Most of you who read anything I write about bullpens in this space know I’m not a big fan of drafting closers. And that’s probably an understatement. Few sure things exist, and the ones that do usually go for such a premium that it is downright painful to buy one early, all the while passing on other cream talent. As such, I’m a proponent of only drafting closers late and absolutely scouring the wire as the season progresses to find enough pieces to win me the SV category. That’s why fantasy MVRP (most valuable relief pitcher) means so much to me. He’s the definition of everything I love; excellent performance at tremendously low cost! Remember, our definition of “most valuable” this week is essentially “most return on investment.” So while Craig Kimbrel still rode atop season rankings, he’s essentially ineligible thanks to the fourth-rounder you burned on him. And while there are multiple deserving MVRP candidates in the Senior Circuit, this is really only one reliever who stands out on the American League side. Boston’s Koji Uehara.
How did we get here? The Red Sox signed the Japanese import to a team-friendly $4.25 million contract with a vesting $4.25 million option for 2014. An under-the-radar move, it helped solidify the middle relief corps in Boston’s bullpen with a high-K% righty whose most impressive peripheral was a 3% BB% (I’m in love…). Boston headed into 2013 with train-wreck-waiting-to-happen Joel Hanrahan manning the ninth inning (who didn’t see that coming?) before he suffered an elbow injury and ended up going under the knife. Boston then tried closer-incumbent Andrew Bailey and newcomer Junichi Tazawa in the ninth inning role, but the former suffered his usual myriad of injuries and the latter (who actually posts Uehara-lite peripherals) was somewhat prone to bouts of gopheritis. Finally, after trying to keep their best reliever out of the ninth inning due to “workload” concerns, the Red Sox bit the bullet and moved Uehara into the ninth inning for good in late June.
So where did Uehara go in fantasy drafts this spring? Uh… nowhere. No ADP list I could scour up on the interwebs even listed him, most going 500-600 players deep. I took him at the tail end of a 40-man, 16-team dynasty league and no one batted an eye — he was owned in less than 10% of Yahoo! leagues for the first 13 weeks of the season. You could put a picture of Uehara next to “cheap acquisition cost” in the fantasy baseball dictionary.
Some may quibble that it should be tough for Uehara to win this award when he was only the full-time closer for approximately 55% of the season. But that’s precisely why he should win it. He’s the definition of a value play; a guy who was on the wire in essentially every standard redraft league (and, let’s be honest, the vast majority of even deep keepers and dynasties) who finished fourth among actual relievers in standard 5×5 scoring (Hisashi Iwakuma doesn’t count for the purposes of this exercise, but kudos to those who were able to freely use him in an RP slot). For those keeping score at home, that puts him ahead of guys like Aroldis Chapman (one of the “premium” guys mentioned above) and the age-defying Mariano Rivera (even Red Sox fans are going to miss seeing him pitch). Think about that — ahead of them with only half a season in the ninth inning!
Part of the reason Uehara rates so highly is that, even with only 24 saves, his rates were among the best in baseball. A 1.09 ERA and a 0.57 WHIP over 74+ innings? Combine that with another waiver wire gem like Mark Melancon (a clear contender for NL MVRP) and you have approximately 150 ERA and WHIP-saving innings. Worth at least a few roto points by themselves, and “a few” is probably being generous; I owned Melancon and Uehara together in every one of my roto leagues and finished either first or second in all ERA/WHIP categories. In fact, his rates were so good that if you just throw away saves (let’s pretend he had zilch, nada), he still would have finished 12th among all big league relievers, ahead of other 100% owned guys such as Addison Reed, Edward Mujica, Rafael Soriano, among many others.
Uehara was a bit “lucky” if you want to look at predictors, posting a 1.36 SIERA and a 2.08 xFIP. Of course, the xFIP doesn’t take into account his well-below-average LD% (15% for his career, 11% in 2013), so he probably wasn’t quite as “lucky” that rate implies (note, imagine me doing air quotes around “lucky”). Other than an ever-so-slight ERA bump, there is nothing fluky about his season. Coming into the year, we know he sat with an 88-90 mph fastball, but had an absurd 16-18% SwStr% in relief thanks to his 25+% SwStr% on his splitter. Over a quarter of the splitters Uehara throws are swung on and missed. Think about that. Not splitters that are strikes, but all splitters. One-quarter of the time a Red Sox catcher threw down the four-finger wiggle (or whatever they used to call for the pitch) a batter was doomed to fail.
While the peripherals are fun the gawk at, the only metrics (most) fantasy owners care about where the saves (24), the ERA/WHIP (1.09/0.57) and the whiffs (101). If I told you that you could have those in a mid-round reliever, you’d be downright ecstatic. Giddy. Calling Rotographs “the best fantasy site on all the internets!” Well, you could have done better! Uehara was widely available in nearly every league, even up until the week of his ascension to the ninth inning. I scooped him up in all of my leagues back in late May, mainly for the ERA/WHIP (and implored Bullpen Report readers to do the same), but he rewarded myself and his other owners with so much more. The textbook definition of the most low-cost fantasy player available, who paid out nearly infinite dividends to his shareholders.