Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara was named ALCS MVP after closing out a 5-2 comeback victory over the Detroit Tigers Saturday night. Uehara threw six scoreless innings in the series, with nine strikeouts and no walks.
Uehara’s 2013 campaign was one of the most dominant in reliever history. After Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan struggled and then were lost for the season, the 38 year-old reliever took over the closer role towards the end of June.
He never looked back, and at year’s end, Uehara had a 1.09 ERA, with a 38.4% strikeout rate and a 3.4% walk rate. Only Craig Kimbrel‘s 2012 season can top Uehara’s 18.5% swinging strike rate. He allowed just 44 baserunners in 74.1 innings, for a WHIP of 0.57, the best in baseball history.
While his fastball, which averages less than 90 miles per hour might not look very imposing, he has excellent command of the pitch, and his splitter is almost unhittable. Hitters whiffed nearly half the time when swinging at the splitter in 2013.
When hitters did put the ball in play, they didn’t do much, as over 20% of batted balls were harmless infield flies. Overall, opposing hitters managed just a .130/.163/.237 line against Uehara.
The ALCS was even better. Uehara generated whiffs on nearly a quarter of his pitches, and allowed a mere four singles.
Red Sox fans were clamoring for the front office to swing a trade for a closer when both Bailey and Hanrahan went down. Some were pining for former closer Jonathan Papelbon, who had departed via free agency after the 2011 season. They’re singing a different tune now.
Uehara’s phenomenal season shouldn’t come as a big surprise to fans. Even before the 2013 season, Uehara was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. From 2010-2012, he possessed the 5th highest strikeout rate among relievers, at 33.5%, with the lowest walk rate at, 3.1%.
While a member of the Red Sox, Papelbon had strikeout and walk rates of 29.8%, and 6.3%, respectively.
With only 14 career saves, Uehara might not have carried the closer pedigree when he signed a one-year deal with the Sox last offseason, but he represented an upgrade over the more celebrated Papelbon.
He’s not the big flamethrower that most people picture when they think of a closer. His World Series counterpart, Trevor Rosenthal, throws about 10 miles per hour harder. Uehara is slender, and uses a glove that looks like it was purchased at Target ten years ago.
Forget the image, Uehara is certainly the best reliever in baseball.