As it turns out, it doesn’t appear the Red Sox were ever really in on the reliever market this winter despite some questions about the bullpen. Of course, if everything goes well they should be fine with their current relief corps, as they return most of a group that was lights out for the vast majority of 2017 and they should theoretically have healthier versions of Carson Smith and hopefully Tyler Thornburg. So, specifically, there was never much of a need for them to go too hard after any right-handed relievers. That being said, I don’t think any of us would have complained about the team bringing back Koji Uehara on some kind of cheap deal because, well, he’s Koji Uehara. What kind of monster would complain about watching Koji Uehara?
Anyway, it appears there wasn’t much of a market for the veteran righty this winter even while there was a mini-run of signings of relievers earlier in the offseason and it was really the only position that generally didn’t have to wait a century to be offered a deal. Well, unless you’re name is Greg Holland. Anywho, Uehara decided that rather than play on a cheap one-year deal or even a minor-league contract, he’d go back home and play the 2018 season in Japan. The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham has the news.
Koji Uehara decided to return to the Yomiuri Giants. Interesting guy to watch pitch and get to know a little bit. Hard to imagine that 2013 season happens for the #RedSox without him. Good luck to Koji.— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) March 9, 2018
Again, this isn’t really relevant to the 2018 Red Sox, as they were never looking for right-handed relief help, particularly from a veteran whose best days are behind him. That said, it is relevant for most Red Sox fans because, as Abraham notes, he was a massive part of that incredible ride that was the 2013 season. Really, it was more than just that season, though that’s obviously the year with which we’ll always connect Koji. Everyone in Boston knows what he meant to the city and the team in that time and what it was like to watch him. It feels like he was here longer than he really was, but he made an impact every time he took the mound. So, with him being in the news and there not being a ton going on with the 2018 Red Sox, it seemed like a good time to write up a little appreciation of Uehara, not that there’s any bad time to appreciate Koji.
Really, the best way to appreciate what the former Red Sox closer was able to do for the team is to look at his numbers. Well, actually, the best way would be to go back in time and watch him with your own eyeballs in real time, but if you have access to a time machine you probably aren’t reading this. Uehara spent four years in Boston, and while he fell off a bit in his final season with the team his run here was, scientifically speaking, bananas. Over 230 games, 140 of which he finished things out, the soon-to-be-43-year-old pitched to a 2.19 ERA (192 ERA+!) with 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings to just 1.5 walks per nine. His control of the strikezone was truly awe-inspiring and allowed him to succeed despite a lack of the high-powered stuff we are used to from dominant relievers.
While he was generally great throughout the run, that 2013 season was the *kisses fingers like a chef* masterpiece. It was his first year in Boston, and Koji appeared in 73 games over 74 1⁄3 innings. He wasn’t the closer to start the year, though it didn’t take too long to realize he should be. By the end of the regular season, he had a 1.09 ERA (379 ERA+ !!!) with...are you ready for this...101 strikeouts and NINE (9!) walks. I just passed out. Things got even more absurd once the postseason rolled around. He was an absolute monster that October, even taking home the series MVP against Detroit in the ALCS. Over the entire run, he tossed 13 2⁄3 innings over 13 starts with 16 strikeouts and zero (0) walks and just one run allowed. I don’t like to compare anyone to Mariano Rivera, but he was totally Rivera-like that postseason. Every time he took the mound you just knew the job was going to get done.
Actually, thinking about that 2013 postseason brings me to my favorite Koji fact, and perhaps my favorite baseball stat of all time. On August 3, 2013, Uehara walked a guy. He wouldn’t walk another batter, including in the postseason, until April 19 the following season. Over that time, he struck out 55 batters between the two free passes. Think about that for a second....You done? That’s absolutely preposterous and I’m honestly not sure if we’ll ever see anyone exceed in terms of racking up K’s and limiting walks to that extent again.
Of course, Koji was about more than just the numbers. He was about pure fun and excellence. It was an experience watching him pitch and just generally exist on the baseball field, and to re-live that as best we can, here are the three quintessential Koji gifs.
Papi + Koji
Ultimately, what Uehara was able to accomplish in becoming a sports icon in a city full of them despite being here for such a relatively short time is amazing. It’s particularly amazing because of how he did it. It’s not as if he’s the obvious best pure reliever they’ve had in recent years. One could very well argue that peak Jonathan Papelbon and peak Craig Kimbrel are a step above. He also was not the prototypical dominant force that generally electrifies the end of games, something that both Papelbon and Kimbrel were and are. Despite all of that, Koji is a legitimate icon on the city of Boston and watching him was a uniquely fun experience that hasn’t been matched much, if at all, in my life in any sport. I think we’re all rooting for him to succeed back home in Japan, and more importantly I think we all hope he realizes that no one will ever be upset if/when he makes his way back to Boston and Fenway Park.