Uehara? You’re Cut

Well actually, it’s the opposite. But that’s a deep cut reference.

The Cubs added another arm in the pen last night, signing AARP candidate Koji Uehara to a one-year deal. I had mentioned earlier that after the trade for Wade Davis, the Cubs might want one more arm to be specifically aimed at lefties. This wasn’t exactly what I was thinking of, but in the end it might just be what they’ve done.

There are questions beyond age with Uehara, so there is a chance this blows up real good on them. But for $4.5 million and just one year, it’s not like it’s a huge risk.

Here are the flags. One, Uehara has not been durable the past couple seasons, which isn’t a huge shock for a player that’s in his 40s. He’s only thrown 87 innings the past two seasons, after piling up 138 in the previous two seasons in Boston (where he was really good). So it’s reasonable to expect at some swath of this season he isn’t going to be available. There is enough depth in the pen now and in waiting in Iowa that as long as it’s not three or four months it shouldn’t be a huge issue.

Secondly, Uehara saw a pretty huge jump in his numbers last year from 2015. His FIP and ERA went up a full run. So did his home run rate. His strikeout rate went up as well, though. His walk-rate leapt in 2015 from 2014, nearly doubling. That might be to do with his ever declining fastball velocity and trying to pick the edges more and more, or avoiding the middle of the plate to be more accurate. Still a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is more than fine. It’s just not the 10-to-1 he feature in ’13 and ’14.

What hasn’t helped is the past two years Uehara saw a drop in his LOB% from his dominant years. In ’13 and ’14 it was over 90%. The past two years it’s been 70% and 81%, and that second number is probably what we can expect in 2017. Still, his fastball hasn’t lost too much effectiveness. In 2013 hitters whiffed on a quarter of the swings they took at his fastball. They whiffed at 45% of his splitters. The number remained the same for his fastball last year, and was at 37% for his splitter.

What I think the Cubs are looking at is that lefties whiffed on 45% of his splitters last year. Overall, Uehara held lefties to a .211 wOBA last year, striking out a third of all the ones he faced. In 2015 it was a .208 wOBA, and the only real difference was a jump in his homers-to-fly ball rate, which is something of a luck thing. In 2014 it was a higher .268 but in his all-conquering 2013 it was a .145 wOBA from left-handed hitters. You can see what the Cubs might see in all this.

While it’s not common to use a righty to get out lefties, I don’t think the Cubs give a shit which side you throw from if you can get that hitter out. We saw Maddon use Grimm in this way for a part of last season, before Montgomery was brought in and Wood was basically the only lefty they had out in the pen. They might not have either in the pen this coming year, and we don’t know what we’ll get from Scrabble II.

Still, given his age, durability, and declining stuff it’s not a guarantee. Encouragingly, Uehara was able to raise his vertical release point last season, and it’s not a huge leap to suggest his injury problems in 2015 had dropped it. You get more tilt on a splitter that way.

And we know that Maddon likes to have one guy out there who does it through deception instead of power, which is why he put us through the Joe Smith Experience last year. I know, you forgot that happened, but it did. You could argue that Trevor Cahill the year before that fits in this folder as well. It’s what he does. As Macho Man would say…


-In every other year of my Cubs fan existence, Fowler signing in West East St. Louis would have sent me into a rage. But what do I care? We’ve got a ring now. He got to cash in, and I don’t think Fowler suddenly puts them over the top. Especially if his age helps him decline in the field. Do we really think he’s going to manage to top his career-high in OBP in his 30s? Or match that .350 BABIP?

Good for Dex. He deserves to cash in. He’ll be a beautiful flower growing out of the manure in St. Louis and the Cardinals. And he’ll lose to the Cubs just like the rest of them will.

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