The Cy Young case for Koji Uehara

Eileen Blass-USA TODAY

Given that the American League Cy Young award finalists have been announced, we can say with certainty that Koji Uehara won't be bringing home the hardware this year. More importantly though, should he be?

During a busy 2012-2013 offseason, Koji Uehara's $4.5 million contract was a bit of an afterthought in the flurry of moves by the Boston Red Sox that included signings of Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, and David Ross and the hiring of manager John Farrell.

The Japanese right-hander entered the 2013 season fourth on the team's list of potential closers, but injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey forced him into the role in late June where he converted 21 of 24 save chances in the regular season.

That of course, was followed with seven more saves in Boston's 11 victories en route the 2013 World Series, with an ALCS MVP award along the way.

Unfortunately, when the BBWAA Awards are announced tomorrow, the American League Cy Young will come down to starters Max Scherezer, Yu Darvish, and Hisashi Iwakuma with Uehara an afterthought once more. And that's a shame, because Uehara's 2013 stands as one of the greatest single-season pitching performances of all-time. To really illustrate his dominance, I compared his year to every pitcher season (min 50 ip) since 1900 (21,602 in total) and came up with the following rankings:

Category Total All-Time Rank
ERA 1.09 21
ERA- 26 t-10
FIP 1.61 29
FIP- 39 t-12
K% 38.1 17
K/BB 11.22 5
K%-BB% 34.7 5
Average 0.129 2
WHIP 0.57 1

On top of those numbers, consider that:

  • Batters managed a .174 wOBA against Uehara. Greg Maddux's career wOBA as a hitter is 179.
  • Uehara, a right-handed pitcher, faced 137 left-handed hitters this year. Those hitters hit .115 with one home run while striking out 56 times. The .115 BAA was 14 points better than any other pitcher with at least 30 innings against lefties in 2013.
  • Of the five home runs that Uehara gave up, four of them were solo shots.
  • Just 37 (14%) of the 265 batters he faced got to a three-ball count and 73.9% of the pitches he threw this year were strikes.

And we certainly can't talk about Koji Uehara without mentioning several streaks within the 2013 season:

  • Apparently Uehara settled down in the second half of the season, registering a 0.28 ERA and permitting hitters to get on base at just a .095 clip after the All-Star break.
  • Starting on July 1, Uehara did not allow an earned run until Baltimore's Danny Valencia scored against him on September 16th.
  • During a 26-game stretch from July 9 until that same game in September, not a single runner of any sort crossed the plate against Uehara.
  • From August 17 through that fateful Danny Valencia at-bat, Uehara faced 37 batters and retired them all. That streak set a Boston franchise record and put him within eight outs of Mark Buehrle's major league record. BP's Sam Miller put the odds of such a streak at about 2 million to 1.

Of course, none of this will matter when the awards are announced as Uehara isn't even a finalist for the hardware. Since 1993, only Eric Gagne has won the Cy Young as a relief pitcher and only four other relievers have even received a first place vote. Based on the title of this article, you would assume that given a vote for the AL Cy Young award I would cast my ballot for Uehara. However, when our staff votes are revealed tomorrow you'll see that he didn't even make my top-five. What gives?

In my defense, that vote was cast before the postseason and while his postseason performance shouldn't be (and is not) taken into account, the past few weeks have given me some time to reflect on the award a bit more. Initially, I had trouble placing Uehara ahead of pitchers with more than twice as many innings pitched, a defensible reason not to vote for my any reliever in my opinion. I mean, Uehara was on the mound for just 5.1% of the Red Sox' innings in 2013, compared to 14.7% for Max Scherzer, the likely Cy Young winner.

As I thought about it more, however, I kept coming back to one hypothetical question: -- if the roles were reversed, which pitcher would be more likely to replicate the other's success? For me, the answer is Uehara. I have tremendous respect for what Scherzer (and Darvish and Iwakuma) did this year, but it wasn't historic. We talk plenty about context neutral evaluation, and in this case it wasn't Uehara's teammates that held him back, it was his usage. Assuming that he was allowed to throw an additional 140 innings to match Scherzer's total, and we conservatively projected his performance as league-average AL starter over those innings, Uehara would have finished the year with a 3.11 ERA. I understand that is making a ton of assumptions and it's discounting the advantages he got while pitching 74.1 innings in relief, but the point remains that it's no small leap to assume that Uehara would have been just as effective, if not more effective than the likely award winner if given the chance.

Tomorrow when the awards are announced, I'll be surprised if Uehara even gets a first place vote because modern bullpen usage has essentially eliminated any chance relievers had of taking home the award. Being that that is the case, I hope that we will see some sort of bullpen reform in the near future. There is no doubt in my mind that giving Uehara 25-30 more innings would have been a net positive for the Sox, even if his performance was diminished ever so slightly. Plus there would be added benefits in roster construction, etc., but that's a conversation for another time. Because award or no award, today I'm just glad I can say I was there for Koji's 2013, a season I won't soon forget.. Well, at least until what see what he has in store for an encore.

. . .

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Andrew Ball is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Fake Teams.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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