Hisashi Iwakuma’s Arm Strength

Dave · July 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Hisashi Iwakuma makes his first start of the season tonight, filling in for the once-again-hurting Kevin Millwood. When Iwakuma pitches well (and that’s more likely than not, given that the game is taking place in Safeco and the Orioles aren’t very good at hitting right-handers), you’re going to hear people talk about how Iwakuma has “built up arm strength” and vastly improved over what he was earlier in the season. You’re going to be fed lines about how Eric Wedge’s usage pattern with Iwakuma has finally helped create a guy who is ready to pitch in the big leagues. You’re going to be told that Iwakuma needed three months of rest to get ready to get big league hitters out.

Don’t buy into any of it. It’s all BS. Here’s Hisashi Iwakuma’s velocity chart, tracking his average fastball speed over the course of the season.

Or, if you prefer numbers, here’s Iwakuma’s average fastball velocity by month:

April: 90.5 MPH
May: 90.8 MPH
June: 90.1 MPH

That’s right, the guy who has been building up his arm strength is actually throwing slightly less hard in June than he did in April. Of course, that’s essentially a function of the fact that he was asked to pitch back-to-back a few times in June, when he had longer layovers between outings in April, but the reality remains is that even well rested Iwakuma isn’t throwing any harder in June than he was in the first month of the season.

As for performance, that’s fairly consistent too.

April: 10% BB%, 20% K%, 50% GB%, 4.11 xFIP
May: 9% BB%, 20% K%, 45% GB%, 3.92 xFIP
June: 14.5% BB%, 16.5% K%, 67% GB%, 4.30 xFIP

Iwakuma has been basically the same pitcher all year long, getting a good amount of groundballs and an acceptable amount of strikeouts while issuing too many walks and giving up too many home runs. Whether the command problems (which were never a problem in Japan) are a result of his marginal stuff not playing that well in the US or inconsistent usage is impossible to know, but the fact is that he’s shown enough movement and velocity to get Major League hitters out when he’s throwing strikes with consistency.

Iwakuma’s probably not a great MLB pitcher. He doesn’t have a devastating out pitch, and his skillset works best when he can pound the zone, which he hasn’t done regularly enough. But he’s probably a decent Major League pitcher, a guy who can get a bunch of grounders and mix his pitches well enough to get strikeouts when needed. And the truth is that Iwakuma’s been that guy from day one.

His results were bad in spring training because of an inflated BABIP, but there was never any reason to relegate him to the mop-up role that he ended up stuck with. Wedge’s refusal to use him was always foolish and a waste of a decent pitcher. That Iwakuma is only now getting a shot at the rotation is the result of poor decision making by the organization, and at this point, the best the team can hope for is that Iwakuma proves that they’ve had a viable #4 or #5 starter hanging out in the bullpen all along. Given the team’s struggles to find quality back-end starters this year, having Iwakuma step forward and grab one of those spots would be a nice boost for the club, and give them another potentially interesting piece to evaluate in the second half.

It’s just too bad that it took until July for it to happen. Don’t let the revisionists try to sell you a load of crap about Iwakuma not being ready for this job in April. The reality is that he’s the same guy now he was then, and his future success is simply going to be more evidence that the Mariners got it wrong coming out of spring training.


14 Responses to “Hisashi Iwakuma’s Arm Strength”

  1. gerrythek on July 2nd, 2012 2:26 pm

    Dave: are you trying to argue using facts again? THAT will not endear you to current management.

  2. SunDevil1 on July 2nd, 2012 2:40 pm

    Did those data come from “Frangraphs?”

  3. Westside guy on July 2nd, 2012 2:52 pm

    Lets hope Iwakuma has a good start tonight – and I’m removing the rest of my snarky anti-Wedge comment. 😀

  4. msfanmike on July 2nd, 2012 3:13 pm

    Good data.

    Hopefully, Iwakuma will pitch well tonight and assume Millwoods spot – thereby providing Millwood an opportunity to fill Ramirez’ spot (assuming Millwood is physically capable) in a few days.

    Then, the organziation can soon decide who might fill the Noesi spot (if he continues to perform poorly) assuming Ramirez returns in relatively short order.

    The starting rotation is messy and yes – Iwakuma is not great, nor is he anywhere near their worst option for the rotation.

    I don’t know how long the leash will be for Noesi in a starting role, but hopefully Iwakuma can somehow find a way to help shorten it while others can get healthy and/or advance up the organizational ladder.

