(Note: stats are updated at the end of streak below)
Yu Darvish is leading MLB with 240 strikeouts as of today (that is now the most in a season by Japanese pitcher, with passed Hideo Nomo’s 236 in 1995) and Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda are both having an excellent year. But another Japanese pitcher is having excellent season this year for the Boston Red Sox: Koji Uehara.
Koji Uehara pitched a perfect 9th inning Tuesday night (September 3, 2013) and Friday night (Sept. 5) to record his 17th and 18th save of the season. It was his 7th game in the row where he had perfect relief and he has retired his last 24 batters faced. Last hit against him came on August 17, Lyle Overbay of N.Y. Yankees double in the 9th, and he has been perfect since. According to Red Sox Game Notes, this (7 save tries) is now the longest streak of perfect save tries in Red Sox history, passing Jeff Russell (May 12 through June 13, 1993). He has been perfect in 16 of his 18 saves this year. That is amazing. He just makes it look easy.
On top of that, Uehara has not allowed a run for almost 2 full month. Last run against him came on July 6th against L.A. Angels. he has not allowed a run in his last 26.0 inning, which the longest scoreless streak of his career, including NPB. It is the longest streak by a Red Sox since Daniel Bard went 26.1 IP from May 27 through July 31, 2011.
Besides that, he is becoming one of the fan favorite in Boston, capturing Red Sox fans’ heart with his enthusiastic fist pumps and high fives after the save.
Ueahara was acutually recruited — and reportedly close to be sigining — by the then California Angels as a 19-year-old college student (Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences) before going to be signed by Yomiuri Giants in 1998 draft (the same year Daisuke Matsuzaka was selected to go to Seibu Lions). He caught international scouts’ eyes in college with his success in international competitions. In 1997, as a Junior, he struck out 14 in U.S.-Japan 26th annual international collegiate friendly series. That same year, Japan stunned the world by winning 1997 Intercontinental Cup. They beat Cuba in the final, who had not lost an internantinal event for 15 years — 151 straight, since 1982. And guess who pitched that game? Koji Uehara. He started the game, went 5 1/3 inning with allowing just one solo home run to get a win.
The Yomiuri Giants had been scouting Uehara since his second year in college and even with “Daisuke Mania” that swpt Japan, they never wavered their faith in him. It was Uehara’s wish to be drafted by the Giants, and they did.
Uehara had a very successful career in Japanese baseball. Had Career ERA of 3.01 in the span of 10 seasons winning 112 games, while losing only 62. He was a closer in 2007, saved 32 games while posting 1.74 ERA.
Here are his Japanese numbers from Open source Japanese Baseball Database.
[UPDATE September 18]
Last night against the Baltimore Orioles, Koji Uehara’s streak came to an end, but what a streak. Following information is mostly from the Game Notes from last night. (link to pdf)
Uehara has retired each of his last 37 batters faced, which was the longest stretch of consecutive batters retired by a Red Sox pitcher in club history according to SABR (previously, 32 by Ellis Kinder in 1952 was the longest). It was just 4 shy of longest such stretch by a reliever in MLB history, longest was 41 batters by Bobby Jenks (White Sox) in 2007, and just 8 batters shy of the all-time MLB record (Mark Buehrle, 45 in 2009).
As for Japanese players, Uehara’s 37 passed previous longest by Hideo Nomo‘s 31 batters, set in 2001, also with the Boston Red Sox.
Uehara also had not allowed a run till last night, for his last 30.1 innings pitched. It is the longest scoreless streak in MLB this season (passing Colorado Rockirs Rex Brothers, 30.0 IP, April 10 – June27), the longest in a season in the AL in 5 years (OAK’s Brad Zeigler, 39.0 IP, in 2008), and the longest singleseason scoreless streak for a Sox reliever since Dick Radatz’s 33.0-inning stretch from May 13 through June 14, 1963.
It is the longest by Japanese players. Previsouly, Seattle Mariners’ Shigetoshi Hasegawa held the longest, going 28.2 IP without a run from June 3 to August 17 in 2003. Hasegawa went 25 games without being scored, Uehara passed it by going 27 games, beginning 7/9, the longest consecutive scoreless outings streak in the Red Sox history. The previous mark was Daniel Bard’s 25-game streak in 2011.
What is amazing about Koji Uehara is his ability to get people swing and miss on his split (or it was known as “fork ball” back in Japan, but most of Japanese article written online now refer to his pitch as “split,” “splitter” or “split finger fastball”)
Let’s take a look at Brooksbaseball.net, a wonderful tool for pitch f/x analysis by Dan Brooks and Harry Pavilidis. Look at the pitch breakdown this year. As of time of writing, he has 4 pitches, he mostly relyes on two, 4-seamer and splitter.
(Note: total number may be more. This is at time of writing. but you get the point.)
- 432 four seam
- 441 split
- 3 curve
- 49 cutter
And look at his Whif counts! That is number of swings and misses he gets on his pitches.
- 60 four seam
- 120 split (!)
- 0 curve
- 7 cutter
So more than 4 in 1 time, (whiff percentage: 27.2%) major leaguers are swinging and missing his splitter. That’s amaing.
That is deception at work. The batter think it is a fastball, and swing (they swing at 61% of his splitters, 50.23% 4-seam) and missing most of time. Here are the differences in his fastball and splitter.
Velocity: One thing that is unique about Uehara is his fast ball is not that fast. Unlike other closers, who are typically “flame throwers” or “fire baller”, his fast ball is only 89.94 miles an hour. But it is effective because his splitter is 81.71 m.p.h., or 8 miles an hour difference.
Movement: His fourseam fastball drops 5.4 inches (average), but splitter drops much more at 6.84 inches (average).
This works because his two pitches are almost identical to the batter, until it leaves his hand (different groip). Deception at work. His pitching form, his arm slot (or arm angle) and release point are very similar. Pitch f/x provide numbers for his release points. Here is the look at the vertical and horizontal release point data (where he release the ball). Almost identical. Amazing consistency.
- fourseam: 6.10 vert -1.26 hori
- splitter 6.04 vert -1.25 hori
Uehara has been perfect in 17 of 19 saves this year. The Red Sox have 10 games to play, and they are on the verge of clinching a spot in the post season for the first time since 2007. Magic number to clinch the AL East is 3. The Sox have not won division since 2007. Looking forward to seeing what Uehara does in the postseason.