Game 96, Mariners at Angels
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jered Weaver, 7:05pm
Ah, the All-Star Break. I know how much fans hate the interruption, the break in the routine of the 162-game schedule, but I’ve grown to really love it. Players talk about it, adoringly, as a chance to rest from the relentless grind of games, hotels and flights. It seems strange that a few days off could do so much, but then they’re the ones who don’t get a weekend for about nine months and I’m the one who just took a several-week vacation. The reasons a humble baseball blogger loves the break, then, are different. But, as is often the case, Jeff’s already pointed it out and summed it up perfectly. For me, the break is a respite from feeling like a fraud.
We look at numbers, we analyze pitch fx and we scour minor league box scores not out of some obsessive desire to know everything, but because at the macro level, they can inform us about the future. That minor league numbers, properly translated, tell us something about MLB success has been demonstrated many, many times, but that can’t doesn’t help when looking through the list of failed M’s prospects who hit in AA/AAA. It feels good to notice platoon splits in Jeff Samardzija’s batted ball profile, but you wonder about its probative value when he induces a flurry of grounders from the M’s lefty-dominated line-up. These macro- and micro-failures happen *all the damn time* and while it’s nice to understand that one game doesn’t change the pattern, or that the pattern that accurately describe the population may not work for every individual within it, they don’t always make it feel better. You know what does, though? Schadenfreude.
Jeff mentioned that the M’s still seem to be believers in Justin Smoak’s long-term potential, even though he’s no longer a long-term piece.* That MLB vets make similar errors – sometimes even bigger ones – actually does dull the pain. Along with booze-fueled All-Star Break evenings at home. The point of all this navel-gazing and self-flagellation (navel-flagellating?) is this: how bad did MLB whiff on Hisashi Iwakuma? Billy Beane is rightfully lauded for his accomplishments, but it’s not like his record’s spotless. Still, winning the rights to Iwakuma and then not getting a deal done? How about the next year when basically any team could’ve had him, but he came to Seattle at a yearly cost of $1.5m, or just about half what Willie Bloomquist will get this year, or about what John Buck and Stefen Romero cost.
It’s easy to see why, to apply the lessons we’ve learned and say confidently that you simply don’t sign a pitcher coming off of arm soreness. You can’t really *fault* MLB for it, but it’s nice that there’s egg on the faces of people much smarter about this stuff than I am. Can Iwakuma adapt to the MLB schedule and succeed? 2013 showed conclusively that he could. How will he deal with age and its attendant velocity loss? The answer this year is, “By getting better.” 2014 is shaping up as Iwakuma’s best on a rate basis; he may not hit the innings total he put up last year, but when he’s out there, he’s been astonishing. Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter got deserved praise when he was healthy, and his stuff really was a tick better than Hisashi’s, but Iwakuma is a poor man’s Tanaka only in the most literal sense – he’s paid far less.
This year, Iwakuma’s posted an almost invisible walk rate, and he’s done it by throwing more balls.** By pitch fx, he’s thrown less than 50% of his pitches in the zone, but he’s pitched from ahead in the count far more than the league average. How? Because Iwakuma’s first strike percentage is exceptional – by Fangraphs, he’s 5th in baseball in this metric. From there, his options open up. That first strike allows him to expan the hitter’s zone, which he can do both through fastball command and through his main weapon, his elite splitter. Pitching ahead means hitters are more likely to swing at balls, and his splitter means that when they do, they’re more likely to hit grounders. This gets us to another hidden reason for Iwakuma’s success – his BABIP. As you know, pitcher BABIP varies, and tends to regress to league-wide averages. There are exceptions, of course – guys like knuckleballers, and many lefthanders seem immune, for a number of reasons. Rany Jazayerli talked about one of them in this great Grantland piece on Mark Buehrle the other day. But Iwakuma shouldn’t be an exception. He’s a righty, of course, and his BABIP success isn’t the result of getting fly outs (fly balls are converted into outs more often than grounders) like Jarrod Washburn or current Mariner Chris Young. How can a righty ground baller run a career BABIP of .268 thus far? Because hitters are putting pitcher’s pitches in play. Over a third of Iwakuma’s grounders have come on balls. Batters’ BABIP when they swing at balls is awful. Iwakuma gets ahead of hitters and then gives them the choice of swinging over the splitter or tapping it gently to Kyle Seager.
Lloyd McClendon was asked on the radio (probably Matt Pitman on the pre-game show) what made Iwakuma so effective, and the first answer he gave was fastball command. At the time, I thought the answer was clearly, *clearly* his 70-grade split and not the 50-FB, but the more you look at it, the more you see what McClendon is getting at. Batters have swung at his splitter a lot, and they don’t have a lot to show for it. They don’t WANT to swing at it, but if they’re behind in the count, they kind of have to. Iwakuma’s fastball, which he throws on around 65% of first-pitches, allows the rest of his arsenal to play up. It’s not just Iwakuma. Look at this list of the pitchers with the *lowest* zone% in baseball, and while there are the occasional control-challenged projects, it’s peppered with the best pitchers in the game. There’s Felix, Sonny Gray, Tanaka, the surprising Tyson Ross. For some of them, the key is pure stuff – Ross’s slider and Yu Darvish’s…everything allow them to get outs on balls. Tanaka/Felix/Iwakuma and Dallas Keuchel, they’re relying on getting ahead first, and then allowing batters to get themselves out.***
Hisashi Iwakuma is awesome.
1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, DH
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
* Justin Smoak’s contract’s up after this year. He has a team option for 2015 that’s pretty cheap, but you’d have to imagine that people above McClendon’s pay grade are looking at that $150,000 buy-out longingly. Smoak’s option would’ve become guaranteed if he had 525 PAs this season. That month-long rehab stint is going to make that all but impossible to hit.
** I mentioned this regarding James Paxton once, but here again we have data sources that disagree. I’m picking one that I think is the best and that happens to fit the argument I’m making. I hate it when people do this without owning up to it, so I’m owning up to it. You could argue that he’s throwing more strikes, as BIS and Statcorner thinks he is. All of these sources have their fans, and you could certainly argue for one over another, but just FYI, I’m going with pitch fx here. To make matters worse, I’ve used the BIS measure for first-strikes. I shouldn’t mix up the sources, but Fangraphs doesn’t have a pitch fx-based metric for that. Caution! Or hey, it’s a baseball post, yay!
*** Yet more full disclosure – Felix and Ross are running suprising BABIP numbers this year, and both have very high GB rates, but neither put up great BABIPs before, and it’s not like they’ve really changed their approach. Keuchel fits this theory *perfectly* but for the fact that his BABIP is completely average this year; I tend to think that’s because he’s pitching in front of an experiment, and not a real baseball team, but I may be making too much of the pitchers-limit-BABIP-by-letting-hitters-hit-out-of-zone-pitches thing.