Digging For Saves: Koji Uehara & Josh Lueke

by Kyle Johansen

With no one “paying for saves” these days, the competition for acquiring new closers on the free agent wire continues to increase with each new season.  This year in particular there seems to be more uncertainty in closer situations than usual around the league, leaving many potential saves options in free agency. 

  • We assume the Jays are going with the fragile Frank Francisco, but they have many other experienced options they could turn to
  • The Angels are assumed to go with Fernando Rodney, despite the fact that he has never been a very good pitcher (I have my money on Jordan Walden)
  • The Rays are going with a committee, with top prospect Jake McGee being the most popular option for fantasy players (although I think Joel Peralta may steal a fair share of saves)
  • It appears that Kevin Gregg has been anointed as the closer for the Orioles despite Koji Uehara’s dominance in that role down the stretch last year

Gregg wasn’t bad last year with a 3.51 ERA to go with a 3.57 FIP, but as usual he walked too many batters ending the year at a 4.58 BB/9.  Uehara, meanwhile, displayed exquisite control to the tune of 1.02 BB/9.  Uehara not only displayed uncanny control but equally excellent command with 11.25 K/9 producing 13 Saves, a 2.86 ERA and 2.40 FIP in 44 IP. 

The problem with Uehara right now is that he has not yet pitched in a Grapefruit league game after having a cortisone shot in his elbow on March 3.  Uehara was quoted as saying, “I’m not even concerned about it”, and he is expected to throw in a game this weekend.  As the incumbent closer, and more importantly the closer who locked down games for manager Buck Showalter, I don’t see how an inferior Kevin Gregg all of a sudden takes over Uehara’s role. 

Gregg was competent as the Blue Jays closer, with 37 saves in 42 chances.  However, closers who walk upwards of 5 batters per 9 innings will not continue to be effective without a strikeout rate in the double digits.  Gregg gets his share of Ks, but a career 8.3 K/9 isn’t very impressive when you consider how many free passes he gives out. 

Even if Uehara does not begin the season as the Orioles closer, Gregg will soon lose his grip on the role with his sub-par control.  Uehara’s only red flag comes in the form of his 58% fly ball rate last year, but he still managed a solid 1.0 HR/9.  The only two stats you need to know here are Uehara’s K/BB last year was 11.00 compared to Kevin Gregg at 1.93.

Digging much deeper for saves we find a pitcher with a similar profile to Uehara in Seattle Mariners’ minor leaguer Josh Lueke.  Like Uehara, Lueke thrives due to his ability to limit walks while maximizing strikeouts.  His career minor league K/BB is 5.14 with 11.4 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9.  Lueke was a piece that came over from the Rangers in the Cliff Lee trade and spent 2010 pitching on four different teams through A, AA and AAA compiling a line of: 63 IP, 1.86 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 13.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9.

With incumbent Mariners closer David Aardsma injured and without a sure timetable to return, the torch is being passed to Brandon League to take over the ninth inning.  It is widely known that Seattle would like to trade Aardsma, meaning League may secure the job long term.  League does not strike out as many batters as most closers (career 6.72 K/9) but his extremely high ground ball rate (career 62.2%) combined with solid control (career 3.2 BB/9) make him a decent candidate to lock down the last three outs.  While I don’t expect Lueke to pick up saves any time soon, the Mariners bullpen has no depth beyond League and Lueke is one to watch in the coming months. 

Lueke isn’t owned anywhere and shouldn’t be, but I’m not sure why Uehara is only owned in 1% of ESPN leagues.  After thriving as the closer to end the season, I see Uehara as the favorite to end the O’s season with the most saves and would add or draft him in all formats.

What are your thoughts on these two pitchers?  Do you see either being a viable option in 2011?  Why or why not?

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  1. jj says:

    What about M. Gonzalez? I actually think he could be the best of the 3.

  2. Tim Barrett says:

    As an O’s fan (we all have our cross to bear), the general feeling is that Koji’s elbow may eventually need surgery. I too think that Gonzalez could be the best of the three but he’s the only real Lefty in the bullpen (Mark Hendrickson the other). Some other candidates would be Accardo (30 saves in 2007) and Jim Johnson (pitched really well for Buck at the end of last year)

  3. Kyle Johansen says:

    If Koji is healthy, his control makes him the best option in my mind. The last thing you want in the ninth is walks.

  4. foolintherain says:

    Is there a correlation between fly ball percentage and home run rate? You write the following: “Uehara’s only red flag comes in the form of his 58% fly ball rate last year, but he still managed a solid 1.0 HR/9.” So is that ratio about right or statistically off? Does it suggest that Koji was lucky?

  5. Kyle Johansen says:

    Yeah you could say he was a little lucky in giving up home runs, his HR/FB was just 7.8% up from 6.2% in 2009. I think the league average in 2010 was about 10%, so you may see his HR/FB continue to rise. As it is, his xFIP which factors in HR/FB rate has him at 2.91.

  6. Tim Barrett says:

    I think those stats are a little misleading. While a 1.0 HR/9 is solid for a Starting Pitcher, it’s bad for a relief pitcher. For example, Rafael Soriano had a 51.5% FB rate but a 0.58 HR/9. On the extreme side, Carlos Marmol had a 48.1 FB% and a minuscule 0.12 HR/9. But comparing those stats (along with HR/FB%) is so inconsistent and vary so much year to year (and ballpark to ballpark) that it’s hard to gauge a certain pitcher’s performance. That’s really what led to the FIP & xFIP stats.

  7. Kyle Johansen says:

    I think his performance in spite of a bad HR/9 just makes more of a case for him. If a guy’s throwing a lot of strikes he’s going to give up a few more homers, but most of them are going to be solo shots with his control. I’ll take the impeccable control even if it comes with a few more homers. It’s interesting looking at his game log, he had gone the entire season without giving up a home run and then gave up 5 in September. That month he had 23 K’s in 14 IP, 0.714 WHIP and 5.14 ERA.

  8. Kyle Johansen says:

    This is from Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun from a September 30th article:

    “Since surrendering a game-winning, three-run homer to the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez in the ninth inning Sept. 17, Uehara has faced 15 batters in five outings and retired every one of them. Eleven of those 15 outs have come on strikeouts.

    Speaking of strikeouts, Uehara has now fanned 41 batters since he issued his last walk to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Fred Lewis on July 16. That’s the longest stretch of strikeouts between walks in the American League since Pedro Martinez fanned 49 batters without issuing a walk in 2000.”

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