Cubs sign aging but elite reliever Koji Uehara

ALCS - Detroit Tigers v Boston Red Sox - Game Six

Koji Uehara is 41-years-old and will be 42 a month into the 2017 season, but that didn’t stop the Cubs from agreeing to sign him to a one-year, $6 million dollar contract. While aged has slowed him down to a degree, you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at his seven consecutive seasons of K/9 rates of 10.5 or higher, to go along with seven consecutive seasons of sub-1.00 WHIP’s dating back to his rookie season in 2009. Here’s what his career numbers look like to date:

koji uehara career stats as of 2016

Normally posting K/BB rates of over 5.0 for the past two years would be considered quite the accomplishment for a pitcher, but in Koji’s case those rates represented a huge drop off, the result of an increase in walk rate from a nearly inhuman 1.1 BB/9 up to 2.0 BB/9.

In a nice read from the New Yorker back in 2013 titled “The Greatness of Koji Uehara” author Nicholas Thompson put it perfectly after game six of the ALCS:

Koji Uehara, the best relief pitcher on the Boston Red Sox, only throws strikes. He threw eleven pitches in the ninth inning of Game Six against the Tigers: all were strikes. A really good pitcher has a strike-out-to-walk ratio of about three to one. Since August 3rd, Uehara has struck out forty-four and walked no one.

Limiting walks while racking up strikeouts has been Uehara’s calling card, but one issue that comes with throwing so many strikes is that some of those strikes are going to end up in the seats. This was evident in 2011, 2014 and again last year in 2016 where in each season Koji allowed home runs at a rate of at least 1.4 HR/9. Normally that kind of a rate would destroy a pitcher’s ERA, but Uehara has been able to limit the damage by not allowing many hits and rarely walking anyone.

Looking at Uehara’s career numbers is impressive: 522 strikeouts to just 66 walks in 437.2 innings pitched, leading to a 2.76 ERA and a whip of just 0.86. His numbers for the Cubs in 2017 will likely be somewhere in between those career numbers and the numbers he put up last year, a 3.45 ERA and 0.96 WHIP.

The projection system at FanGraphs, Steamer, has him down for the following in 2017:



If Koji can replicate what Steamer projects, those would great numbers as the third or fourth best option coming out of the bullpen now that the Cubs have added an elite closer, who is also on one year deal, in Wade Davis. It comes as no surprise that the Cubs are taking a strategic, low risk approach to building their bullpen this year, adding elite back-end talent but minimizing the uncertainty inherent with relievers by signing them to one-year deals.

With a back four of Davis, Rondon, Strop and Uehara the Cubs can continue to shorten the game for their starting pitchers to preserve their arms for a playoff run. It’s even more impressive that they have been able to do this without committing $60-80 million to a reliever like the San Francisco Giants, LA Dodgers or New York Yankees have.



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