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September 18, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Why Koji Uehara?

by Sam Miller


On Tuesday, Koji Uehara allowed a baserunner. Before that, he had retired 37 batters in a row, setting a Boston record and getting within a good week of the all-time record, 45, by Mark Buehrle. Before that, he was still one of the stories of the season, a flash closer who had gone from low-leverage innings in Texas to Boston's ninth inning within a year. And before that, he was one of the most interesting pitchers in baseball, going months at a time without issuing a walk and producing historically great FIPs and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio ever.

What you probably know about Uehara is that he has excellent fastball command and a dynamite splitter. In any game he pitches, an announcer will mention his dynamite fastball command and excellent splitter. But how excellent is that fastball command? How dynamite is that splitter? And how, really, can that be enough to turn an 89-mph reliever into the American League's Craig Kimbrel?

And geeeeeeez how does anybody get 37 guys out in a row?

Maybe we'll answer those questions, or maybe we'll just talk around them. This is Koji Uehara's hidden perfect game-plus.

(A few things to know going forward: projected OBPs are based on pre-season PECOTAs. Anytime you see a still picture, it's the last pitch of the plate appearance, and it was a fastball. The blue box is where the catcher set up his glove, so you can see Uehara's command for yourself. Anytime you see a GIF, it's the last pitch of the plate appearance, and it was a splitter.)

1. Chris Stewart, .302 projected OBP

Considering Uehara’s reputation—always in the zone, pitch-efficient—it’s a bit surprising to find that he rarely gets a first-pitch out. This season, he has faced 241 batters and only 15 have put the ball in play; another was hit by the first pitch, so 6.6 percent end in one pitch. The league average is 10.6 percent, and the league-average pitcher is nowhere near the strike zone as often as Uehara.

But of course that’s because Uehara throws a first-pitch splitter almost half the time. He does throw a lot of pitches in the zone, and he does get a lot of swings on those pitches, but batters whiff a spectacular amount of time—about a fifth of his first-pitch splitters, for instance. Uehara is pitch efficient; he is not, like some strike-throwers who get hit all over the place, pitching to contact. He’s pitching to the whiff.

But here, with a big lead and two outs in the ninth, he throws a first-pitch fastball to Chris Stewart that runs over the plate. Stewart pops it up to third base.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart out: 69.8 percent.

2. Marco Scutaro, .323 projected OBP

When starters convert to relief and become superhuman, we usually look at their velocity and see the big increase in shorter bursts. Uehara got a little bit of that, but not much; his four-seamer as a starter in 2009 was 87.1, and as a reliever in 2010 was 88.3. But the strange thing is that it kept going: 89.3 in 2011-2012, and up to 89.9 this year. Since that first-pitch fastball to Chris Stewart, his average fastball has gone up still further: 90.2 mph. That’s not gas, by any means. But the difference between 88.3 and 90.2 is kind of a big deal, and I imagine you won’t find many 38-year-olds adding velocity.

Here he throws two fastballs to Scutaro, the second one inducing a grounder up the middle. It’s nearly a hit. You watch a streak like Uehara’s and you wonder about the closest calls, the balls that might have ended the streak a few inches or feet in one direction or the other. I guess technically this would have done it. Technically.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro out: 47.3 percent.

3. Brandon Belt, .358 projected OBP

This is the first time you get to see the split. It’s Belt’s second time because, on 0-1, Belt swung at one down the middle that arguably made him look even worse than this one.

Maury Wills wrote a book in the 1970s called How To Steal A Pennant. It’s a spectacular mess of a book, but I’m going to quote it anyway:

It says in the book that when a pitcher has two strikes and no balls on a batter, he wastes the next pitch -- but why? We have an absurd spectacle in major-league baseball of standout pitchers, on that 0-2 count, throwing extra pitches that miss the corners and permit the batter to gain an even break. What happens invariably is that the batter becomes more aggressive and becomes a stronger threat. Most batters are more challenging when they are behind in the count. What this means, if my arithmetic is accurate, is by not going for that third strike on an 0-2 count, the pitcher has taken a .285 hitter and turned him into a .300 hitter -- and he has done this only to appease the book manager.

Like almost all pitchers, Uehara on 1-2 or 0-2 throws his put-away pitch, the splitter, most of the time. But he rarely wastes one. Of the 129 splits he has thrown on 1-2 or 0-2 this season, 75 percent have gone for strikes. Partly it’s because batters can’t lay off. Maybe mostly it’s because batters can’t lay off. There’s going to be a lot of batters not laying off in your immediate future.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt out: 30.4 percent.

