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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.


Bumgarner Boosts His K Rate

For a former top-10 prospect on the defending World Series champions, Madison Bumgarner pitches in relative obscurity. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and international man of mystery Brian Wilson get the attention on San Francisco's staff, and LA's Clayton Kershaw is the precocious NL West lefty that pundits swoon over. Yet, the soon-to-be 22 year-old Bumgarner has quietly ranked among the NL's best while boosting his strikeout rate.

Bumgarner's K rate has climbed from about seven batters per nine innings in 2010 to 7.9 per nine in 2011. And that uptick hasn't simply been the result of facing more hitters per inning: Bumgarner has struck out 21.1 percent of the batters that he has faced this year, compared to 18.2 percent last season. That 2011 K/PA total puts Bumgarner in the same rarified air as Dan Haren, Ricky Romero and CC Sabathia.

How has Bumgarner racked up the Ks? By gaining a tick on his fastball (from 91 MPH to 92 MPH) and shifting his location of the pitch.

In 2010, Bumgarner often threw his fastball middle and middle-away to left-handed hitters:

Bumgarner's fastball location against lefties, 2010

Lefties made lots of contact against Bumgarner's fastball: his 14 percent miss rate with this pitch was well below the 17-18 percent league average for lefty fastballs versus lefty hitters.

In 2011, Bumgarner seems to be employing a high-low approach with his fastball against same-handed batters. While his 2010 fastball was at the same height in the zone most of the time, his '11 heater complements those higher offerings with more low-and-away fastballs:

Bumgarner's fastball location against lefties, 2011

That shift in pitch location is paying dividends: lefty hitters have missed Bumgarner's fastball 24.8 percent of the time this year. Most of those misses have come on fastballs high in the zone. Maybe hitters are taking weaker cuts at those high pitches because they're also trying to cover the lower portion of the zone.

Versus righties, Bumgarner pretty much threw his fastball right down the pike last year:

Bumgarner's fastball location against righties, 2010

Righty batters missed Bumgarner's fastball 11.8 percent of the time that they swung, south of the 15 percent league average.

This year, he's throwing more outside fastballs:

Bumgarner's fastball location against righties

Right-handers have missed Bumgarner's fastball 19.4 percent of the time in 2011, with the highest percentage of those empty swings coming on outside fastballs.

As a guy possessing four major league-quality pitches, Bumgarner already gave opponents much to think about when they stepped into the box. But now, they not only have to contend with an upper-80s slider, a high-70s curve and a mid-80s change, but also a fastball that goes high-low against lefties or middle-away versus righties. That's enough to give a hitter a headache.


Helton and the Fastball

Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies increased his batting average from a career low .256 in 2010 to a career average .324 in 2011.  The difference for Todd comes from his ability to handle the fastball.


Todd Helton Vs. the Fastball20102011
Batting Average 0.263 0.361
Strikeout % 19.3 10.1
Pitch Pct. 52.8 50
Swing Pct. 41.9 43.1
Miss Pct. 18 11.8
Chase Pct. 18.6 17


The difference comes from his ability to make contact.  He's swinging at these pitches at about the same rate, and chasing them out of the strike zone only slightly less.  He's cut way down on his swing and misses, and that led to a much lower strike out rate.  In general, more balls in play means more hits, and that's giving his batting average a boost.  You can see that in heat maps of his contact rate on fastballs:

Todd Helton, contact rate on fastballs, 2010.Todd Helton, contact rate on fastballs, 2011.Todd could not catch up with much off the inside part of the plate in 2010.  Now, he can cover the full lower half of the plate, and he's back being a productive hitter.