Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/21/13
Like many relievers, Koji Uehara basically throws something fast, and something offspeed. Unlike many relievers, Uehara doesn’t really throw a breaking ball. He throws a pitch that breaks — every pitch breaks — but you don’t look for him to throw a slider or a curveball. After Saturday’s ALCS Game 6, when Uehara was all the rage, someone on FOX asked Boston manager John Farrell if Uehara had  thrown a curve before. Farrell said his closer thew one once and hit a guy; he hadn’t thrown a curveball since. Everything else was fastballs and splitters, and because of those pitches — and because of Uehara’s command of them — he didn’t need anything else on the way to one of the greatest relief seasons in recent history. You could say Uehara’s third pitch is location. That wouldn’t make sense, but people would know what you meant. I decided to fact-check Farrell’s remark. At least, I think it was Farrell, but it doesn’t matter in this instance. Uehara did throw a curveball this season. According to Brooks Baseball, it was one of the least frequent pitches in the league, like Kris Medlen‘s slider, or Mark Melancon‘s changeup. But it did exist. Just not exactly as Farrell remembered it. In fact, this past season, Koji Uehara threw three curveballs. These are their stories. Before we get into the pitches, a little background. From an article from February 2006: “I’ve received suggestions from people, so I’m going to capitalize on them,” he said. “My fingers stick to the seams well, so I was able to use that to my advantage. Still, when I throw sliders and cutters, it feels slippery. I’ve got to get used to it.” [...] “My fastball was good, but I have to work on my breaking ball,” Uehara said. Many years ago, Uehara had a breaking ball, which was a slider. Now, from a January 2009 article: More noteworthy, however, is Uehara’s new spike-curvey pitch of his own creation. Uehara’s never really thrown a curveball much — 1-2 times per game in Japan, though I don’t remember ever seeing him throw one. He’s calling his new creation a “one finger curve”, which he grips with his middle finger only. This is confirmation that Uehara has had a curve in the past. He debuted in the majors in 2009, and according to PITCHf/x, he threw 14 curveballs that year. The next season he moved from the rotation to the bullpen, and he didn’t throw a curve. He didn’t throw one in 2011. And he didn’t throw one in 2012. But this season: three of them. You don’t need to really understand PITCHf/x data to get that three pitches stand out in this pitch chart, from Texas Leaguers: There’s everything else Uehara threw, and then three pitches by themselves. They’re classified here as sliders, but ignore that. Obviously, they were much slower pitches, and they broke very differently. Mistakes, perhaps? Not mistakes. Curveballs. Deliberate curveballs. Let’s take a look, in order. CURVEBALL NO. 1 Date: June 1 Opponent: Yankees To this point, obviously, Uehara hadn’t thrown an in-game curveball in a long, long time. He’d frequently lived and less frequently died on fastballs, splitters and a handful of cutters. From the looks of things, though, Uehara wanted to try a curve out, and the circumstances here were perfect. Uehara was responsible for the bottom of the ninth. The Red Sox were winning 11-1, and Uehara had retired the first two batters. Up walked Ichiro, in as low-leverage a plate appearance as there could possibly exist. The catcher was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and he didn’t call for a curveball first. This was apparently Uehara’s idea, and he shook to his breaking ball before immediately beginning his delivery. Everything about it looked normal until the end part. That was a terrible pitch! A really terrible pitch! One of Uehara’s worst! The first curveball Koji Uehara threw this season missed way up and way away, and thankfully it came in the ninth inning of a 10-run game. Presumably, that’s exactly why Uehara was willing to try things out. Eventually he’d recover to make Ichiro whiff at a splitter that was down. CURVEBALL NO. 2 Date: June 9 Opponent: Angels Let’s say, hypothetically, you’re interested in trying a pitch. In a game situation, I mean, not just in a side bullpen. There’s no substitute for game experience for a new pitch, and if you’re trying to fold something in, you’re not going to scrap it after one mistake. The first curveball Uehara threw was bad, but it wasn’t bad enough that he’d be afraid of going to it again. It stood to reason he’d try a curve in a game a second time, and it took him barely more than a week. Again, the circumstances were