4. Hector Sanchez, .272 projected OBP

Uehara gets a soft little liner toward shortstop for the final out and, hey, would you look at that. He went an entire outing without throwing a non-strike. That’s his 11th such game since 2010, which isn’t anywhere close to the leaders—Randy Choate has 35 and Javier Lopez has 34—but that’s because the leaders are usually coming in to face one batter, on one pitch if they can manage it. It’s the fourth time he has had such a game while throwing at least five pitches, which still trails the leader (Glen Perkins, with eight). Twice he’s thrown eight or more; still behind Rafael Betancourt, with four. Once he threw 11 pitches without a ball.

Let’s try a different route: outings with 90 percent strikes and at least three batters faced. Finally, we get Uehara at the top, with 10 such appearances, tied with Glen Perkins. The lesson: let’s all start paying more attention to Glen Perkins!

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez out: 22.1 percent.

5. A.J. Ellis, .356 projected OBP

That’s a strikeout swinging.

The best matchups are when Uehara faces somebody like Ellis, whose offensive value is almost totally tied up the pitcher’s inability to throw strikes. What’s Ellis going to do against Uehara, you know?

In Ellis’ case, he’s going to change his plan a bit. He goes up aggressive, taking a big hack at the first pitch. Which, whoops, is a splitter, and he’s behind 0-1. And in general, batters like Ellis haven’t done much against Uehara. Using this year’s o-swing leaderboard as a guide to patience or passivity, we find that, since 2010, Uehara has faced the top 20 pitch-takers 55 times. It’s a group that includes no-stick guys like Chris Stewart, contact guys like Marco Scutaro, sluggers like Josh Willingham, stars like Ben Zobrist. And, of course, A.J. Ellis. In those 55 plate appearances, Uehara has held the all-patient team to this line: .080/.164/.100. He has struck them out 19 times and walked them five. Relative to the rest of the league, they have drawn their walks. And also slugged .100.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis out: 14.2 percent.

6. Andre Ethier, .350 projected OBP

I’ll leave it to you to be impressed with Uehara’s streak from here on out, but just to reinforce what we’re talking about: the likelihood of getting even five major-league hitters out in a row is around one in seven. Like the likelihood of you waking up and it’s Saturday. How often does Saturday happen, really? Practically never, right. So that’s five hitters. And you’ve just begun; we’re going to be doing this article for hours still.

Ethier swung at an 0-2 splitter.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier out: 9.2 percent.

7. Juan Uribe, .287 projected OBP

You wouldn’t know this, but this is the first time in the streak that Uehara has had an at-bat end with him behind in the count. Count leverage is, of course, a big deal, and Uehara consistently wins the count-leverage battle. But I’m not sure we talk about this enough.

Uehara has, of course, been a tremendously successful pitcher. He’s better than most other pitchers, or at least better than nearly all other relievers, and he gets more batters out in relief than nearly all other starters get out as starters. But the difference isn’t that big, situationally. Uehara’s career OPS splits, compared to the league average:

Batter ahead Pitcher ahead
Uehara 0.970 0.395
Average 0.971 0.516

When he’s behind in the count, he’s no better than any other pitcher (at least on outcome pitches). When he’s ahead, he is, though not to the extent that he has, overall, been better than the league. But, of course, far more of Uehara’s plate appearances end in the good part of the pie than the bad part:

Batter ahead Pitcher ahead
Uehara 21% 47%
Average 34% 33%

Uehara’s approach doesn’t win every pitch, but it wins at-bats. Except in this case, where Juan Uribe just missed a lousy fastball.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe out: 6.6 percent.

8. Jerry Hairston, Jr, .309 projected OBP

Eight batters down, four balls thrown. One two-ball count, no three-ball counts, and one streak-saving diving stop. This comes early enough that Uehara would still (in an identical sequence of subsequent events) have had a hidden perfect game, but he’d be a lot further away from the hidden perfect record.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston out: 4.6 percent.

9. Nick Markakis, .360 projected OBP

This is the 0-1 pitch.

“He’s got the most consistent splitter that goes down, always down,” says Dennis Eckersley, after the pitch. But to my eye it’s almost as though he has two different splitters: one drops, the other tails. Here’s the one that tails:

To which Eck says, “To me, that’s like a hard knuckleball. It just disappears. That one didn’t even go down that much.”

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis out: 2.9 percent.

10. J.J. Hardy, .304 projected OBP

A hard knuckleball, or maybe almost like a left-hander's cutter, with the movement coming late and subtly. There is, for what it’s worth, an improvement in his downward movement this year, and in particular in the second half of this year:

(For simplicity, just focus on the middle line.)

Not a big difference. But there’s direction there.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy out: 2.0 percent.

