On Oct. 1, 2011, Koji Uehara made his playoff debut and pitched in relief for the Rangers. He faced three batters, retiring none and allowing a dinger. In his next appearance in the playoffs, after ten days, he allowed a dinger. In his next appearance in the playoffs, he allowed a dinger. Uehara wouldn’t pitch again in that postseason, having completely lost Ron Washington‘s trust. That is, if he ever had it. It felt like Uehara and the Rangers was never a marriage; rather, they were assigned lab partners, thinking wistfully of other lab partners. They didn’t work well together, and that’s half the reason the Rangers regret giving up Tommy Hunter and Chris Davis.
These days it’s impossible to imagine that version of Uehara ever existed. A vulnerable version, even if the extent of his vulnerability was a wee bit exaggerated. Uehara has always been good, but you might not even realize just how amazing he was with the Red Sox. He allowed a .400 OPS. His OPS allowed was almost half that down the stretch. FOX liked to show a graphic saying that Uehara had walked one batter since the All-Star break. That held true all the way through the playoffs, in which Uehara pitched 13 times, facing 46 batters, walking none, whiffing 16. In the playoffs he allowed a .413 OPS. That’s actually worse than what he allowed in the season.
But that bit isn’t the point. The point is that Uehara was as close as it gets to being genuinely untouchable, and even the one dinger he allowed to Jose Lobaton was on a quality splitter down and away. David Ortiz couldn’t not have won the World Series MVP, given the way people were talking about him, but Uehara was a star in the Series as well, and he was a star through all three series. Every Red Sox player contributed in some way to their winning the title, but few could match or exceed what Uehara brought to the table.
What he had was one of the all-time great playoff reliever performances, a page torn directly from Mariano Rivera‘s book. It’s absolutely appropriate that Uehara threw October’s final pitch, a splitter inducing a swing and a miss. It’s absolutely appropriate that Uehara rushed off the mound with his arm in the air. While Koji Uehara wasn’t perfect, no pitcher is perfect, and I don’t know if any pitcher could be closer to perfect than Uehara was.
But a pitcher who’s not literally perfect is a pitcher who’s imperfect. A pitcher who’s imperfect is a pitcher who’s made mistakes. It follows, then, that over the course of October, even Uehara made the occasional mistake. What I thought I’d do is try to track down the biggest one. Not to try to poke fun at Uehara, not in any way to claim he’s overrated. It’s just that one way of highlighting and appreciating greatness is examining the times the great weren’t great. Seeing a star look human drives home how infrequent that actually is. Let’s identify Koji Uehara’s biggest playoff mistake. Let’s follow that by considering how often he did exactly what he wanted to do.
Over the course of the month, over the course of the 13 appearances, Uehara threw a total of 169 pitches. This is the sample we’re going to try to narrow down. Right away, we can eliminate pitches out of the zone. Uehara never came close to walking anybody, so there wasn’t a big cost to any of the balls that he threw. The worst mistakes should be pitches that could’ve been turned into two or four bases. Playing around with Baseball Savant, just like that we can drop the total to 69 remaining candidate pitches. These were the pitches thrown within one of the nine strike-zone boxes shown on the site.
Next, we want to isolate the middle of the plate. Hitters can punish pitches closer to the edges, sure, everybody’s different and every swing is different, but overall, the worst damage is done to pitches over the middle third. Uehara’s no different in that regard. By eliminating pitches on the outer thirds, we reduce the total number of candidate pitches to 24.
And now we have to play with height. Sometimes, low pitches get hit hard. Sometimes, high pitches get hit hard. The pitches that get hit hard most often, though, are those right down the middle. Breaking the strike zone down into three vertical sections, the bad pitches tend to be in the middle one. From Brooks Baseball, check out Uehara’s career slugging percentages allowed by location:
He’s gotten throttled in the middle. We narrow down to just the middle. This reduces our sample of candidate pitches to nine.
Nine’s a small number, but we’re not after just any small number. We’re after one. The next step is to eliminate any remaining pitches thrown to Jose Iglesias, because Iglesias is far from a threatening sort. The worst he’s likely to do is slap a single somewhere, and that’s just not that bad. You always have to account for batter identity. By removing pitches thrown to Iglesias, we reduce the sample to six.
Now what? Now we can narrow down further by taking just pitches thrown when Uehara was behind in the count. You can make mistakes in any count, to be sure, but hitters will respond to them differently, because different counts mean hitters have to look for different things. Hitters have something of an advantage when Uehara is behind, because they can focus on trying to get a fastball. I feel like I don’t really need to explain this. This step takes us all the way down to three pitches. Three pitches, in the middle of the zone, with Uehara behind in the count.
But is Uehara really behind when the count is full? With a full count, a hitter is on the verge of both a walk and a strikeout. With a full count, a hitter can’t focus on just looking for a hittable fastball. Hitters have to still be somewhat defensive, somewhat willing to expand their own zones. In a full count, hitters have to still be conscious of Uehara’s splitter. By removing pitches in a full count, we narrow all the way down to one. One worst pitch by Koji Uehara in the 2013 playoffs. It was thrown on October 7, in a 1-and-0 count, and it was a fastball basically down the middle to Evan Longoria.
That all sounds right. PITCHf/x got the heater at 89.1 miles per hour. Below is the catcher target, and the red dot indicates where the pitch wound up:
Uehara barely missed, but he missed over the middle. And as it happens, Longoria both swung and made contact.
Thigh-high, middle of the plate, with Longoria looking specifically for a fastball in that count in that situation. A home run would’ve won the game. Longoria is no stranger to crunch-time heroics. He managed to put the pitch in the air.
…harmlessly, for a fly out. Koji Uehara’s worst pitch of the playoffs, at least by the above criteria, got him an out in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game. It was just that kind of run for Uehara. Things evened out minutes later when Lobaton slammed a good pitch for a walk-off, and right there is a classic case of baseball being baseball. But this isn’t about Lobaton and this isn’t about luck. This is about identifying the worst pitch Uehara threw, and I believe that we’ve found it. We’ve found a glimpse of October Uehara looking mortal.
Something you can’t help but consider is the flimsiness of pitcher success or pitcher failure. Every pitch in the strike zone, at some point, has been drilled for a dinger. Every pitch in the strike zone, at some point, has been swung on and missed, or popped up. Pitchers have only so much control over what happens to their pitched baseballs, and it’s almost a miracle that the great are as great as they are. So much of what happens can be out of a pitcher’s hands. What Uehara manages to do is control as much as he can. He leaves relatively little to luck, relatively little to the hitter. Every so often, he’ll leak a pitch over the middle, and then, for a split second, he has to hold his breath. The rest of the time, he doesn’t do that. This season, and this October, there was a lot of the rest of the time.
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