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« 2011's Best, Worst Breaking Ball Hitters | Main | Bumgarner Boosts His K Rate »

Koji Uehara: Master of the Chase

The July 31 trade deadline is less than a week away, and one of the names bandied about the most in potential swaps is Baltimore's Koji Uehara. The 36-year-old righty is having as good of a season as any reliever, posting an absurd 59-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 45 innings pitched. The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec reports that the Rangers, Pirates, Tigers and Twins have all expressed interest in Uehara.

Uehara's strikeout rate might conjure up images of a fire-breathing, high-velocity hurler, but he doesn't fit that archetype. Rather, the former Yomiuri Giant cuts down hitters by getting more outside swings than any other pitcher in the game.

Batters are chasing nearly 42 percent of the pitches that Uehara throws out of the strike zone this season. His fastball, which averages less than 89 MPH, gets a boatload of chases on high pitches. First, here's the league average swing rate for fastballs located out of the zone:

League average swing rate on fastballs thrown out of the zone

Now, here is Uehara's:

Uehara's opponent swing rate on fastballs thrown out of the zone

A major reason why those high fastballs are so hard for hitters to lay off is Uehara's tumbling, low-80s splitter. Compared to his fastball, Uehara's splitter tails in on right-handers (or away from lefties) two inches more, and drops nearly a half-foot more. Here's what hitters have to contend with when they face Uehara and his fastball/split repertoire:

Pitch break and release velocity of Uehara's fastball (yellow) and splitter (blue/green)

Given the difference in movement between Uehara's high fastball and his splitter, it's no surprise that batters are flailing at his low off-speed stuff. Here is the league average swing rate on off-the-plate splitters, compared to Uehara's:

 League average swing rate on splitters thrown out of the zone

 Uehara's opponent swing rate on splitters thrown out of the zone

Uehara does have an extensive injury history, missing big chunks of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with hamstring and elbow problems. But he has avoided the DL this year while dominating, and a team acquiring him can retain his services next year without making the sort of expensive, multi-year commitment to a reliever that so often blows up in a GM's face like a cheap ACME bomb. Uehara has a $4 million for the 2012 season that vests with 55 appearances (he's currently at 41).

He might not be the biggest name on the relief market this July, but Uehara might just be the best.

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