his final season), and his career mark of 162 is phenomenal. Just a few years from now, if it hasn’t happened already, Koji will be lost to time for most of the baseball world. That makes me sad. His 2013 campaign deserves to be celebrated. It was quite possibly the most dominant stretch of any pitcher ever.

Featured Photo: Twitter/Red Sox

Matt O'Halloran

CS Student at UMass Lowell; Analytics for UML Baseball; Twitter: @matto20

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