The American League Championship Series ended on a swinging strikeout as Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias came up empty against another Koji Uehara splitter. The whiff ended Uehara’s sixth scoreless inning of the ALCS. The five-game body of work made Uehara the obvious choice for the American League Championship series, a series defined by close victories for Boston and widespread mistakes in the opposing Tigers bullpen.
To put it simply, Boston won because Boston had The Pitch.
The Pitch, of course, is Uehara’s splitfinger, the only other pitch he pairs with his 89 MPH fastball, and the only other pitch he needs. Uehara threw The Pitch 38 times in the ALCS. It was a strike 29 times. It was hit in play seven times, safely twice. It was swung on and missed 15 times, seven times for strike three.
The Pitch was thrown in the rulebook strike zone 16 times against Detroit and successfully hit in play once. The Pitch was thrown out of the rulebook strike zone 22 times. It was swung at 14 times and missed nine times.
Our understanding of pitching seems lacking, especially next to our comparatively scientific understanding of hitting. Hitting is purely mechanical — see ball, hit ball; force equals mass times acceleration. Pitching combines the mechanical with the creative. Each pitch, beyond simply the individual goal of beating the hitter, is part of a tapestry designed to keep future hitters off-balance, defensive and uncertain.
Maybe that’s why it took so long for Uehara to reach the closer’s role. There is a time-tested formula for the great closer — the great relief ace, if you prefer: throw hard, and throw biting. Of the pitchers chosen for relief ace roles — like Opening Day Red Sox closer Joel Hanrahan — most throw 95 or harder, and most throw hard sliders or other hard breaking pitches. When harnessed and control, these arsenals are the closest things we’ve seen to foolproof on the mound — think mid-2000s Eric Gagne or current Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen.
Of the 41 fastballs Uehara threw in the ALCS, 12 were above 90 MPH. The league slugged .486 against fastballs under 90 MPH and .422 against fastballs over 90 MPH. The Uehara arsenal is not a foolproof one. It requires pinpoint control. It requires a barrage of strikes. Uehara allowed a slugging percentage over .300 on just two counts all season: 2-0 and 2-1, fastball counts both.
Uehara faced just one 2-0 count and two 2-1 counts throughout the ALCS. He faced one 3-1 count. He did not go 3-0 on a single batter. In seven 1-0 counts, Uehara threw The Pitch four times. Once it was taken for a strike and thrice it was swung through.
The manager, who counts risk management at or near the top of his in-game priorities, needs to believe in his anchor. He needs to believe his anchor’s worst can beat the opponents’ best. It’s easy to believe in high-90s heat and a slider with enough spin to singe the catcher’s mitt. It’s not so easy to believe — comfortably, without anxiety, without worry, without visions of the next pitch dumped into the seats — in constant eights on the radar gun.
And so Uehara was left to clean up sevenths and eighths instead of ninths (and now eighths and ninths). As it is so often for baseball’s imperfect closers, only necessity managed to elevate Uehara. As much as John Farrell talks up Uehara’s track record and his general ability, one suspects his heart skipped a few beats as Uehara flipped up 88 MPH fastballs in the early days of his closing tenure in Boston.
But not any more. Farrell, like everybody else, has seen The Pitch. Farrell believes in the pitch. The Pitch has carried the Red Sox to the World Series. And with it, The Pitch has elevated Koji Uehara. No more worries, no more anxiety. He doesn’t fit the regular mold, but as long as Uehara has the pitch, no situation, no role can be too big for him.