The last time Koji Uehara was featured here at this time of year, it was 2011, and it was because he was a roster casualty.
Uehara is the ultimate test in one's belief in sample size. Everything he'd done as a major leaguer up until two months ago indicated he was more than a quality reliever -- he was one of the best. But after 18⅓ bad innings, the Rangers aren't sure if he's one of the seven best relievers in their organization at the moment.
It turns out that Uehara was still good! Still good. The answer was "still good." I've had Rangers fans tell me that Uehara was homer-prone that year and out-of-whack in the postseason and … no. Still good. He was bad for about 20 innings, and the Rangers overreacted. Give me five minutes and I'll find 20 innings where Clayton Kershaw looked awful.
This is Uehara now:
That would be the most dominant closer in the eight-team playoff field. He threw 11 pitches on Saturday, all for strikes. The last reliever in the postseason to throw 11 pitches for strikes was Dennis Eckersley in 1990. Eck took the loss there, so that game isn't a perfect comparison. But there's a common thread between Eck and Koji. Those are the only two relievers in history to have 10 strikeouts for every walk in two different seasons:
Now, it's a different era for Uehara, so the raw numbers aren't quite as impressive, but no one else has done what Uehara's done recently, even in our K-happy era. He laps the field when it comes to career strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's a special reliever.
So why did teams mostly ignore him before he became a hot-shot closer?
If there were league-adjusted statistics for how unfairly ignored a player is, Uehara would top the charts. It started before he even threw a major-league pitch. There wasn't exactly a bidding war for him, and the Orioles signed him for two years and a modest $10 million. The reaction in Japan was unusually subdued:
Strangely, Uehara’s agreement with Baltimore hasn’t exactly been front page headline news on the Japanese websites I frequent. Ichiro playing catch got the top billing on Sanspo, while Nikkan Sports and Sponichi had the news buried among other links.
Koji Uehara: Almost as interesting as Ichiro playing catch.
And when he was with the Orioles, he was a closer for just a month-and-a-half, even though his numbers were gaudy. He took over in August 2010, when the rest of the Orioles' bullpen was a mess, but he didn't start 2011 as the closer. He was just one piece of a balanced bullpen.
Uehara was traded to the Rangers at the 2011 deadline, and he allowed four solo homers in August. He was almost perfect in September, but struggled in three playoff appearances. Those struggles led to his absence from the World Series roster. I think about that decision constantly, so I'm guessing Jon Daniels has had second thoughts, too.
That offseason, the Rangers toyed with trading him. They didn't, and he had another excellent season.
After the 2012 season, there was a ton of lukewarm interest in Uehara's free agency. So lukewarm. Inspiringly tepid, even. Jonathan Broxton? Three years, $21 million. Brandon League? Four years, $27.5 million. Rafael Soriano? Two years, $22 million. Koji Uehara got one year and $5 million. Oh, and there's a vesting option for close to the same amount. Basically, it vested if he was awesome. Which he was.
He was the third choice for the Red Sox, too. The Sox paid a premium for both Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan before the last two seasons, looking for a shutdown closer. Their path to the World Series might go through Josh Reddick and Mark Melancon, players they traded away in search of someone like Uehara. Even a smart team like the Red Sox needed to be poked in the eye to recognize how good Uehara could be.
And you know what's going to happen when he's a free agent again? He'll be 40, and everyone's going to be skeptical again.
Don't feel sorry for Uehara or anything. He's not playing for Starbucks gift cards and assorted coupons. He's still well-compensated, and now he's getting a lot of attention. But it took a long time for him to be anything close to a star. That's odd, considering he's been pitching like a star this whole time.
There are odd career paths, and then there's Koji Uehara's career path. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Until right now. So good work turning an undervalued asset into a dominant closer, Red Sox. Even if you kind of tripped over Uehara, that's usually how teams figure out how good he really is. .
For more on Uehara and the Red Sox, please visit Over the Monster