11. Matt Wieters, .331 projected OBP

What is a big difference is his usage of the splitter, this year and, in particular, the second half of this year. He’s now a truly backward pitcher, throwing more off-speed pitches than fastballs, for the first sustained time:

The split to Wieters, for what it’s worth, is probably the worst pitch I’ve seen him throw so far. Through 11 batters, over the course of four games, he has thrown 31 pitches; five were balls.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters out: 1.3 percent.

12. Paul Konerko, .361 projected OBP

Three consecutive splitters by Uehara. He’s practically an honorary Ray at this point. The year’s most frequent changeup/splitter throwers:

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko out: 0.8 percent.

13. Avisail Garcia, .254 projected OBP

That’s a strikeout swinging. From 2011: “A National League scout said Uehara has a ‘magic fastball.’ His usual velocity is about 89 mph, but ‘he has great deception, it looks like the ball is coming out of his shirt,’ the scout said.”

So if you’re looking for something to do, you could go back and track Uehara’s performance by shirt color.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia out: 0.62 percent.

14. Jeff Keppinger, .329 projected OBP

Because I read ahead, I know that during this 37-batter stretch, Uehara will throw exactly one cutter. He used to throw cutters every 20 or so pitches, but apparently he has stopped, and apparently it doesn’t matter; maybe it’s for the better, in fact. But I haven’t spotted it yet. At first I thought it might be this pitch to Keppinger, but then I realized that Uehara actually just yanks it way outside and then the natural split-finger movement starts to bring it back. There was no deception in the pitch; it started wayyy outside and ended up way outside, and still Keppinger swung.

Last year, Chris Stewart told me the toughest pitch he had seen was a fastball from R.A. Dickey—a fastball down the middle, at 84 mph, while Stewart was sitting on the fastball. He basically said that, as a hitter, you get so focused on picking up the knuckleball that it gets in your brain and everything else becomes impossible. There are two explanations for Jeff Keppinger swinging here. One is that Koji Uehara’s splitter, seen multiple times over the course of an at-bat, is like putting a blindfold on a guy, spinning him around 10 times, and then making him try to walk a balance beam. The other is more insidious.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger out: 0.42 percent.

15. Dayan Viciedo, .314 projected OBP

Fifteen batters, 48 pitches, 40 strikes.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger and Viciedo out: 0.29 percent.

Accelerating, somewhat...

16. Leury Garcia, .257 projected OBP
17. Alexei Ramirez, .312 projected OBP
18. Paul Konerko, .361 projected OBP

The Konerko sequence was particularly fun. When Uehara faced him two days earlier, he got Konerko on three consecutive splitters. In this at-bat, with Konerko representing the tying run, he threw five consecutive splitters. I don’t know much about pitching, but I know that backing up changeups or splitters is usually not a great strategy, and three in a row is deadly. This was eight in a row, because Uehara’s splitter is not about changing speeds so much as destroying the batter’s sense of place in the world.

Konerko finally squared up the fourth splitter in this at-bat and hammered it foul; then hit the fifth hard foul, too. Neither pitch was down the middle, exactly; they hardly ever are. Here's Uehara's rate of pitches thrown right down the middle:

Aside: Dan Brooks points out that the gold standard remains not Uehara but Mariano Rivera.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger and Viciedo and Garcia and Ramirez and Konerko out: 0.094 percent.

19. Andy Dirks, .321 projected OBP
20. Brayan Pena, .300 projected OBP
21. Jose Iglesias, .277 projected OBP


We are now 21 batters in, and we’ve seen one two-ball count, way back when we were talking about A.J. Ellis. That’s absurd even for Uehara; he normally goes to two-ball counts about 25 percent of the time. He goes to three-ball counts, though, only 7.5 percent of the time. The average American League pitcher walks 8 percent of the batters he faces.

Better: Uehara has gone to 3-0 counts three times this year. Three times! You’re excited by this fun fact but the fun fact has not begun; I am merely establishing setting and character. The fun fact starts now: Of those three 3-0 counts, two were intentional walks. Uehara struck out the third batter.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger and Viciedo and Garcia and Ramirez and Konerko and Dirks and Pena and Iglesias out: 0.032 percent.

22. Alex Rodriguez, .349 projected OBP
23. Lyle Overbay, .334 projected OBP
24. Ichiro Suzuki, .326 projected OBP



This is the closest Uehara has come to losing his perfect streak. With a full count on Overbay, he had to throw seven more pitches to put the hitter away on strikes. Almost any one of those pitches could have meant a baserunner, considering Uehara came into the zone only once:

Then, with Ichiro, he fell behind 3-1, so he had to throw two more strikes to put him away. This was the 3-1 pitch, which is probably my single favorite pitch of the 150 or so I just watched:

Just to repeat myself: Joe Blanton pitches to contact. Nick Blackburn pitches to contact. Joe Saunders pitches to contact. Koji Uehara, by contrast, throws strikes. Wherever he throws them, that’s what they are.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger and Viciedo and Garcia and Ramirez and Konerko and Dirks and Pena and Iglesias and Rodriguez and Overbay and Ichiro out: 0.0093 percent.

