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Heath Hembree, Koji Uehara, and Fungible Relievers

I dive into comparing Koji Uehara and Heath Hembree, simply because I’m fondly remembering one of the most dominant Sox relievers of the past decade.

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox
This guy isn’t so bad.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On December 14th, 2016, Koji Uehara signed with the Chicago Cubs, thus ending his tenure as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

At the time, the word “disappointed” didn’t really cover how many felt. Uehara had only been in Boston for four years, but he had institutionalized himself as the premier Red Sox reliever in his brief stay. In his first season with the team, the Sox won the World Series. He became the team’s closer earlier that year, in late June, taking over for pitchers like Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan.

Texas Rangers v Boston Red Sox
Yeah, Andrew Bailey was a thing in 2013. He presently pitches for the Angels.
Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Sox wouldn’t win another World Series with Uehara, though he returned to the playoffs last year with the team. All told, Koji Uehara finished his Red Sox career in style. With 291 strikeouts in 226 innings, eye-popping peripheral numbers (his .810 WHIP in Boston is insane over a four year spread, for reference Craig Kimbrel has a WHIP of .630 this season. Chris Sale has a .931), and a penchant for high-fives, Uehara had endeared himself to Bostonians.

When the Red Sox acquired Tyler Thornburg, to serve as their long-term 7th/8th inning guy (something that has not come to fruition, what with his being injured and all), the writing on the wall was clear. Koji Time in Boston was finished. His spot was taken.

Uehara signed a 1-year deal worth 6 million dollars with the Cubs, and that was that. Koji was a Cub. The Red Sox would have to make do without.

Division Series - Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox - Game Three
It’s not hard to remember just how dominant Koji Uehara was in Boston. He is definitely missed, and thanked for his excellence.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

How does this all tie into Heath Hembree, though? Heath Hembree, of course, was acquired close to the trade deadline in 2014. The lone remaining piece of the Jake Peavy deal (Edwin Escobar is playing in Japan), Hembree never quite got a lot of love, having been a largely marginal player at the time of the trade. Entering the 2017 season, his Red Sox career had been bumpy. He had a 3.13 ERA, and roughly average peripherals (9.1 H/9, 1.3 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9, 7.1 K/9).

For all the good Koji Uehara had provided, Heath Hembree was on the 2017 Sox roster, and Uehara was not. Mind, Uehara turned 42 in April, whereas Hembree had turned 28 in January. Uehara is making 6 million this year. Hembree is making $547,000 (roughly 9% of the former’s contract).

This is important to note, because keeping Hembree (as opposed to trading him off and trying to find room for Uehara) freed up around 5.45 million dollars, with which to make other additions, and stay under the luxury tax threshold (which I shouldn’t have to explain is rather important thanks to the new CBA rules).

Should we keep Koji Uehara, it’s very possible Eduardo Nunez or Addison Reed never find their way to Boston, with their combined salaries for 2017 totaling just under 12 million dollars (the Sox are not on the hook for all 12 million, nor do all 12 million count toward the LT threshold is my understanding). With how good Nunez has been, that would have been rather upsetting. By that same coin, don’t judge Reed by his ERA. Outside of the one disaster game against the Yankees, Reed has allowed 2 earned runs in 9.1 innings (a 1.98 ERA).

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox
Addison Reed probably never suits up for the Sox if not for the decision to let Koji Uehara walk.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Additionally, while keeping Uehara would have possibly prevented these moves, he hasn’t been justifiably better than Hembree, either. In a vacuum, I still choose Uehara, but Hembree hasn’t been that far behind (if at all) in 2017. Hindsight being what it is, it appears the Sox made both the best business move, and best baseball move by letting Koji Uehara walk.

In 2017, Koji Uehara’s numbers have not been as kind as his Red Sox history would have suggested. His ERA is 3.86. He’s allowing more walks, and striking out fewer batters. His peripherals are in decline, by and large (7.5 H/9, 1.1 HR/9, 2.7 BB/9, 10.7 K/9), and age is definitely catching up to him. You won’t turn up your nose and scoff at his strikeout totals, by any means, and he’s still a very good pitcher (despite what his ERA says), but he’s no longer the dominating presence he was in Boston. We’ll give the guy a break, because he is 42 years old, and very few players are still playing at that age, let alone playing respectably.

Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds
Now, Uehara pitches for the Cubs, and he’s doing very well, especially considering the fact he’s 42 years old.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Heath Hembree’s 2017 has been acceptable, mostly. His ERA is 3.67. His peripherals are shakier (10.7 H/9, 1.5 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 10.0 K/9). These numbers (outside of the hits totals, obviously) are fairly similar to Koji Uehara’s, at 9% of the contractual obligation. Yet, despite this, Hembree is often the target of many a fan’s ire. I have a hard time believing it’s just the hits allowed that drives people nuts, as Rick Porcello allows a similar percentage of hits. While one is a reliever (and is thus, in a high-stakes late game situation more often), it’s an interesting study.

So my question is this: If Koji Uehara were still in Boston, would he be getting as many boos and jeers as Heath Hembree does? And if he’s not, is that really fair to Heath Hembree?

Author’s Note - The stats in the article were gathered on August 25th. Some of the numbers may have changed.