Red Sox Clone Koji Uehara, Sort Of

This past season was the season of the Red Sox, and in a lot of ways the Red Sox’s season was the season of Koji Uehara. From the emergency closer service to the relief equivalent of a perfect game to all of the playoff heroics, Uehara emerged as an important and unhittable star, becoming widely known to a nation that had almost entirely overlooked the earlier portion of his big-league career. One question we have now is, will Uehara be able to repeat? Another question is, how didn’t we see something like this coming? As a reliever between 2010-2012, Uehara issued 16 unintentional walks, with 183 strikeouts. The biggest concern was durability; in 2013, Uehara was durable. And amazing.

Given Uehara’s rise to fame and the Red Sox’s success, it would make sense for some other teams to try to mimic their model. There existed on the market a relief pitcher with an awful lot in common with Uehara, a guy who might be a bit underrated. Thursday, that pitcher found a new home. Because Edward Mujica has signed with the Red Sox.

It’s a two-year deal, worth $9.5 million. Mujica just has to pass a physical. A year ago almost to the day, the Sox signed Uehara for a year and $4.25 million, but with a vesting option worth another $4.25 million and some performance bonuses. It’s a bigger guarantee to Mujica, but that’s to be expected; even though Mujica ended the year with fatigue, he was most recently a closer on a good team, and next year Mujica’s going to be 30. Last year, Uehara was 38. There are important similarities and important differences.

Among the important differences is that Uehara seems like the better pitcher. Neither guy issues walks, but Uehara misses a lot more bats. Even at his age, Uehara projects better for 2014 than Mujica does, but outside of that it would be tough for them to be more alike.

They’re both somewhat undersized righties with fastballs that are hardly overpowering. Mujica throws his a bit harder, but we’ll see if he’s still doing that by the time he’s in his late 30s. For both, the fastball is important, but for both, the fastball isn’t the most important. Because both pitchers have a signature offspeed weapon of a particular sort.

People know about Uehara’s splitter by now. He throws it half the time and if he does what he wants with it, hitters hardly stand a chance. Mujica has something similar, a pitch he grips between his index and ring fingers with his middle finger over the seams. It’s been called a splitter, a change, and a split-change, but more important than the label is the behavior. Splitters and changeups tend to look a lot alike, so let’s group them together. Last year, Uehara had baseball’s second-highest splitter/changeup rate, at nearly 50%. Mujica, though, had baseball’s first-highest splitter/changeup rate, at about 56%. That is, more than half of Mujica’s pitches were split-changes. This is the way in which he and Uehara are the most alike, as no one else is even particularly close.

A glimpse of Mujica’s split-change, and then a slower glimpse of the same pitch:

MujicaVotto.gif.opt

Consistently, he keeps it down. Sometimes, Uehara will experiment with a splitter more up in the zone, perhaps looking to buy a surprise strike. Mujica doesn’t do so much of that, but it’s not a big deal. Mujica generated baseball’s highest rate of swings at pitches out of the zone. Uehara came in fourth.

There’s more. While Uehara gets a lot of swings at balls, other times he throws a ton of strikes. He’s able to work in the zone to get ahead, then get swings when batters are on the defensive. Last season, Uehara finished with baseball’s highest strike rate. Mujica finished with baseball’s second-highest strike rate, barely behind. Mujica also finished with baseball’s highest first-pitch-strike rate. Uehara was close, but he wasn’t quite equal. Both of these pitchers are cut from very similar cloths.

For a more general sense of the style, consider that, since 1900, 3200 pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings. Among them, just two guys have allowed more homers than unintentional walks. There’s Josh Towers, at +12, and Edward Mujica, at +8. In third is Koji Uehara, at -2. These guys are almost as likely to allow a dinger as they are to throw four balls in a plate appearance, and that speaks to both a strength and a vulnerability. Certainly, Mujica can get hit hard. It’s an issue, but there’s more good to him than bad.

Mujica just wore down down the stretch. He barely pitched in September or October, and everyone admitted he was dealing with some shoulder fatigue. That, presumably, cost him many millions of dollars. In the season before signing with the Red Sox, Uehara missed a bunch of time with a strained lat around the shoulder, limiting him to fewer than 40 innings. Uehara passed his physical and lasted the season. Now the Sox will get to see what Mujica’s shoulder looks like. If it looks intact, they shouldn’t have much reason to worry. And there’s the matter of what Mujica did before getting tired.

