We sure have gotten to know a whole lot of new Cubs lately, haven’t we?
Indeed, today, we’re going to get to know the Cubs’ newest right-handed reliever, Koji Uehara.
As Brett reported some time ago on Twitter (he hasn’t returned any of my texts since going pro), and later announced by the team, the Chicago Cubs signed 41-year-old veteran Koji Uehara to a one year/$6 million deal, which is a great low-risk, potentially high-reward move.
You may have seen Uehara’s name next to a few unique stats lately (like that he has the best WHIP in MLB since joining the league back in 2009, and that with his presence in Chicago (alongside Wade Davis and Mike Montgomery), the Cubs’ bullpen now has three of the four pitchers who threw the last out in one of the last four World Series), but we’ll go a bit deeper than that.
Uehara, as I said, came to MLB with the Orioles back in 2009, when he was already 34 years old. In the eight years since, he has been worth less than 1.0 fWAR (which is a good benchmark for relievers) only twice, both of which were injury shortened seasons.
After spending two and half seasons with the Orioles, Uehara was traded to the Rangers for a year and a half (in a deal for not-yet-broken-out Chris Davis), before ultimately signing a deal with the Red Sox, where he’s been until this winter.
The Cubs, as you now know, have given him a one-year deal worth $6 million (although reports suggest he could have received more elsewhere).
According to FanGraphs, Uehara primarily uses a fastball (50.1%), followed closely by a split-finger (44.8%). He does, from time to time, throw a cutter as well, but that’s pretty rare. He’s not a power thrower by any means, as his fastball has averaged around 88.0 MPH during his time in MLB, and there are some concerning points to be raised about that.
Despite averaging 88.0 MPH on his fastball for his career, Uehara’s velocity dropped down to 87.0 MPH in 2015 and then again to 86.7 MPH in 2016. Without knowing, you might attribute such a drop to his age, but there were also some injuries sprinkled in there.
Although you never want to see a drop in velocity (period), it is a bit more alarming when it comes as part of an injury. And, in case you were unaware, Uehara was injured in both 2015 and 2016. Two years ago, Uehara suffered a season-ending injury when a batted ball struck his wrist. And then last year, Uehara spent some time on the disabled list with a pectoral strain.
The good news is that Uehara finished the 2016 season healthy, but the bad news is that his velocity was down even further upon his return (85.5 MPH). Fortunately, the greatly diminished velocity didn’t appear to affect his abilities. In the 11.0 innings he pitched after his return, his line: 0.00 ERA, 1.78 FIP, 3.45 xFIP; 30.8% strikeout rate, 5.1% walk rate. That’s still very good.
I’ve discussed, many times now, the Cubs front office’s apparent M.O. of acquiring pitchers who have found success even after reduced velocity (or with lower velocity from the get-go), because they tend to age better than hard-throwers, who rely exclusively on their velocity to give them more room for error. Uehara might be a great example of such a pitcher.
Which really goes to underscore just how awesome Uehara has been since joining the league. Here, again, is that WHIP stat you’ve heard so much about:
WHIP Leaders 2009-2016 (min. 300 IP):
- Koji Uehara: 0.80 WHIP
- Kenley Jansen: 0.89 WHIP
- Craig Kimrel: 0.95 WHIP
- Clayton Kershaw: 0.98 WHIP
- Darren O’Day: 0.98 WHIP
That’s the Cubs’ newest reliever leading three of the best relievers in the game, plus one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball. He also boasts the game’s ninth best strikeout rate, third best walk rate, eighth best ERA, and ninth best FIP during that same stretch (of all pitchers, not just relievers). He’s been the seventh most valuable reliever (by fWAR) during that period of time.
So yes, Uehara is 41 years old, and, yes, he’s experienced consecutive drops in velocity possibly due to two unrelated injuries, but holy crap has he been good.
Consider, even if his ability to be a high-leverage, full-inning reliever escapes him, he has the potential to be an extremely talented, albeit right-handed, LOOGY. In 2016, Uehara held left-handed hitters to just a .211 wOBA over 23.1 innings pitched. For his career (227.0 IP), that number increases to just .240 wOBA against lefties.
But, with any luck, the few ticks of velocity he lost will come back, he’ll play a full healthy season, and the Cubs may have added one of the best relievers in baseball to a pen that also added Wade Davis – the other one of the best relievers in baseball.