This One Hurts
It’s only in hindsight that this feels inevitable. No one can say that the Dodgers signing a free agent is shocking, or that it came out of nowhere, but I expected the M’s to resign Hisashi Iwakuma, and they did not. Ownership weighed in at the trade deadline that Iwakuma would stay, giving the M’s not only one of the most unlikely great pitchers in the game toss a no-hitter at home, but a window to work something out. Taking Iwakuma OFF the trading block certainly *seemed* to indicate a willingness to extend him another few years, and because we want to see patterns or some semblance of a plan where we want to, I kind of assumed-wished that maybe everyone had a handshake deal back in July.
Last night, we learned that the Dodgers signed Iwakuma to a three-year deal for about $45 million. For true connoisseurs of Mariners-pain, the first reaction was probably something like, “Soooo, a bit less than Carlos Silva got from Seattle?” It’s not just that the Dodgers swooped in to offer a contract, it’s that they didn’t even look tacky and nouveau-riche about it. They didn’t take a page out of the new Zack Greinke deal, the old Zack Greinke deal, the Jon Lester deal, or whatever Edwin Jackson got years ago. Instead, it felt like working up from Bronson Arroyo’s last deal. Or maybe starting with Mark Buehrle’s four-year deal and working backwards. This was a deal that literally any team in baseball could afford, so you can’t even fire off a shrug-emoji tweet about the Dodgers being the Dodgers. The Dodgers are still easy to hate, but they’re still innovating new ways to make you hate them.
Hisashi Iwakuma will be 35 next season. He throws 89, and has made it to 30 starts once in his four years in Seattle. By a certain set of numbers, the gnashing of teeth in M’s-land feels out of place. Let the Dodgers pay for his decline! Iwakuma was sweet, sweet $$/WAR gold – don’t mess that up high-AAV+advanced-age nonsense! Anyone who actually watched him for a while in Seattle knows why this hurts, and more than most, another set of numbers illuminates why. Hisashi Iwakuma took just about every piece of Defense-Independent Pitching statistics and upended them. He took a core component of sabermetric orthodoxy (especially around 2012), gave that little ‘Kuma smile, and left it looking as reductive and absurd as any of the slugging DHs he struck out swinging on a pitch in the dirt.
BABIP tends to hover around league average, or .293-.295 or so. Iwakuma’s has never been that high, and would be below .270 for his career absent a horrible stretch in 2014 (when his season BABIP was *still* below average). OK, OK, *some* pitchers have a true-talent BABIP that’s lower than league average: really high velocity is one way to do it, as is being left-handed or a knuckleballer. Iwakuma, of course, is none of these things. Iwakuma blazed his own trail to BABIP-success: forcing batters to hit “bad” pitches. In practice, this means ignoring other little tidbits of received wisdom, either old-school pitching coach stuff or further sabermetric wisdom. Iwakuma throws his four-seam fastball up in the zone, and got a lot of the plate with it. Sure, he tried to keep it away to righties – kind of – but he still threw plenty of well-below average velocity pitches straight down the middle. Against lefties, the zone he threw the MOST four-seam fastballs in his *career* was right down the middle. That’s kind of insane, and it wasn’t *always* successful – he’s given up a lot of home runs, remember. But the fastball was a means to an end, not an end in itself.
He threw so many strikes with his fastball that he made it all but impossible to NOT swing at his splitter. Batters swung at an Iwakuma splitter over 60% of the time. Remember that the swing rate in baseball – for all pitches – is in the 46-47% range. And they swung over 60% of the time despite the fact that Iwakuma threw his splitter here:
They simply couldn’t hold up, and that meant Iwakuma had no need to throw strikes with it. As a result, Iwakuma got plenty of whiffs on the pitch, but either in spite or because of his lack of a top-flight fastball, even THAT isn’t why the pitch was so remarkable. It’s because when batters did put it in play, they hit it on the ground. Masahiro Tanaka or even Matt Shoemaker get more whiffs on their splitters, but no one whose thrown it a lot got a higher percentage of ground balls.
It’s that, I think, that helped him overcome another bit of received wisdom: that pitchers don’t really have a lot of control over their sequencing. Or, you can run a high strand rate by striking out everybody, but if you don’t have a superhuman fastball, there’s no way to outpitch BaseRuns. Again, though, Iwakuma has yet to record a single season with a league average LOB%. With runners on base, the league average pitcher is a bit worse than he is with the bases empty. It makes sense: 1B-2B hole’s a bit bigger. The pitcher may get more of the plate to avoid walking a runner into scoring position. Maybe it’s nerves. Iwakuma had the option, thanks to his splitter, of becoming a very different pitcher. The splitter allowed him to dial in his GB%, and that’s pretty much what we see: his GB% is lowest with no one on, and it rises with men on, and rises some more with men in scoring position. Because grounders tend to be pulled and because the M’s knew the pattern, Iwakuma’s BABIP *on grounders* was also below league average, allowing him to pitch better than you’d expect with men on base. The splitter allowed Iwakuma to post a better than average BABIP, and it allowed him to post better-than-average strand rates by throwing it more often.