Uehara last season went on a pretty famous run of just not allowing baserunners. From the start of the season through August 13, Mujica generated 40 strikeouts while issuing just a pair of walks. Those are vaguely Uehara-esque numbers, and they speak to Mujica’s ability when he’s feeling well. Of course he’s not really that good, but Uehara also isn’t really as good as he is at his best. It’s just that the performance bell curves include a lot of amazing pitching over toward one end.

It’s important to understand that Uehara’s 2013 season went perfectly. It exceeded even the Red Sox’s expectations, and he’s probably not going to do that again. Likewise, Mujica isn’t going to have a Uehara season, probably, especially when you consider that Uehara owns the superior statistics. Uehara’s like Mujica with a bunch more strikeouts. But we needn’t get too bogged down in the details. Here’s the most general message: the Red Sox still have Koji Uehara, and they’ve been quite pleased with him. On the free-agent market, they just went out and acquired a guy who might be the closest in baseball to being the same thing. He’s worse, but he’s similar, and he’s good, and he’s quality depth capable of occupying any number of roles. For whatever it’s worth, Mujica’s also said to be a good clubhouse guy, so there shouldn’t be any disruption in that regard.

It looks, now, like a pretty obvious signing. Even if it would’ve made sense for someone else to sign Mujica, hoping to capture the Uehara magic. From the Red Sox’s perspective, this has already worked well once. Why not try to double the fun?



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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tz
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tz
2 years 7 months ago

If nothing else, this should noticeably quell my recent nightmares of a Bogaerts-for-Jim Johnson deal.

JiminNC
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JiminNC
2 years 7 months ago

Do you lie awake at night wondering whether the sun is about to explode? Because that’s more likley than Bogaerts for Johnson.

tz
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tz
2 years 7 months ago

I don’t know the emoticon for tongue-in-cheek hyperbole.

Bill
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

I don’t know whether to feel vindicated or scooped. I just finished a piece on my own blog about their similarities. The pitch selection is an interesting angle I hadn’t thought of. The interesting thing I found is that Mujica ought to have struck out more batters than he did last year, given his high swinging strike rate (12.5%).

jessef
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

pitchers who rely heavily on secondary offerings strike out fewer than their whiff-rates would imply

the comments section of this article digs into it

http://www.bluebirdbanter.com/2013/11/15/5108122/you-at-my-side-and-bluer-skies-above-me-ubaldo-jimenez-and-predicting

james wilson
Guest
james wilson
2 years 7 months ago

Cherington is being revealed as quite an interesting mind, perhaps as much so as Beane or Friedman. Everybody has similar data, but you still have to have the balls of a burglar and the judgement to sense when nobody is home.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 7 months ago

He got lucky last year. Team had the highest BABIP of any team since 1930 and hardly had any injuries, almost every player out performed their projections. The one injury to the rotation that they had he had the payroll to go out and get Peavy at a cost of 14.5 million a year (not many teams could do that). The Dodgers trade was a gift and the farm system is stocked with Theos boys.

Also, while he struck gold with Koji, he did not do so well with Bailey, Hanrahan and Melancon and gave up about 10 prospects for them (granted, not all were top prospects)

james wilson
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james wilson
2 years 7 months ago

He got amazingly, ridiculously lucky, but luck does favor the prepared. He was prepared to lose Bailey, Hanrahan, and Melancon.

NS
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NS
2 years 7 months ago

Yeah, it was all luck. Farm? All Theo. Doesn’t matter that Ben was the Assistant GM. Good trade of Theo’s bad contracts? Just lucky the other team was dumb. A player outperformed his projection? Just luck, no scouting or in-house analysis involved. Few injuries? Just luck, doesn’t matter that the medical staff has seen a full and complete overhaul under Cherington. Had the payroll to get Peavy? Just lucky to be in that market, no need to credit the trades that afforded him that payroll space. Good performance? All I have to say is BABIP; no analysis needed.

Cherington has made as many questionable moves as he has commendable ones, but your summary was uselessly shallow.

james wilson
Guest
james wilson
2 years 7 months ago

I get it, you have a man crush on Teo, but it was Teo who went off the philosophical cliff leading to the collapse of ’11 and his second great escape, this time to Chicago. The first was in a Gorilla suit. No matter how smart this girl is he doesn’t have the balls for the job. Cherington has wiped all the FO ass kissers off the levers of power.

Izzy
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Izzy
2 years 7 months ago

James, you might want to reread NS’s post.

William Huang
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William Huang
2 years 7 months ago

Of course, a couple of the prospects he did give up ended up doing quite well (Lowrie and Reddick), but IIRC most of the players were potential Rule 5 guys that they ended up getting something for.

