Like many of you, I watched Koji Uehara continue late last night to mow down hitters at an amazing rate in the late innings.
Uehara, who has served as the Red Sox closer for the last five months, was called upon to record a five-out save in a one-run game in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series - by no means an easy task. He faced five batters and retired them all.
This is nothing new for the Japanese right-hander, who started his major league career just up the road in Baltimore. He’s faced 27 batters this postseason, and has allowed just four to reach base.
Uehara’s saves are quick, easy and dominating. He has seemingly come out of nowhere and become one of the most effective closers in the game. (His 0.565 WHIP this season is just insane.)
It’s not fair to contrast the ease of his saves this season with that of pretty much any active closer, because Uehara has been that good. But watching Uehara work last night, I couldn’t help but think back to what we saw from Rafael Soriano this season.
There were legitimately times during the 2013 season when Soriano was handed a three-run lead in the ninth and made the save seem more difficult than the five-out variety Uehara locked down in a one-run game in the ALCS last night.
Soriano had a penchant this season for putting runners on with the game on the line, bringing your blood pressure up and making you grab hold of your seat or sofa cushion for dear life.
He had a .251 batting average against, second-worst among the 22 closers who recorded 28 or more saves this season. He had a 1.230 WHIP, fifth-worst among those 22 closers. Soriano allowed a whopping 8.8 hits per nine innings (a career high if you exclude the 2004 season, when he appeared in just six games) and struck out just 6.9 batters per nine innings, far and away his lowest total since his rookie season in 2002, when he was a starter.
To give you a point of comparison, Soriano has allowed 6.8 hits per nine innings and struck out 9.1 batters per nine over the course of his career.
He pitched to a 3.11 ERA, his second-highest mark since that 2004 season, and blew six saves.
Soriano threw his slider far less frequently this season than he had in the past (15.5 percent of the time in 2013, down from 40.1 percent in 2012, according to FanGraphs). For much of the year, it lacked bite. He’s always been a pitcher that has pitched up in the zone, but when he did this season, it seemed like pitches got punished. His average fastball velocity dropped from 92.2 mph in 2012 to 91.5 this season, which might have played a factor there.
Still, despite all that, Soriano still managed to notch 43 saves, second-most in the National League behind the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel. He walked just 2.3 batters per nine innings, his second-lowest total since 2007. And he finished the season strong, holding the opposition without a run over his final 12 games and converting his final 12 save chances.
Talk about a weird season.
Despite the ups and downs, despite the bloated WHIP and the stretch in August when he allowed eight runs in a seven-game span and blew back-to-back save opportunities, Soriano still put together a decent campaign.
Many fans might not see things that way, largely because Soriano was in the first year of a two-year, $28 million deal he signed last winter. You get paid like an elite closer, you’re expected to pitch at an elite level, and Soriano didn’t do that for much of this season. But he’ll be back next year, hoping for a smoother ride than the one he had this time around.
An interesting side note: Soriano’s two-year deal with the Nats included a $14 million club option for 2015 that vests if Soriano finishes 120 games between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He finished 58 games this season, so if he finishes at least 62 in 2014, we’ll see Soriano in a Nationals jersey during the 2015 season, as well.