  5. just a fan on July 2nd, 2012 3:57 pm

    Isn’t the allegation more that Iwakuma wasn’t bouncing back from outings quickly enough?

    Seems an impossible to verify nethertruth.

  6. terryoftacoma on July 2nd, 2012 4:01 pm

    His stats has a starter being tonight. We’ll have to wait and see how he does.

    Sadly, Mike. I don’t think they have a leach on Noesi as a starter. He’s your basic gap filler.

    I’m not sure where I’d hear the revisionists. I don’t pay much attention to local media.

  7. PackBob on July 2nd, 2012 4:31 pm

    Iwakuma fell victum to the eyeball-test analysis of results, similar to Ichiro’s having lost a step to explain his downturn. See the results, think of a reason why, “see” the reason why in player performance – bingo, it explains the results!

  8. greymstreet on July 2nd, 2012 4:32 pm

    Could it be that since they figured they have other back-end SP options they decided to hold Iwakuma back until they really needed him in order to avoid his usage-based bonuses from kicking in? The other guys – e.g. Beaven, Ramirez – you pay minimum wage, and the savings from Iwakuma’s potential $3.4m incentives more than pays for it.

  9. _Hutch_ on July 2nd, 2012 5:01 pm

    @greymstreet – Man, I hope that’s not it. I’m not really sold on Iwakuma being much of anything in the rotation and I’m not sure that the team really lost a whole lot by putting him in the pen and hoping that younger guys like Beavan and Noesi took a step forward (they obviously haven’t). I take the front office at it’s word that they were concerned about his ability to adequately recover between starts – mostly because the idea that they would purposely not put the best team on the field in a scheme to save money is too profoundly depressing.

  10. Dave on July 2nd, 2012 5:24 pm

    You know what you don’t do with a guy who needs regular rest between outings? Put him in the bullpen and give him unpredictable usage patterns. The actual line was that they couldn’t use him because he took too long to warm up. Of course, you can easily avoid that problem by just letting him warm up before the start of the game like he had for his entire career in Japan.

    The move to the bullpen had nothing to do with his contract. He posted bad results in Arizona and the organization overreacted. Wedge was fooled into thinking Blake Beavan wasn’t horrible, which is another sign of his inability to evaluate Major League talent. His preference for Beavan over Iwakuma led to Iwakuma’s banishment. It was dumb then, it’s dumb now.

  11. dantheman on July 2nd, 2012 5:55 pm

    Given his post-2009 history in Japan before being signed, there was no reason to believe Iwakuma would be a good major league pitcher, much less a reliable starter. He did not have a good Spring which was really no surprise. However, once the decision was made to keep him on the staff, his usage has been nothing less than criminal. No one could possibly perform well given his usage pattern. He went about 3 weeks at one point between appearances. It is reminiscent of Billy Martin’s destruction of Ken Holtzman’s career. Eric Wedge seems to always have a few players he hates to use.

  12. vetted_coach on July 2nd, 2012 6:18 pm

    Wedge is indeed a fraud as a talent evaluator in my opinion. His decision’s are predictable and generally mindless. I thought he might present a welcome change from the past few managers (everyone after Piniella except maybe Melvin) and resist upper management to an extent. He talks tough. Remains to be seen and doesn’t matter much if he’s unoriginal and un creative. I saw Iwakuma in the spring, and he seemed to be a stable, veteran addition. I expected him to at least be #5 and probably decent enough as a 4. As the season unraveled, I felt he was unused and minimized. Wedge can’t handle a pitching staff and puts together senseless lineups. His late game decisions are inconsistent. The team doesn’t run very much, and he is often out-maneuvered by the other side. To be fair, he doesn’t have much to work with.

    Iwakuma will go 6-7, the Mariners will score a run or two, and it will play out tonight like almost every Mariner game. Baltimore is a better team with a better manager.

  13. terryoftacoma on July 2nd, 2012 6:18 pm

    I’d like to see him start a games or two before I give him a rotation slot. I honest hope he succeeds. Lord know, the team could use a starter about now with all the injuries and lack of success. Still I’d like to see him start before I jump on a bandwagon.

  14. IdahoInvader on July 2nd, 2012 9:50 pm

    I personally got into it w/ Baker over this very issue. Basically I was accused of supporting conspiracies by questioning their poor usage of him.

    Baker is front and center in supporting the “he wasn’t ready w/ a poor spring training, but magically is now ready due to their extra work w/ him” story.

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