John C
Guest
John C
2 years 7 months ago

There was a fair amount of luck involved, but some of that was also a function of the team itself. The Red Sox had the third-highest line-drive rate in baseball (the top five line-drive teams were also the top five in team BABIP), and they also had the third lowest ratio of ground balls to fly balls, meaning they didn’t often put themselves at the mercy of ground balls finding holes in the defense. A team BABIP of .329 is unsustainable, but the Red Sox are constructed in a way that they should have an above-average BABIP.

GreggB
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GreggB
2 years 7 months ago

Yes, of course the team got lucky. It almost always takes luck to go all the way. But that’s irrelevant. The fact is that he constructed the team somewhat differently than his peers.

What distinguished Cherington was the focus on deep depth rather than replacing superstars. It worked.

HAL9100
Member
HAL9100
2 years 7 months ago

He replaced Adrian Gonzalez with Mike Napoli and upgraded like crazy at short and in the OF with the Victorino signing and Ellsbury’s health. How was his focus on depth?

Paul
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Paul
2 years 7 months ago

How do you think they’ll utilize two guys with practically identical skill sets? Obviously Uehara fit nicely into the ‘closer’ role this year, perhaps next year they alternate between Mujica and Uehara to give them a rest? Or do you see them using one as a setup man for the other?

Spit Ball
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Spit Ball
2 years 7 months ago

I was thinking along the same lines as you. Wondering how much any similarities might hinder them. They are going to pitching in the same games generally if I had to guess and Uehara is closing until he proves he cannot. I suppose if they threw Mujica in the seventh and Koji in the ninth then some hitters might get to face both of them. I don’t expect Koji to pitch quite as well as he did last year (how could he?). But I don’t think in the long run it’s really going to affect either guy and his numbers.

dragnalus
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dragnalus
2 years 7 months ago

Farrell showed a pretty strict allegience to the Closer Paradigm last year so I think Koji will get all the opportunities (unless he’s already gone 2-3 days in a row) until he gives a reason not to.

JimEd14
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JimEd14
2 years 7 months ago

They’ll probably stop bringing Koji in for the 8th so often.

NS
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NS
2 years 7 months ago

Koji did not begin the year as a starter, or even an 8th inning guy. Neither will Mujica.

Z.....
Guest
Z.....
2 years 7 months ago

makes me even more upset about the Ryan Webb non-tender over $1.5 million….as a Red Sox fan, I like this signing. I’ve been a Marlins season ticket holder for years and got a chance to see “Chief” (nickname given to Mujica by Jack Mckeon) a ton. He doesnt walk guys, and uses that split to get ground balls. He might be a little HR friendly, but I dont see that killing them. The biggest win here though is how amazing he is in the clubhouse and for the atmosphere down in the bullpen. When he was traded to the Cardinals, you could tell the Marlins bullpen didnt get over it until at least midway through 2013. He is hilarious and really keeps the mood going in a good direction, while at the same time being serious when he needs to be. He should be a PERFECT fit for this Red Sox team

Z.....
Guest
Z.....
2 years 7 months ago

one thing Mujica does have different from Koji is that he usually has a fastball between 91-94, usually keeping it at 92…I havent looked at the stats here, which is normally something I would do before saying something, but I’ve seen Mujica more than enough to know how he is at his best. I remember that he has always been better against LHs than RHs b/c of that split. I also know that at the end of his Marlins tender, he was throwing it a lot less for whatever reason and struggled a bit until going to the Cardinals where they arent stupid….

James Lahey
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James Lahey
2 years 7 months ago

His FIP and xFIP are better against righties than lefties. His wOBA against is 5 points higher against righties. So maybe the most you can say is that it’s inconclusive?

Z.....
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Z.....
2 years 7 months ago

like I said, I didnt look up the numbers when I made the post. I was just going on memory. Looking them up now, it seems the only year he wasnt better against lefties was in 2012 when I mentioned that he threw his split a lot less…

Jim Lahey
Guest
Jim Lahey
2 years 7 months ago

I’m also concerned it might allow batters a better look/feel vs the 2 of them. I hope the Red Sox manage to pick up a flame thrower or 2… there seems to be too much reliance on the softer tossing change/split guys (Uehara, Breslow, now Mujica). Maybe the Red Sox came up with some numbers that say the AL East is much better vs. fastballs than offspeed?

BigPattyG
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BigPattyG
2 years 7 months ago

If the Sox are using Muji/Koji as the 8/9 guys, then hopefully anybody seeing Mujica in the 8th wouldn’t then see Koji in the 9th. Still, there’s something to be said for a change of pace. My favorite 8/9 combo was Oki/Pap in 2007. Going from a crafty lefty with crazy offspeed stuff to a flamethrowing righty was fun to watch.