25. Derek Jeter, .337 projected OBP
26. Alfonso Soriano, .294 projected OBP
27. Robinson Cano, .343 projected OBP

Twelve pitches, 11 strikes. This completes the hidden perfect game, and over the course of 27 batters he has thrown 104 pitches, just 19 of them balls, 28 of them swinging strikes. The fastest pitch he threw was 91 mph. No pitches other than fastballs and splitters and one cutter that I somehow missed. Fifty-three splitters, 20 of them swinging strikes, and just 10 for balls.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger and Viciedo and Garcia and Ramirez and Konerko and Dirks and Pena and Iglesias and Rodriguez and Overbay and Ichiro and Jeter and Soriano and Cano out: 0.0029 percent.

Accelerating a bit more...

28. Wil Myers, .320 projected OBP
29. Ben Zobrist, .353 projected OBP
30. Evan Longoria, .350 projected OBP
31. Matt Joyce, .342 projected OBP



Thirteen pitches, 12 strikes.

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger and Viciedo and Garcia and Ramirez and Konerko and Dirks and Pena and Iglesias and Rodriguez and Overbay and Ichiro and Jeter and Soriano and Cano and Myers and Zobrist and Longoria and Joyce out: 0.0.000164 percent.

32. Kelly Johnson, .309 projected OBP
33. Wil Myers, .320 projected OBP
34. Ben Zobrist, .353 projected OBP



Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger and Viciedo and Garcia and Ramirez and Konerko and Dirks and Pena and Iglesias and Rodriguez and Overbay and Ichiro and Jeter and Soriano and Cano and Myers and Zobrist and Longoria and Joyce and Johnson and Myers and Zobrist out: 0.00016 percent.

35. Brendan Ryan, .282 projected OBP
36. Vernon Wells, .291 projected OBP
37. Curtis Granderson, .328 projected OBP



Nine pitches, eight strikes. Total: 143 pitches, 26 balls. Five batters who reached so much as a two-ball count. Nineteen, more than half, never saw even one ball, and only two of those 19 put the ball in play on the first pitch.

It's a terrible circumstance that has Dennis Eckersley filling in for Jerry Remy in the Red Sox broadcast booth, but it is at least a small consolation the Eckersley gets to celebrate Uehara's streak. Mariano Rivera is, of course, our greatest relief pitcher, but there are all sorts of different words for "greatest" and at least one of those is best suited for Eckersley and Uehara. In 1989, Eckersley struck out 55 and walked three. In 1990, he struck out 73 and walked four. He threw 76 percent strikes in 1989; only one other pitcher could manage even 70, and he just barely. In 1990, he was at 74 percent, and again nobody was within six percentage points of him. Eckersley simultaneously showed just how simple pitching is—just throw strikes!—and how hard it is to do that simple thing. Now here's Uehara, a guy so flabbergastingly good that he was offered half as much money as Brandon League. Madness, this game.

So the pretty good starter who reinvented himself as an icon gets to hail the pretty good starter who has reinvented himself as—well, not yet, but something special at least. (Conversation starter: what would Uehara have to do to make the Hall of Fame? Best reliever in baseball through age 49? Four consecutive seasons of sub-1 ERAs?) In just the last four Uehara appearances that Eckersley called, the Hall of Famer described Uehara thusly:

  • Incredible
  • Machine
  • Ridiculous
  • Bruce Sutter split-finger
  • Nasty
  • Little strike machine
  • Unhittable
  • Mr. 1-2-3
  • Oomph
  • Haha
  • Kimbrel of the American League

If I'm reading the numbers below right, the odds of an average pitcher retiring these 37 batters in a row are like 1 in 2 million:

Average pitcher’s likelihood of getting Stewart and Scutaro and Belt and Sanchez and Ellis and Ethier and Uribe and Hairston and Markakis and Hardy and Wieters and Konerko and Garcia and Keppinger and Viciedo and Garcia and Ramirez and Konerko and Dirks and Pena and Iglesias and Rodriguez and Overbay and Ichiro and Jeter and Soriano and Cano and Myers and Zobrist and Longoria and Joyce and Johnson and Myers and Zobrist and Ryan and Wells and Granderson out: 0.00.000166 percent.

Loads of thanks to Dan Brooks for research assistance.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Koji Uehara,  Hidden Perfect Game

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