So, great – man bites FIP. THIS is why he was a fan favorite? I can’t speak for other fans, but there is something about his trajectory from afterthought to unlikely ace that made his M’s tenure particularly fun. Remember that Iwakuma was never supposed to be a Mariner. In 2011, the Athletics won the right to negotiate with Iwakuma, but couldn’t get a deal done. Iwakuma returned to the Rakuten Golden Eagles…and got hurt, tossing 119 IP a year after topping 200, and so the M’s signed him to a one-year, $1.5m base salary deal in 2012. We got to see Iwakuma pitch in the spring, and he was unremarkable but fine. The M’s opened the season in Japan that year, and they played a few exhibition game against NPB teams before facing off with Oakland a few days later. Iwakuma got the chance to start one exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants and was summarily destroyed, leaving the M’s worried about his arm.
Iwakuma opened 2012 as the long-man in the bullpen, the 7th of 7th bullpen arms. He didn’t get to pitch much, but when he did he was awful. Through July 1, 2012, Iwakuma was 1-1 with an ERA of 4.75 thanks to a terrible HR rate (1.8/9IP) and a nearly-as-bad walk rate (4.45/9IP). Batters were slugging .459 against him, and his average leverage index, measuring the importance of the situations he appeared in, was 0.48, lowest on the team. The M’s had a Rule 5 pick in the bullpen that year, Lucas Luetge, whose average LI through June was 0.83, so…yeah. So far, so Mariners: the M’s lucked out when an intriguing buy-low candidate fell into their laps, but he was broken, so nothing good came of it. But in an extremely Mariners twist, the rotation was in shambles. The M’s started the year with Hector Noesi, Kevin Millwood AND Blake Beavan in their rotation, so the bar was set fairly low for a bullpen arm to pitch their way into starting. The M’s decided that Iwakuma had “built up enough arm strength” to do that, and so, when Kevin Millwood got hurt, Iwakuma got the chance to start in early July. Expectations were, shall we say, low around much of the M’s blogosphere. After a series of mediocre-to-good-ish starts, Iwakuma faced the Toronto Blue Jays in late July at Safeco. Toronto’s first batter, Rajai Davis, worked a full count, then blasted an Iwakuma four-seamer for a home run. He settled in after that, though, and started to show signs that he wasn’t a typical 5th starter. When it was over, Iwakuma tossed 8 IP, giving up only the one run, walking three, giving up 4 hits, and striking out *13*. From 7/30 through the end of the year, Iwakuma was a revelation – a 3.6:1 K:BB ratio, a very low ERA, an OBP-against of .288.
Iwakuma’s arm-strength, as measured by pure velocity, never ticked up. He threw slower in the rotation than out of the pen, because that’s what everyone does. His dominant 2013 wasn’t the result of honing his slider – a pitch he started off throwing more than his splitter in 2012 – and which was mentioned as his outpitch in 2012. Instead, it felt like Iwakuma had to go through his struggles to learn a new and better repertoire. With his normal frame and below-average velo, it felt like Iwakuma had either stumbled onto a cheat-code or, through hard work and struggle, discovered an algorithm that befuddled opposing line-ups. Here was the anti-LeBron, the antithesis of Justin Verlander or David Price. Even after the M’s gave away bear hats in his honor, you would never think of Iwakuma when people in Seattle kept talking about “Beast Mode.” It’s probably unfair to both pitchers to compare him to Jamie Moyer. Iwakuma’s stuff is much better, Moyer is a singularity, etc., but there’s something compelling about excelling in sports without pure physical gifts. *Compared to MLB pitchers in 2012-2015* Iwakuma lacks pure physical ability, but you watch him day in and day out for years, and you almost start to forget. He’s not a pure pitch to contact guy; the whiffs pile up, and he looks like a strikeout guy. But he never walks anyone and seems to be able to summon double-play balls at will.
It seemed that the only thing that kept him from dominating the way he did in 2013 was succession of small health concenrs. He caught his finger in a screen before spring training in 2014. He pulled a lat muscle last year. If you want, you can include the dead arm from early 2012. The shoulder problem that knocked him out for months back in Japan in 2011 never returned, thankfully, but the injuries kept Iwakuma from becoming a more well-known pitcher nationally. Again, he felt human-sized, unique, and ours. Scouts presumably thought he was a trick-pitch guy who’d get found out thanks to his fastball’s location and speed. Saber writers could toss off “likely ERA regression candidates” posts featuring Hisashi each year. Even M’s fans worried as he moved towards his mid-30s and it took him longer and longer to return from injuries. But he kept returning, and he kept reminding us why he was among the most fun Mariners to watch ever. Not even an interminable time between pitches could stop it – it started to feel comical, like Johnny Cueto’s weird pauses and hitches *mid*-delivery.
It’s easy to see why the new GM wouldn’t resign Iwakuma for what he got from LA: Can’t go to 3 years. Lots of alternatives out there, maybe in the trade market. Gotta think long-term. 35-year pitcher, injury history. It’s just as easy to assert that no one coming into the organization NOW and assessing Iwakuma on a page would miss what made him special. And hey,the M’s get a sandwich-round draft pick out of this (a consolation prize that feels roughly equivalent to MLB.tv televising a number of games featuring Vin Scully calling Iwakuma starts, which is to say, not too shabby). Maybe we need to see what Plan B is. Whatever the case, this one hurts.