Uehara continues to baffle hitters, draws praise
BOSTON -- It's said in the baseball world that a pitcher who throws two out of three pitches for strikes is among the cream of the crop when it comes to command. If a pitcher can throw with that level of accuracy and efficiency, and also happens to have "plus" stuff -- that is, pitches that are considered exceptional -- he's in a class of his own.
Enter Red Sox closer Koji Uehara.
During the 2013 regular season, Uehara, who's 38 years old and needs the help of a stiff breeze coming in from center field to break 90 mph on the radar gun, had a 74.1 strike percentage. In the postseason, he's been even better, throwing 79.1 percent of his pitches for strikes.
"When he's on the mound, it's like watching a video game right in front of you," said fellow Red Sox reliever Brandon Workman. "Whatever pitch he feels like throwing, he can locate it wherever he wants."
In theory, if all of Uehara's pitches are good ones, hitters should be getting some choice pitches to swing at. But in real life, it's not that easy.
"If he's coming into the zone, then you've probably got something to hit, as long as you stay within yourself and are able to adapt," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "But you're watching some very good players take some awkward swings, so there's more deception than what it appears, especially watching it on film or on TV."
Uehara does indeed inspire hitters to take some hideous checked swings and huge swing and misses. He may throw one or two balls every 10 pitches, but hitters will often swing at them anyway since they're expecting a strike or they're geared up to swing; plus, even Uehara's balls look like strikes.
"His pitches always look like strikes to me too, even when they're not," said Sox catcher David Ross. "Because Koji is so deceptive, you see the ball late. For me, the only time it doesn't look like a strike out of his hand is when it's up in the zone, but the hitter sees it right in his eyes and they swing at that ball a lot. He gets a lot of really ugly checked swings. Guys will even swing at balls that bounce on the grass sometimes."
That pitch is Uehara's splitter, and it's about as plus as plus can be. Like his fastball, his splitter tails in on righties and away from lefties. But unlike the fastball, it falls off the table. Trouble is, hitters have no idea which pitch is coming until it's halfway to the plate, leaving them about a millisecond to react once they figure out if they're getting a high-80s fastball at the letters or a low-80s splitter that will drop like a rock.
"You want to say, 'OK, I'm going to get him early, but his ball really jumps on you,'" said Boston outfielder Daniel Nava, who owns the rare distinction of having been hit by a Uehara fastball in Spring Training. "People wonder how a guy can throw the ball 89 [mph] and still throw it by guys, but he's very deceptive. It's hard to pick the ball up out of his hand, so you can't time it. When I faced him, I took two fastballs down the middle and I didn't see them until they were halfway there. You almost need to take that first pitch to adjust, and then you're automatically down, 0-1, and you're in his court."
|"Because Koji [Uehara] is so deceptive, you see the ball late. For me, the only time it doesn't look like a strike out of his hand is when it's up in the zone, but the hitter sees it right in his eyes and they swing at that ball a lot. He gets a lot of really ugly checked swings. Guys will even swing at balls that bounce on the grass sometimes."|
|-- Red Sox catcher David Ross|
That's not a comfortable place to be. In 2013, Uehara had 101 strikeouts and allowed just nine walks in 74 1/3 innings pitched for an 11.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. For comparison, Mariano Rivera, widely considered to be the greatest closer of all time, had a 6.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio this past year and threw 69.6 percent of his pitches for strikes. Elite, yes, but still five percent behind Uehara.
Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal was also impressive in 2013, with a 67.9 regular-season strike percentage. However, his dropped to 59.5 percent in the postseason. The 23-year-old righty blames his rookie nerves.
"It's more difficult in the postseason," Rosenthal said. "Sometimes your emotions can get the best of you when you know you're close to getting a win. I try to keep the walks down, which goes hand in hand with strike percentage. The first thing is to get strike one, then try to stay ahead of the hitters. The second step is going out there and trusting your stuff."
That's easy for Rosenthal, whose plus pitch is a fastball that often hits triple digits. In the ninth inning of the Cardinals' 9-0 series-clinching win in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, Rosenthal threw 12 pitches to the Dodgers' Michael Young, Carl Crawford and Mark Ellis and got three easy outs. Seven were strikes. All were four-seam fastballs, and all were clocked above 94 mph; two came in at 100 mph -- his final two pitches of the night.
As pitchers, Rosenthal and Uehara couldn't be more different. But their mind-set is pretty much the same: put the ball over the plate. And then the world marvels, as no one can hit it.
Lindsay Berra is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayberra. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.