On Friday night, Koji Uehara pitched a scoreless 9th inning against the Los Angeles Angels in a game the Texas Rangers were losing 7-4 at the time, and went on to lose by the same score. It was a rather meaningless scoreless inning for Uehara and the Rangers, but when framed in a slightly larger context, it was somewhat mind-boggling.
Uehara went on the disabled list for two and half months this season, from mid-June until the end of August. The trip to the DL was another forgettable moment in Uehara’s time with the Rangers, in addition to being left off of the World Series roster in 2011 due to poor performance. However, since his return from the disabled list, Uehara has a 1.74 ERA, and is holding opponents to a .480 OPS.
Even more impressive is what Uehara has done in the month of September. In 11 appearances, Uehara has 8.1 IP, one hit allowed, no walks, no runs, and 14 strikeouts. Uehara has faced 20 straight batters without allowing a baserunner, and has struck out 12 of them.
This is surprising, based on Uehara’s history with Texas, as his most memorable moments are his worst. However, in light of his career, this recent performance is actually not that surprising. In MLB history, of pitchers who have pitched at least 100 innings, there is no pitcher with a better K/BB rate in his career than Uehara. His career 7.72 K/BB rate is better than any other player to ever play the game. In 2012, his K/BB rate is 12.67, with 38 strikeouts and 3 walks in 32.2 innings pitched.
This recent uptick in performance by Uehara comes at a crucial time with the MLB playoffs fast approaching. Bullpen usage tends to increase in the playoffs, and particularly in the last two years the bullpen plays a large role in the success of a postseason team. Were it not for the work of Uehara and Joe Nathan, the Rangers bullpen would be in a minor state of turmoil. Mike Adams is out with a mild neck strain, Alexi Ogando has had his struggles in a few September appearances, and beyond that it is a little hit or miss what kind of production is going to be seen from the rest of the bullpen.
One significant piece that is missing for the Rangers is a left-handed specialist, but Uehara helps fill that gap as well. In his career, lefties have a .639 OPS off of Uehara, only slightly better than righties, who have a .590 OPS. In 2012, lefties have a .583 OPS, and Uehara has faced more lefties than righties this season.
One of the reasons that the Rangers were not more active at the trade deadline this season was because of the rash of injuries that had affected the club, and the number of players that the team would be getting back from the disabled list for the final stretch of the season and the playoffs. There may be no better example of that situation playing out as the Rangers hoped than Uehara, who has positioned himself to play a critical role in high leverage situations for the rest of the year.
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