perfect. Uehara was called in to handle the top of the eighth of a game the Red Sox were winning 10-3. Right away, Uehara got Mark Trumbo to ground out, which brought up Howie Kendrick with one out and none on. Curveball time. Sixty-nine miles per hour. Why not? The catcher, again, was Saltalamacchia. While it’s hard to tell for sure, it seems like Uehara shook to the curve. Saltalamacchia set up a little down and a little away. Uehara threw the pitch up and he threw the pitch in, and it bonked off Kendrick’s shoulder. Thankfully for Kendrick, this was Uehara’s slowest pitch of the year. Seems like the right time to call in this chart: Those are all of Uehara’s pitches from 2013. See those two green ones in the upper left? Uehara’s first two curveballs. They missed as badly as anything else, if not more. And the really tragic part? Not only was Kendrick Uehara’s first and only hit batter of the year. He was Uehara’s first and only hit batter of his big-league career. He’s got one, in 286 regular-season innings. Zero, in 11.1 postseason innings. Also, zero in seven minor-league innings. Uehara didn’t hit a batter in Japan in 2008. For his previous hit batter, you have to go back to Japan in 2007. Uehara had a nice and neat little record, then he went and spoiled it because he wanted to try something he didn’t need to get to work. Greedy! CURVEBALL NO. 3 Date: July 23 Opponent: Rays Uehara, I think, was understandably nervous to use the curve again after missing so badly twice in eight days. I’m sure he didn’t like the fact he hit a guy, and the pitch wasn’t even going to be necessary for him. Between June 10 and July 21, Uehara allowed two runs in 20 innings, one of which was unearned. He had 29 strikeouts, two walks and a .295 OPS against him during that period. With a fastball, a cutter and a split, Uehara was already one of baseball’s best relievers. He wasn’t in need of a breaking ball, but he whipped out the curve again a third time near the end of July. Same deal as before with the circumstances: Uehara was given the ninth, and he retired the first two batters. The Red Sox were beating the Rays 6-2. Up came James Loney. On deck was Jose Molina, so Uehara wouldn’t have been too worried about blowing things at this point. With the leverage low, there was a chance for Uehara to surprise Loney. Saltalamacchia called for everything, but he and Uehara couldn’t get on the same page. Saltalamacchia then asked for time. Again, it was Uehara who shook to the breaking ball, after a brief delay. It was Uehara who wanted to make the pitch work. Saltalamacchia dropped down the two fingers. At least he didn’t forget that, with Uehara, he could drop down the two fingers. Surprise! This curveball, like the first two, was still elevated, but the whole idea was to get a first-pitch strike at which Loney wouldn’t swing. The curve caught the location and it caught the zone, and Uehara went and got himself ahead. Three pitches later, Loney struck out swinging at a low split. It absolutely could’ve had something to do with the first-pitch curveball. Or, it could have had something to do with Uehara being lethal, especially in two-strike counts. I don’t know how many times I need to repeat Uehara doesn’t need a breaking ball at all. But it’s interesting that he used it three times as the first pitch of an at-bat. Maybe he had the idea that from time to time he could get ahead early with a surprise curve in the zone. Not that Uehara has had a problem getting ahead or avoiding damage on the first pitch — Uehara hasn’t had many problems — but you can’t fault a guy for trying to improve, even if it seems borderline impossible for there to be more improvement. I don’t know how Uehara could’ve pitched better this season, but a few times he thought a curveball could help him. Imagine if he had that pitch, too? But he hasn’t thrown it once since July. Even though, in that third time, the curve worked. Maybe Uehara came to realize a curve wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe he still didn’t trust it, recalling the first two experiences. Or maybe Uehara’s still sitting on this, just waiting to flash it again in the World Series when the stakes are at their highest. Last year, Sergio Romo froze Miguel Cabrera with an elevated fastball. Might this be the year that Uehara freezes Carlos Beltran with a two-strike curve? I wouldn’t count on that, because Uehara’s already got his weapons. But you have to wonder about this one, because you know it’s in there somewhere. Odds are that we aren’t going to see it this October. But odds also were that we weren’t going to see it this season.
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