Who is the current closer of the Boston Red Sox? If it took you a few moments to guess, then you are not alone. The answer is Koji Uehara, a 38-year-old journeyman from Japan.
Uehara was drafted by the Yomiuri Giants with their first pick in the 1998 Nippon Professional Baseball Draft. After pitching with the Giants in Japan for 10 years (which included eight Nippon All-Star selections among other awards), he decided to try his hand at American baseball.
The Baltimore Orioles signed Uehara in 2009 as a starter. He began the 2010 season in the bullpen where he remained during his time in Baltimore. In the middle of the 2011 season, he was traded to the Texas Rangers, where he continued to work as a relief pitcher. After the 2012 season, he signed a two-year deal with the Boston Red Sox. The plan was to have him work as a set-up man. However, after season ending injuries to closer, Joel Hanrahan, and his replacement, Andrew Baily, Uehara stepped into the closer role.
Since his arrival as the Red Sox closer in 2013, Uehara has been untouchable. He recorded 21 saves, the majority of which came between July and September. Among pitchers with a minimum of 27 appearances, his 1.09 ERA ranked fourth in Major League Baseball. His 73 appearances were seventh in the American League.
Between his appearances from July 6th to September 17th, Uehara did not allow a run (both earned and unearned). During that stretch, he retired 37 consecutive batters and pitched 29 scoreless innings.
Why is Uehara so successful this season? Part of Uehara’s dominance comes from his control. His fastball sits in the high 80s to low 90s region. Despite these seemingly average radar gun readings, he finished with 1.36 strikeouts per inning, an amazing statistic when you consider that his walks average out to .12 per inning. One might ask how that is possible, when Major League hitters are geared to hit fastballs. One reason is that as a former starter, Uehara could still has the mindset that he will be facing batters more than one time in a game. Therefore, he needs to be creative with how he gets hitters out. This involves throwing different pitches at differing speeds, something Uehara does very effectively, which contributes to the .130 batting average against him. Also, as a five-year veteran of the Major Leagues (and 15 year veteran of professional baseball), Uehara is very experienced, which aids him in coming out of the bullpen and how he pitches certain hitters.
Sometimes, it takes serendipitous moments for someone to make his or her mark. For Uehara and the Red Sox, this happy accident could not have turned out any better. As long as the Red Sox remain in the playoffs, they have a lockdown closer in Uehara.
Statistics taken from baseball-reference.com and MLB.com and are current as of 10/16/13.