The Red Sox entered Thursday with just five blown saves, second fewest in the American League, and they hadn’t blown a save opportunity in the month of June. Nonetheless, it’s now apparent that the team’s bullpen blueprint is a mess that awaits revision.
Craig Kimbrel has been largely what the Red Sox anticipated when they traded for him, but the relay to get to the closer is no longer functional. Carson Smith is gone for the year while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and while the Sox had the depth to withstand one loss, they now face a more drastic reorganization given the ongoing decline of Koji Uehara.
Uehara has never been reliant upon his velocity, yet the fact that his fastball is averaging a career-low 86.8 miles per hour – a progressive decline since he averaged 89.2 mph in 2013 – says something important. Uehara has never been a ground ball pitcher, yet the fact that he’s getting grounders on a career-low 21.1 percent of balls put in play against him – down from a career-high rate of 40.4 percent in 2013 – also reveals something about his ability to create the necessary movement to avoid the barrels of bats.
Right now, at 41, Uehara looks like a pitcher for whom age represents an impediment to consistent dominance. He still possesses the ability to dominate – his 13.0 strikeouts per nine innings represent a career-high, as does his 35.0 percent strikeout rate – yet that capacity tends increasingly to manifest itself in flashes rather than sustained runs.
That reality seemed to strike Uehara like two lightning bolts in the Red Sox’ 8-6 loss to the White Sox. Entrusted with a 6-4 lead in the eighth inning, Uehara was twice bowed, first crouching to the ground, hands on head, after Melky Cabrera (batting lefthanded) ripped a hanging split for a game-tying two-run homer into the bullpen, then again crumpling to the ground two batters later when Brett Lawrie launched a go-ahead solo homer to left on another hanging split.
There are times when the splitter dives in a way that is familiar to Uehara, yet others when it rolls into barrels of bats. Already, Uehara has allowed five homers this year, two more in 26 1/3 innings than he allowed in 40 1/3 innings a year ago; he allowed five homers in 74 1/3 innings during his epic 2013 season.
Opposing batters are swinging at more of his pitches in the strike zone than ever. They’re swinging-and-missing at pitches in the strike zone less than ever. They’re chasing pitches out of the strike zone less frequently than ever. Uehara’s power of deception – the ability to make balls look like strikes, and strikes like balls, and to get swings and misses with either – is diminished.
“It’s been the late action to the split that’s been the difference on a consistent basis vs. years past,” said manager John Farrell. “Whether it’s a decrease in the arm speed where you see the velocity on his fastball even tick down a little bit, again, the late action is typically a direct result from maybe a little bit of decrease in arm speed.”
That Uehara is dealing with diminished arm speed raises questions about how he can best be used. He had three days of rest entering Tuesday and had pitched just once in the previous nine days, giving the veteran what Farrell described as “ample rest.”
Yet he couldn’t preserve the two-run lead, deepening the Red Sox’ slide and raising all kinds of questions about the Red Sox’ journey through the late innings. Uehara is now vulnerable in a way that typically costs pitchers their roles – he’s one of 14 pitchers in the majors and one of six in the AL to have allowed multiple runs at least five times in an appearance of no more than an inning of work.
Farrell didn’t say that Uehara would be removed from the setup role, but he also didn’t rule it out.
“We’ve got to take a look at the internal guys who are ready for more, for certain matchups,” said Farrell. “I’m not here to say that Koji’s out of the setup role, but at the same time, if we’re going to put someone else in that spot, we’ve got some work to do.”
Perhaps the Red Sox will restore Junichi Tazawa (2.93 ERA, career-high 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings, holding righties to a .218 average and lefties to a .156 mark) to the eighth inning and employ a matchup-based approach to the 6th and 7th. They have some interesting raw materials with which to work:
■ Lefties are 2-for-26 (.077) with a .226 OBP and .115 slugging mark along with 10 strikeouts against Robbie Ross Jr.
■ Righties are hitting .127/.171/.197 with a 29 percent strikeout rate against Heath Hembree.
■ Uehara’s struggles with homers have come mostly against righties. He’s held lefties to a .190/.277/.286 line.
The Sox seem likely to at least explore their internal candidate pool to see if they can find a secure bridge to Kimbrel before they hit the trade market in earnest, exposing themselves to the uncomfortable possibility of trading long-term prospect assets for short-term relief help. Still, right now, the anticipated bullpen depth is instead characterized by a sense of depletion, giving the sense that Uehara might not be the only one covering his head with his hands, wincing at what’s transpiring in the late innings.