In a free agent market brimming with capable relief options, Koji Uehara is an enticing option. Originally brought over as a starter, Uehara finished his Orioles’ career as their closer. Besides his majestic sideburns, the most noticeable tool in his shed is excellent control. The 2009 season may have marked Uehara’s first on American soil and by extension his first in the frigid American League East, but he still managed a strikeout-to-walk ratio of four.
Uehara worked exclusively out of the bullpen in 2010 in between injuries and topped himself. In 44 innings, he struck out 55 and walked five. Uehara’s season included no intentional walks, no hit by pitches, and a single wild pitch. Keith Law wrote that his control plays up even more in the bullpen, citing a “grade 70 or better” on the 20-80 scouting scale. The numbers certainly support the assertion.
Not too many relievers have managed what Uehara did. Since 1901, the league has only seen a reliever with 40-plus innings post a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10 or better seven times. Dennis Eckersley did it twice (he actually posted back-to-back seasons of 18+ ratios in 1989 and 1990) and Mariano Rivera in 2008. Nobody else had met the challenge … at least until 2010. Not only did Uehara not have the best strikeout-to-walk ratio amongst relievers in 2010, he had the third best. Edward Mujica (12) and Rafael Betancourt (11.13) finished ahead, with Wilton Lopez (10) in hot pursuit.
It’s too early to speak on how those pitchers follow their historic seasons up, but if the benchmark is lowered to a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nine, then it becomes clear that undeserving relievers rarely sneak into the territory. In addition to the names above, Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Gonzalez, John Smoltz, and Doug Jones join the ranks. Lowering the threshold to eight adds J.J. Putz and Tom Morgan (while also capturing another few Eckersley seasons and a Betancourt season to boot). And so on.
Single season statistics for relievers are high in mendacity. Still, a good deal of talent is required to record a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 11, even as a reliever. If Uehara can stay healthy, he’s going to be a bright spot in someone’s bullpen come 2011.
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