The Hisashi Iwakuma Cy Young Argument
As advanced stats go, I’m not sure how much nerdier it gets than xFIP-. The number, at least, takes some real-life inputs, but then it makes a bunch of hypothetical adjustments. It attempts to adjust for defense. It attempts to adjust for sequencing. It attempts to adjust for fly balls and home runs. It attempts to adjust for ballpark. The stat is valuable, in that it correlates well with future performance. Good pitchers tend to post good xFIP-, and among starters this year, no one posted a better xFIP- than Felix Hernandez. That’s really great, and we should be happy about that, but good luck using that to convince many people of anything. It’s too far removed from the game that people watch on the field.
I’m not above trying to use xFIP- to support a Cy Young argument. Especially if there’s a Mariner in the running, since it’s not like the Mariners can win anything else. But today I can make a cause for a Mariner using something much simpler, much more easily understood. There is a case to be made that Hisashi Iwakuma should win the 2013 American League Cy Young.
Boil everything down. What’s the job of a pitcher? A pitcher is supposed to prevent runs from scoring, for as long as he can. There will be runs, eventually, but there can be fewer of them. Pitchers are just trying to keep batters from advancing four bases. One base, two bases, three bases? Dangerous, but manageable. Those bases don’t hurt. The goal is to keep people from going those last 90 feet.
This season, Hisashi Iwakuma allowed 2.83 runs — earned and unearned — per nine innings. That’s an extraordinary mark. In the AL, it’s better than everyone but Anibal Sanchez, and though Sanchez edged Iwakuma by six hundredths of a point of RA/9, Iwakuma also threw nearly 40 more innings, since Sanchez had a DL stint. Voters love innings, and innings that go to good starters are innings that don’t go to other guys, who are worse. Iwakuma beats Sanchez in playing time, and he beats everyone else in straight-up runs allowed.
Make little adjustments if you want to. That’s entirely fair. Yeah, Iwakuma pitched half the time in what’s still, presumably, a pitcher-friendly environment. But how pitcher-friendly is an environment with faraway walls but the Mariners’ defense? The Mariners had one of the worse team defenses in recent baseball history, and it’s not like Iwakuma was given a special exception. The park and the defense might balance out. Yu Darvish pitched in a hitter-friendly park, but with a good defense. Max Scherzer pitched in a pitcher-friendly park, and though his defense was also not good, it was better than the Mariners’ defense. Bartolo Colon was in a relatively friendly situation. Chris Sale allowed lots more runs than Iwakuma did, and his defense, too, didn’t compare with the one in Seattle.
Where Iwakuma stood out was with runners on base. He was fine with runners not on base, but here’s an AL leaderboard, showing wOBA allowed with men on:
- Hisashi Iwakuma, .248
- Felix Hernandez, .266
- Hiroki Kuroda, .275
- Max Scherzer, .277
- Ivan Nova, .277
Iwakuma blew away the rest of the field, preventing damage in more damaging situations. Of his 25 home runs allowed, all but six were solo shots. This is how Iwakuma managed to allow so few runs, and you’ll notice that .230 BABIP with runners on base. This gets to the core of a common conversation.
What we care about, usually, is seeing what’s coming. That’s where we care most about strikeouts and walks and dingers and whatnot. It’s trickier to evaluate the past, because we don’t actually know how to divvy up credit. Countless hitters have said they can’t get good, reliable swings against Iwakuma, and this year he depressed his rate of hits given up. In particular, he didn’t budge when budging would’ve meant runs. It hasn’t been shown that pitchers can sustainably reduce hits on balls in play and pitch extra well in the big situations, but what if it happened over a few months? Iwakuma was trying to get those outs. He threw the pitches that got those outs. How can he not be given some credit? How can he not be given a lot of credit? We don’t care about sustainability looking backwards. Next year, Raul Ibanez won’t hit 29 home runs. This year, he most definitely did hit 29 home runs.
By innings and runs allowed, Hisashi Iwakuma was the top pitcher in the American League this season. If you pay more attention to the peripherals, he wasn’t. But if you pay attention to sequencing and quality of contact, he probably was. And to get a little more hardcore, Iwakuma’s average opponent had a .749 OPS. Scherzer’s average opponent had a .730 OPS. All the other candidates have figures lower than Iwakuma’s. Despite his friendly ballpark, he faced tough hitters before a lousy defense. This can’t be outright ignored.
I don’t mean to convey that I believe this argument. It’s not necessarily my argument — I still haven’t decided. I might never decide, and thankfully, I don’t have a decisive vote. I’m fully aware that I’m more receptive to the runs-based argument because the pitcher in question pitched for the Mariners. But that bias can open you up to different ideas, and Iwakuma was arguably the best at doing his job. Make some adjustments, and maybe he was still the best. How did Iwakuma limit hits, in front of mediocre gloves? Did the gloves perform unusually well, or did Iwakuma actually generate inferior contact? If the latter, isn’t that important? Isn’t that the most important?
I don’t know if I support Hisashi Iwakuma for this year’s Cy Young. I know that he’s not going to win it. But there is a case to be made, and as primitive as it might sound, it’s not that primitive, really. We know when runs do and don’t score. Runs didn’t score much, against Hisashi Iwakuma. That’s an important thing.