If there’s any one player-related piece that I hope people take away from this season, it’s that folks begin to appreciate just how good Koji Uehara is at baseball – and I really mean that. I mean it because sure, he’s an insanely likeable guy, but I say it more from the perspective that he might be one of the most undervalued commodities in baseball and it’s nice to see a guy whose gone so unnoticed for so long, finally get his due.

To this point, there’s not a lot to be said that hasn’t been said already about Uehara since he became closer for the Red Sox back in the middle of June. He hasn’t allowed an earned run since Jose Bautista took him deep on June 30th. He has an ERA under 1. His K/BB with the bases empty is a cartoonish 28.50. In fact, he’s only walked two batters in three months.

Koji Uehara

He’s even great with kids! (Credit: FLICKR)

All of that is incredible, but you know what else is incredible? 1.) He’s been doing this for a while now; and 2.) As writers we should have been paying more attention because, really – why didn’t we see this coming?

I mean let’s take a step back for a second here and consider that last piece, because let’s face facts, his numbers are anything but subtle. In fact, since 2010, Koji hasn’t just been one of the best relievers in baseball, he might, in fact – be THE best reliever in baseball. Since then, he’s amassed a:

• 2.01 ERA that ranks 4th among MLB relievers
• 11.60 K/9 that ranks 11th among MLB relievers
• 1.13 BB/9 that ranks 1st among MLB relievers
• 2.44 FIP that ranks him 8th among MLB relievers
• 6.1 cumulative fWAR that ranks him 7th among MLB relievers

Just for a point of reference, he’s been better than Mariano Rivera in almost every statistical category and has been worth almost a full win above replacement more than the best reliever in the game’s history over that period of time.

And look – I’m not taking anything away from Rivera, here – but Mo has also had the luxury of being able to enter games in the 9th inning more often than not. That means he’s entering the game with no one on, no one out. By contrast, Koji’s been utilized as a high leverage reliever his whole career – frequently being called into games with runners in scoring position and not much margin for error.

Yet time after time, Koji’s successful.

In fact, if we measure Uehara on the basis of his WPA/LI (How many wins a player contributes to his team with the Leverage Index aspect removed – e.g. accurately weighted situations) – he isn’t just the best in the game – he blows away the competition.

Koji’s obscene 6.87 WPA/LI is not only the best in baseball, but it’s a full 1.69 better than Rivera’s 5.28 mark. To give you some context – the difference between Koji and Rivera (#1 and #2) is the same difference that exists between Rivera and the 22nd ranked guy on the list – Brad Ziegler.

The point is – Koji Uehara is elite and has been that way for some time. It’s high time we started treating him the way he should be treated – and that’s as one of the top 2 or 3 relievers in all of baseball, if not the absolute best.

This isn’t a Cinderella story and it sure isn’t a surprise. It’s just us not paying attention.

And while we’re at it, we might as well pat Ben Cherington on the back, too. He’s the guy that convinced Koji to sign a 1-year, incentive-laden $4 million contract that morphed into a 2 year, $8 million contract. Or then again, maybe we shouldn’t. Cherington, after all – is also the same guy who was OK with paying Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey a combined $11.14 million to be atrocious.

Which perhaps unearths another, more subtle lesson to be learned in the year of Koji: There are always pitchers who are undervalued on the market. Find them and pay them and let everyone else worry about overpaying for silly things like saves and ‘proven closers.’