Koji Uehara

Is there life after 40 for Koji Uehara and big league relievers?

October 30, 2014 - 2:52 pm

A case can be made that Koji Uehara's one-year deal that included a second-year vesting option, signed as a free agent in December 2012, represented one of the best free-agent deals in Red Sox history. Uehara performed at a level of historic distinction in both the regular season and postseason in 2013, and despite a blip at the end of the 2014 season, he remained an All-Star-caliber closer. The Sox' interest in re-signing him was no secret. Still, the fact that the 39-year-old -- who will turn 40 at the start of next season -- ended up signing a two-year deal counts as a mild surprise. Should it? Can the Red Sox bank on Uehara, in his age 40 and 41 seasons, performing at something along the lines of what he did as a 38- and 39-year-old? Uehara is the ninth reliever since 2000 to have back-to-back years at ages 38 and 39 of an ERA that was at least 20 percent better than league average while working at least 40 innings in each season. He joins closers such as Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman along with a number of middle relievers such as Takashi Saito and Darren Oliver. As a group, in their age 38-39 seasons, those nine pitchers logged a total of 1,063 innings with a 2.50 ERA. Of course, since Uehara hasn't had an opportunity to pitch beyond his age 39 season, it's only worth examining his eight predecessors. That group logged a combined 925 innings with a 2.61 ERA in their age 38-39 seasons. How'd they do beyond that? The results were ... mixed. Brian Shouse and Steve Reed were close to done; both pitched just one more season in the big leagues. Russ Springer was a bit better than average (an ERA+ of 107) over the two years, while Dan Plesac enjoyed continued effectiveness (118 ERA+, 3.49 ERA) in his ongoing role as a left-handed specialist. But four of those eight -- the ones who were elite in the first place -- remained elite over the first two years of pitching into their 40s: Mariano Rivera: 1.85 ERA, 233 ERA+, 121 1/3 IP Darren Oliver: 2.17 ERA, 199 ERA+, 107 2/3 IP Takashi Saito: 2.57 ERA, 154 ERA+, 80 2/3 IP Trevor Hoffman: 2.72 ERA, 147 ERA+, 99 1/3 IP As a group, the eight relievers posted a combined 2.95 ERA while totaling 598 innings. So, there was a somewhat steep decline in innings for the group (35 percent, though that figure is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that two of the pitchers were out of the game due to performance before turning 41) but a less significant setback in ERA (a 13 percent increase). If that collective trend holds for Uehara, that would suggest that the Sox closer would be in line for 90 innings with a 1.98 ERA over the next two years. With Uehara in particular, based on what the Sox saw first-hand and on a career track record that has yielded perennially outstanding results (a 2.06 ERA in five years as a big league reliever with the Orioles, Rangers and Sox, along with the best strikeout-to-walk rate in history at 9.0-to-1) albeit with some injuries in the mix, the Sox felt comfortable with a multi-year commitment. "We felt comfortable with a two-year commitment to him," said Sox GM Ben Cherington. "That's driven really by his remarkable consistency not just with us but prior... We did not see any reason why that can't continue. He keeps himself in remarkable shape. He's a very diligent worker, a hard worker, he knows what he needs to do to get ready to pitch and he's efficient. "He's been an elite performer for us for two seasons," added Cherington. "This was an important first step in our offseason."