Seasons in Boston: 2013-2016
Honors: 2013 World Series Champion, 1x All-Star, 2013 ALCS MVP, 1999 and 2002 Eiji Sawamura Award Winner
Red Sox Numbers: 2.19 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 14 W, 79 SV, 32 HLD, 291 K, 52 ERA-, 6.1 fWAR
Signature Season (2013): 74.1 IP, 101 K, 4 W, 21 SV, 13 HLD, 1.09 ERA, 0.57 WHIP, 3.1 fWAR
The Red Sox were a miserable team in 2012 in every conceivable way. The team had finished in last place, winning just 69 games while losing 93, and they were managed by the least likeable personality in recent coaching history, Bobby Valentine, who seemed to take joy in rankling the players on his own team. Very few players had even good years in 2012 and when it came time to turn the page from Valentine and the 2012 season every Red Sox fan exhaled a long sigh of relief.
In possibly the most masterful offseason he’ll ever have, then General Manager Ben Cherington made the best group of free agent signings perhaps in baseball history. He brought in Mike Napoli, Johnny Gomes, Shane Victorino, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, and yes Koji Uehara. All of these players brought positive energy and a never say die attitude that would be instrumental to the turnaround the team would make in 2013. This shouldn’t have worked as well as it did, but I will be forever thankful for this perfect storm of personalities.
Uehara was pitching in his age-38 season when he arrived in Boston after having signed with the Red Sox on December 18, 2012. He was a free agent coming off an excellent 2012 season that was cut short by a lat strain. Despite the injury-shortened season he had posted an ERA of 1.75 and a miniscule 0.64 WHIP. He signed a one- year deal with the Red Sox to prove those numbers were no fluke.
Before coming to the major leagues in 2009, Uehara had pitched ten seasons in the Nippon Professional Baseball League in his native Japan. As a rookie with the Yomiuri Giants in 1999, Uehara won 20 games, including 12 complete games, and posted an ERA of just 2.09 over 197.2 innings pitched to win the Japanese equivalent to the Cy Young Award—the Eiji Sawamura Award. This award is a little different from the Cy Young because the criteria are a bit more strict, needing to come close to the following thresholds or the award is not given out: 15 wins, a 2.50 ERA, 10 complete games, 200 innings, 150 strikeouts, 25 games and a .600 winning percentage. The award was not given out in 2019 and on four other occasions.
Working exclusively as a starter for his first eight seasons with the Giants, Uehara won the Sawamura award for a second time in 2002. In 2007, at 32, he closed out 31 games for the Giants working as a closer and he pitched in both roles as a 33-year-old during his last season before coming to the majors. Uehara broke into the majors with the Orioles before being traded to Texas in 2011. He threw 12 games as a starter in his rookie season with the Orioles posting a 4.02 ERA and really began to shine once he made the transition to relief,posting a 2.36 ERA as a reliever in his three seasons prior to coming to the Red Sox.
The disastrous 2012 season had seen jack of all trades pitcher Alfredo Aceves step us as the team’s closer. This did not go well. A year after posting a 2.61 ERA in 2011 he put up a 5.36 in 2012. Searching for a new closer, the Red Sox hoped that former All-Star closers Joel Hanrahan or Andrew Bailey would take over the role. Both relievers succumbed to a combination of injury or ineffectiveness allowing Uehara to take over that closers role for good on June 26.
Once Uehara took the reins he never looked back. He posted video game numbers for the rest of the season, throwing 44 ⅓ innings while posting a 0.44 ERA, 0.36 WHIP, and earning 20 of his 21 saves. He struck out 59 batters and walked just two during this stretch. Combined with his numbers from before he took over as closer, Uehara would finish the regular season with a 1.09 ERA, 0.57 WHIP, 21 saves, 13 holds, and 101 strikeouts. His 0.57 WHIP is the lowest in baseball history for a qualified reliever and his opponent batting average of .129 was the fifth best ever.
One of the most impressive things about Uehara’s 2013 season was his dominance over so many innings: 74.1. Since both holds and saves have been kept as a stat, only Uehara in 2013, Brad Lidge in 2004, Kenley Jansen in 2013, and Corey Knebel in 2017 have thrown at least 70 innings with at least 100 strikeouts, 20 saves, and 10 holds.
During the 2013 playoffs Uehara would distinguish himself further cementing this season as one of the greatest ever by a reliever. Over 13 ⅔ innings he posted a 0.66 ERA, 0.51 WHIP, .052 opponent BA, and a 34.8% K%-BB%. He struck out 16 batters, walked none, earned seven saves, and didn’t blow a single save opportunity. Uehara threw more than one inning in four of his thirteen postseason appearances and finished every single game he entered. In the ALCS alone, where he won MVP honors in the victory over Detroit, Uehara faced 21 batters, gave up just four hits, gave up no walks or runs, and earned three saves and one win.
He would go on to dominate the Cardinals in the World Series striking out Matt Carpenter with a 81 MPH splitter to clinch the first World Series victory at Fenway Park in 95 years. Over the course of my time watching the Red Sox no pitcher aside from Pedro Martinez has captivated me to the degree that Uehara has. During his time with the Red Sox he threw nearly a 50/50 mix of 88 MPH fastballs and 80 MPH splitters. Each pitch type had movement and was perfectly placed, being worth 27.1 and 26.4 runs, respectively, by FanGraphs’s pitch values from 2013 through 2016. There is something special about watching a guy who isn’t afraid to attack hitters in the zone with a fastball whose velocity has more in common with college pitchers than professionals.
The 2014 and 2015 seasons were also fantastic for Uehara who was pitching at age 39 and 40 respectively. In 2014 he saved 26 games with a 2.52 ERA and in 2015 he saved 25 with a 2.23 ERA. Unfortunately, his age was starting to show and he couldn’t post the prolific innings totals he was once capable of. By the 2016 season new President of Baseball Operations, Dave Dombrowski, had traded for Craig Kimbrel, who took over as the closer. In his final year with the Red Sox, Uehara saved seven games, earned 18 holds and posted an ERA of 3.45. Even at 41 his 28.3% K%-BB% was elite. The following year Uehara would pitch one final season in the majors with the Cubs before heading back for his native Japan.
Uehara finishes his career first in Red Sox history among relievers in ERA, WHIP, ERA-, left on base %, and SIERA. He ranks second in team history in K%-BB% and opponent batting average. He ranks seventh in team history with 79 saves, fifth in FanGraphs WAR at 6.1, and ninth in strikeouts at 291 despite being 31st in innings pitched with just 226. While he was only here for four seasons those seasons were four of the greatest by a reliever in team history and he gave us the best GIF in franchise history by high fiving everyone in the dugout whether they were ready or not. There is not a reliever in baseball history, not just Red Sox history, which I would feel more confident with the game on the line than 2013 Uehara. For that reason and the many listed above he is the closer on my All-Time Red Sox roster.