NS
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NS
2 years 7 months ago

But as you just said, no trio of batters ever did actually go from one to the other.

John C
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John C
2 years 7 months ago

I think the Red Sox are just trying to build up the strongest bullpen they can, and in Mujica, they’re buying low on a quality bullpen arm. They already have one guy in Andrew Miller who can throw bullets out of the bullpen, and if they put Rubby down there, they’ll have two.

NS
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NS
2 years 7 months ago

Sounds made up. Are you concerned with a bullpen features two flamethrowers with breaking balls in the 8th and 9th? It’s a non-issue.

KB
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KB
2 years 7 months ago

If you are afraid of them being similar, I would think you would pitch Mujica in the 8th and Uehara in the 9th, since, if you’re a Boston fan, you’re hoping/assuming a hitter in the 8th won’t be getting an AB in the 9th, whereas it is very possible a hitter from the 7th might, even w/ a decent pitching performance from your 7/8/9 pitchers.

Billy
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Billy
2 years 7 months ago

Are 6’2″ and 6’3″ really “somewhat undersized?” I know pitchers are tall, but I feel like our definition of short is starting to get absurd. Righty pitchers aren’t always 6’4″ or 6’5″, especially in the ‘pen. I don’t consider a ball player small unless they’re under 6′ (and that’s just for pro athletes, being just under 6’ is a normal height for the general population of men). For righty starters, I’ll bump that up to 6’2″.

Sorry maybe I’m a little bitter because I’m 5’10” and I’ve found myself called short on occasion recently (and I’m not talking about in sports). Kinda like our standards of beauty for women, I feel like our societal perception of what is “tall” or “short” for men is becoming a little ridiculous.

Billy
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Billy
2 years 7 months ago

I just realize I left myself wide open to crude jokes. I’m talking about height, for all of you with your minds in the gutter. There, I cut you off at the pass.

John Bobbitt
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John Bobbitt
2 years 7 months ago

You had to say “cut off”??

ian
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ian
2 years 7 months ago

Yeah, it is kind of weird to call Koji undersized. Craig Kimbrel is 5’11” but I haven’t heard much about him being undersized.

I guess Koji is pretty skinny, but he’s still a pretty big dude. He does wear an enormous glove for a pitcher, which might make him seem smaller.

MrMan
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MrMan
2 years 7 months ago

Except Koji’s so skinny he could be blown over by a stiff breeze; I think that’s where the undersized comment on him comes from.

Digit
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Digit
2 years 7 months ago

Honestly I think anyone would look skinny after being picked up and, uh, bromanced by Big Papi.

B N
Guest
B N
2 years 7 months ago

“almost entirely overlooked the earlier portion of his big-league career”

Unless you played fantasy baseball, of course. Anyone who could overlook peripherals like Uehara’s WHIP would need to either lose a lot or play in a very uncompetitive league. He had buzz even in his first year with the O’s as someone who might grab the closer’s job, if I recall.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 7 months ago

I honestly don’t see how teams like the Yankees and Tigers were not in on him for that kind of money.

John C
Guest
John C
2 years 7 months ago

They might have been. He might have just preferred to sign with the Red Sox. Mujica had flown under the radar this off-season, but I’m sure he was getting offers from interested teams.

If money’s not really an issue, you can do a lot worse than signing with the reigning World Champions, who want you to join their team and who have a manager and coaching staff with an excellent track record where pitchers are concerned.

David B
Member
David B
2 years 7 months ago

Does anyone think the Dodgers overpaid for Wilson (1/10) in relation to Mujica (2/9.5)? I know the Dodgers can afford to give anyone a one-year contract, but it appears fairly aggressive and above market given the cost (or perceived cost) to sign non-closers in this market.

My echo and bunnymen (Dodgers Fan)
Guest

I wouldn’t say it’s an over payment by comparing 2 pitchers, because then who wouldn’t be if compared to Mike Trout, but I would say it is a slight over payment for a relief pitcher, but it is just a 1 year commitment and not a crazy 1 year commitment. So, I’m not too mad about it.

MrMan
Guest
MrMan
2 years 7 months ago

With the Dodger’s finances “overpayment” becomes almost impossible. They can afford to pay whatever it costs to fill a role. Obviously, there’s limits to that, but the Dodgers have yet to reach them. Doesn’t mean it’s smart, just not as impactful as it would be on a team with lower finances.

Cory
Guest
Cory
2 years 7 months ago

Uehara/Mujica last year combined for 139 innings, 14 walks and 147 K’s. Yea…

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