Watching Hisashi Iwakuma
At points last year, Hisashi Iwakuma was good, bad, and everything in between. That’s a sentence that could apply to everyone in baseball, but Iwakuma came in with expectations, then got relegated to the hidden corner of the bullpen, then wound up as a starting rotation standout. Down the stretch, Iwakuma was fantastic, and he did enough to convince the Mariners he was worthy of re-signing. There really could’ve been only one complaint: Iwakuma took his damn time. “Pace” is a measure of the average number of seconds in between pitches. (Find it at FanGraphs!) (Find these USSM authors at FanGraphs!) (FanGraphs!) The league-average pace last year for starters was 21.4 seconds. Iwakuma’s pace as a starter was 26.1 seconds. This was the slowest pace out of every starter in baseball.
I remember Matthew and I talked about this on a small handful of occasions. I suppose you can’t have a handful of occasions. Unless they’re like bacteria occasions, or pistachio occasions. Anyway I think we reasonably concluded that we could put up with Iwakuma’s tempo so long as he was good, but if he started to go off the rails, he’d be intolerable and unwatchable. Ryan Franklin, at least, was fast when he was not good. Nobody wants a slow, ineffective pitcher. Nobody wants Miguel Batista.
Of course, pace doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with pitcher effectiveness, but if baseball’s here as entertainment, slower pitchers are less entertaining. Watchability is genuinely important, for us. Games that drag tend to be games that are less fun, and I don’t need to explain this any more to you. This is a fairly self-evident principle.
We skip ahead now. So far in 2013, Iwakuma’s been outstanding, matching a lot of zeroes with Felix Hernandez. Iwakuma and Felix have both allowed ten earned runs, and a dozen runs overall. Iwakuma has allowed fewer runs than Joe Saunders has strikeouts, if that helps, and Iwakuma’s just been a hell of a pitcher and a hell of a bargain. This year, if you care about park-adjusted ERA, FIP, and xFIP, Iwakuma’s been the same as Clayton Kershaw. Clayton Kershaw is amazing! Hisashi Iwakuma has been amazing.
But it’s not just that his performance has improved. His tempo, also, has improved, if reduction counts as improvement. Iwakuma’s pace, now, is down to 23.5 seconds, a drop of 2.6 seconds from last year. That’s the biggest drop for any starter in baseball, and I’ll show you the top five:
- Hisashi Iwakuma, -2.6 seconds
- Clay Buchholz, -2.1 seconds
- Tim Lincecum, -2.0 seconds
- Matt Harvey, -1.9 seconds
- Mike Minor, -1.8 seconds
Iwakuma hasn’t been fast. But instead of bringing up the rear, now he’s just a little slower than average. He’s less than a second slower than Felix, and nobody complains that Felix takes too much time out there doing nothing. I have to note that Iwakuma hasn’t allowed many baserunners, and pitchers work faster with nobody on. Iwakuma’s pace would be a little higher, I’m guessing, if he’d had to throw more pitches out of the stretch. But it’s not like Iwakuma allowed a ton of runners as a starter in 2012, so while these numbers will move around, it does look like Iwakuma’s a little quicker. In terms of performance, he’s increased his watchability. In terms of pace, he’s also increased his watchability.
Maybe 2.6 seconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time. And, really, it’s not. Especially if you consult with a mountain, or really any geologic process. But for one thing, that adds up over the course of a start. And this guy drank a whole beer in 2.6 seconds. Iwakuma has shaved a whole that guy’s beer off of his pace. Hopefully this is about the only comparison we can make between Hisashi Iwakuma and that guy, with the beer.
We used to joke about how Doug Fister just never stopped improbably getting better. First, he just stopped walking people. Then he started to get groundballs. Then he started to get strikeouts. It’s important for people to remember when they reflect on the trade — Fister then wasn’t what Fister is now. Iwakuma, too, has just gotten better. He built up his arm strength, he’s quit it with the home-run problems, and he’s working faster. Iwakuma is a legitimate, quality AL starting pitcher, and for a time in spring training 2012 Mariners people didn’t know how they’d even keep him on the roster. The days have gotten better for Iwakuma, and, therefore, for us.
Just as an overall closing note: Iwakuma has made 24 major-league starts. They’ve all come within the last one calendar year. Over that year, according to FanGraphs, he’s posted baseball’s fourth-lowest adjusted ERA, among regular and semi-regular starters. His adjusted xFIP ranks 17th out of 130, right around guys like Zack Greinke, Cliff Lee, Fister, Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, and CC Sabathia. The one thing Iwakuma hasn’t shown is in-game durability, and he doesn’t log a ton of innings, but on a per-inning basis, Iwakuma’s been as good as almost anyone. Not just this season — over the last 365 days. He is making Joe Saunders’ salary.