2009 O’s Retrospective: Koji Uehara

In part fifteen of my almost 50 part series “Better Know An Oriole” (otherwise known as 2009 Orioles Retrospective), I take a look at Japanese right-hander Koji Uehara… THE FIGHTIN’ STRIKE-THROWER!

The O’s made their first foray into the Japanese market this past off-season, signing the 34 year-old right-handed pitcher and former two-time winner of the Eiji Sawmura award (for best starter). Uehara pitches as a reliever in Japan last year, and that’s the role most MLB teams saw him in.  The O’s were willing to put him in their rotation though, and thus were able to acquire his services.  I only projected Koji to pitch 150 innings with a merely OK 4.70 ERA, but really liked the signing.

The concerns with Uehara were that he didn’t have the stamina to start and pitch a decent number of innings, and that his flyball tendencies would lead to a lot of home runs – especially pitching at Camden Yards.  On the other hand, he was supposed to be a smart, veteran pitcher with excellent control. That all turned out to be pretty correct.

Koji only pitched 66.2 innings due to varies injuries, being placed on the DL earlier in the year with a hamstring strain and then making his last start in June before being finished for the year with an elbow injury. He finished with a 2-4 record, but a 4.05 ERA and a 3.56 FIP.  He did an OK job striking out batter (6.5 K/9) and displayed some of the best control in the league (1.6 BB/9).  His 0.95 HR/9 was better than anticipated – especially given his extreme flyball tendencies (his 52.6% FB rate would have been one of the highest in baseball) – but normalizing the very low 6.2% HR/FB rate would give an expected FIP of 4.75 according to The Hardball Times.

Koji was a guy I enjoyed watching pitch, since he threw strikes (first-pitch strike over 68% of the time, compared to an average of 58%) and had stuff that you don’t see too often in the majors.  The pitch-classification system that FanGaphs uses is kind of a mess for him, showing three different kinds of fastballs, a change-up, a curveball, and a slider – I’ll try to make sense of it the best I can. The fastball comes in around 87.5 mph, and has pretty good tail but not much sink on it. Sometimes he’ll cut it a bit, resulting in less tail (remember, the fastball moves towards a right-handed batter) but a little more sink.  Other times he’ll go to a two-seamer, resulting in more tail and also a little more sink. Koji’s bread-and-butter pitch is his splitter, which comes in about 7 mph slower than the fastball, but has more tail and a lot more drop. I heard that he threw a few change-ups, but they’re likely mixed in with the splitters (similar speed and movement) with them all being categorized as change-ups. Just to give batters a different look, occasionally Koji would mix in a breaking-ball (slider or curve) that moved away from right-handed batters and was either the same speed as the splitter (slider: 81.2 mph) or much, much slower (curveball: 69.1 mph). That is surely a lot of things for the batter to keep in mind, but generally (over 90% of the time, split evenly amongst the two) you were either going to see a fastball or a pitch that looks exactly like a fastball but is slower and sinks more.

And batters seemed to have as hard of a time with it as one would expect, chasing 30.6% of pitches out of the zone (to an average of about 25%) and not making great contact (58%; average of 61%). I guess the pitches in the zone looked hittable too (swing rate of 70%; average of 67%), but they didn’t make a lot of contact there either (78%; average of 81%). The combination of throwing lots of strikes (that aren’t easy to make contact with) and getting guys to chase (and still not make a lot of contact) is probably what helped Uehara maintain a decent strike-out rate despite less than blazing stuff.

Overall, FanGraphs had Uehara as producing 1.6 Wins Above Replacement (worth $7.4 M, which is more than the $5 M he was paid). Interestingly, his xFIP of 4.75 is very close to my projected ERA (really FIP) of 4.70, and his actual WAR of 1.6 was very close to my projected WAR of 1.5 – and yet I was off on his innings by 85 due to bad luck (injuries) and his actual FIP by 1.15 due to good luck (low HR/FB). So I was right for the right reasons were it didn’t count (FIP, xFIP) and right for the wrong reasons were it did count (WAR).

When healthy, Koji was the O’s best starter.  It sounds like the team isn’t going to put him in the rotation next year, instead moving him back to the bullpen. If the team was willing to think outside the box a little, that could be a very good move – using Uehara for 3-4 innings at a time (100+ innings for the year, assuming health), where he could be effective without wearing down and help take pressure off the rest of the pen.  I look forward to just seeing him back on the mound, in any case.

Photo by Keith Allison and used under the Creative Commons License 2.0.