Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bottom of the 9th: Injured Closers in Boston

Article by  R.J. White 

The back end of the Red Sox bullpen is in shambles. Both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, the two guys who have served as closer this season, are injured. Bailey is on the 15-day disabled list with a biceps injury, and Hanrahan seems likely to join him there with a forearm injury. While the loss of those two relievers is a blow to the depth of the bullpen, they may very well not be the two most-talented pitchers in the pen. In fact, one could argue that neither of them are in the top two in terms of talent in Boston.
Look up the term “beast” on Wikipedia, and you’ll likely see a picture of Koji Uehara. If you don’t, the Internet has failed as a truth-telling mechanism. He uses mainly a fastball-cutter combination to keep hitters off-balance. He’s pitched in the big leagues since 2009, racking up about 225 innings pitched. For all pitchers with at least 200 innings to their credit in that time span, Uehara is one of four pitchers with a swinging strike percentage over 14 percent, and he also ranks fourth in first-pitch strike percentage (67.5 percent). He’s also fourth at limiting contact on swings in the strike zone, and only Mariano Rivera gets hitters to swing out of the strike zone more often than Uehara.
Add it all up, and you get a guy who owns a 2.88 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 and 8.0 K/BB in his career. How many pitchers with at least 200 career innings have posted a K/BB of 8.0 over the course of their careers? Just one: Uehara. Second place goes to a guy named James Burke thanks to one good season in 1884 that gave him a 7.5 K/BB rate. Next is Sergio Romo with a 6.0 K/BB. No one else tops a five-to-one ratio. (Stats according to Fangraphs.) So if you place emphasis on strikeout-to-walk rate displaying a pitcher’s worth, Uehara has beaten all pitchers in history in the category.
It’s a testament to the other quality pitcher in the discussion that Uehara isn’t the run-away winner of the interim closer job. Junichi Tazawa doesn’t have historically great statistics on his side, but he did post a 1.43 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and a 45:5 K:BB ratio in 44 innings. Again, that’s five walks for an entire season. You know what Carlos Marmol calls five walks? Sunday. Tazawa hasn’t been quite as amazing this season, but his 2.51 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 18:3 K:BB ratio in 14.1 innings are still plenty good. With more heat on his fastball and cutter, Tazawa may profile more as closer material for the Red Sox.
However, the fact is that Tazawa has been the seventh-inning guy this year, with eight of his 14.1 innings coming during the seventh. Uehara has plied his trade in the eighth inning, with 8.1 of his 13.2 innings coming in the eighth. The pecking order seems well-established for the Red Sox, and Uehara tends to be used later in the game than Tazawa. With Tazawa 12 years the junior of Uehara, he has a better chance of being the long-term option at closer for the Red Sox. But we’re talking about the present, and Uehara is the favorite to serve as the interim closer for the Red Sox. With as well as both guys have pitched, both deserve to be owned in all fantasy leagues.
UPDATE: Just after I published this article, word came out that manager John Farrell may actually prefer Tazawa at closer. Fine by me — as I said above, both have been great. If you can only have one, pick up Tazawa. If you can’t get Tazawa, Uehra is still worth owning.
Chicago Cubs
Now is the time to add Kyuji Fujikawa in all leagues. He could be back at any point for the Cubs, and his talent should lead him to the closer role before long, even with Kevin Gregg pitching well. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him immediately re-inserted into the closing gig, rather than the Cubs tempting fate with Gregg any longer. I’d feel confident projecting Fujikawa to lead the Cubs in saves this season.

R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.

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