This One Hurts

marc w · December 7, 2015 at 12:14 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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:
Iwakuma splitter map
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 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.


22 Responses to “This One Hurts”

  1. Dennisss on December 7th, 2015 12:42 pm

    I liked Hisashi, but I had begun to suspect he would go elsewhere in the last couple of days. From a strictly unemotional point of view, you can see where the age/injury risk is significant.

  2. seattleslew on December 7th, 2015 1:04 pm

    Miley for Elias and Smith. I hope I missed some details here. I don’t understand this move at all.

  3. Jensen22 on December 7th, 2015 1:07 pm

    So let me get this straight. We lose Iwakuma, then trade Smith, and Elias for Wade Miley? Aren’t Miley and Elias the same dude? This is the first move from Dipoto that I don’t understand.

  4. Rengaw on December 7th, 2015 1:21 pm

    Kuma was my favorite pitcher to watch work. From that Japanesed paused leg kick to that text book followthrough, he was a surgeon attempting to remove that cancerous hitter from the batter’s box.
    With Felix getting most of the notoriety, Kuma’s greatness flew under the radar accompanied by not being conversational, having a reserved demeanor, and not being a fireballer. He quietly threw “great stuff” getting hitters out with far less fanfare than Felix.
    I am going to miss this Japanese gentleman quietly going about his business with concentration and wisdom.
    Good luck, Kuma, and thanks for the lessen in humility.

  5. Notfromboise on December 7th, 2015 1:24 pm

    Elias was out of options, and Seth Smith looked to be odd man out in the outfield..


    Yeah i don’t get it either. I’ve always liked Wade Miley, and happy to see him in a Mariner uniform. Giving up Carson Smith out of an already suspect bullpen.. I don’t understand that part either.

  6. djw on December 7th, 2015 1:30 pm

    Yeah, sure, I’d take Miley over Elias straight-up, but is that really worth their best reliever?

  7. Westside guy on December 7th, 2015 1:36 pm

    I have a sneaking suspicion Kuma wasn’t particularly interested in coming back to Seattle. In any case, it certainly didn’t take very long for the Dodgers to sign him.

    I’m not sure what to make of the Miley trade, but Dipoto wouldn’t be the first GM that tended to lean towards dumping anyone the previous GM picked who wasn’t a lock. It sure seems like he wants to put his brand on this team as quickly as possible.

  8. ck on December 7th, 2015 2:04 pm

    GM Dipoto publicly has been saying that signing Iwakumi was a PRIORITY. Liar !

  9. Mid80sRighty on December 7th, 2015 2:19 pm

    I hope that was tongue in cheek ck. If not, I don’t think PRIORITY means outspend all other clubs no matter what.

  10. jorax on December 7th, 2015 2:20 pm

    A priority doesn’t mean something is a guarantee…

  11. Grayfox3d on December 7th, 2015 3:05 pm

    notfromboise….. wrong Smith…the one going to Boston is Carson not Seth.

  12. bongo on December 7th, 2015 3:16 pm

    From a WAR perspective the Miley deal makes the team worse. 2015 WAR for Elias was 0.9, Carson Smith was 2.3. Wade Miley 2015 WAR was 2.5. So based on 2015 performance, Carson Smith for Wiley is a nearly even trade.

  13. MrZDevotee on December 7th, 2015 3:26 pm

    This one hurts, but in a way, I’m not sure the Dodgers didn’t actually go all Dodger-y in getting him… It’s that 3rd year that causes me concern. My immediate reaction was “no wonder, they gave him 3 years”… I had read he was looking for a 3 year contract, but didn’t think many teams would go for that given recent innings pitched/injuries, and pushing towards 40 years old by then…

    I really wanted him back, too. But more than 2 years, you just have to kinda say “good for you, Kuma”… And say goodbye.

  14. Notfromboise on December 7th, 2015 3:30 pm

    Gray, I was joking, my bad for not qualifying it 🙂

    Dipoto and Miley were both in the Diamondback system together, so it makes sense he went after a known quantity.

    Maybe the logic is they locked down the 29 year old Miley because fixing the rotation through free agency would have been expensive in comparison to bolstering the bullpen through free agency.

    I guess we will know when the next couple moves/signings come down the pike.

  15. MrZDevotee on December 7th, 2015 3:35 pm

    Yeah, while I’d rather still have Kuma… We get 2 years of Miley for the same $$$’s as 1 year of Kuma’s new contract… 7.5 million/year, for a guy who should see his numbers improve moving out of Fenway and into Safeco (as a lefty)… *fingers crossed* But that’s what Mark Lowe just got to pitch in the bullpen…

    Bright side is that we should see another valuable move– since we just saved what probably ends up being $5-$7 million replacing Kuma with Miley… Which is leveraging some extra WAR, if you believe Miley is gonna be greater than half of Kuma’s WAR this year, for half his price… Relying on replacing Carson Smith being easier than replacing starting pitching…

  16. MrZDevotee on December 7th, 2015 3:45 pm

    And supposedly we’re heavily trying to get Adam Lind from Milwaukee at the moment… THAT would be a first basemen we could stand watching (at least against righties), who isn’t thrown off balance by ice cream sandwich jokes…

    And he fits perfectly with the money we just saved in the Kuma/Miley flip… (Lind is playing on a team option for $8 million)

    Rumors at this point– but Ken Rosenthal is pushing it hard.

  17. djw on December 7th, 2015 4:41 pm

    If Lind can be had for cheap, that makes a hell of a lot of sense.

  18. matthew on December 7th, 2015 4:44 pm

    I wish Dipoto had been more aggressive with Kuma earlier in the process. Maybe he was — what do I know. Once Price signed — and Happ — we all knew Kuma wasn’t returning.

    Not sure how to feel about the sandwich pick. The Mariners — and Dipoto — don’t have the best record at drafting players. Maybe things will change. I hope they do.

  19. Alec on December 7th, 2015 4:49 pm

    Great post. I know exactly what you mean, he never seemed like he should be as successful as he was, but I can’t remember feeling as confident about an M’s SP outside of Felix since the Moyer glory days. One thing to mention is that fantasy baseball players always appreciated him for his ability to get SOs and keep his ERA low, but I was basically assuming that we’d be the only team to pay him market value, for exactly the reasons you laid out above. You have to watch him day in and day out, but he just wins you over.

  20. matthew on December 7th, 2015 4:58 pm

    I want to add, that I hope he stays healthy and becomes a Cy Young winner for the Dodgers.

  21. MKT on December 7th, 2015 9:56 pm

    “Expectations were, shall we say, low around much of the M’s blogosphere”

    I remember reading that exact column, and it did not express low expectations. Instead, Dave excoriated the Ms/Wedge for keeping Iwakuma off the mound so much.

    Dave wrote, “he’s probably a decent Major League pitcher … and the truth is that Iwakuma’s been that guy from day one … Wedge’s refusal to use him was always foolish and a waste of a decent pitcher.”

    Dave was expressing almost the opposite of what you’re claiming. This was the same season that Wedge also stupidly kept Jaso chained to the bench.

  22. marc w on December 7th, 2015 10:37 pm

    Yeah, MKT, that’s fair, but read the sentences immediately before that: Iwakuma isn’t a great pitcher, and lacks an out-pitch. Dave was saying he wasn’t awful, but had a low ceiling. In no way am I trying to slam Dave, but this was your optimistic view at the time: if he pounded the zone, he could be a back-end starter. I don’t think that’s taking too many liberties with Dave’s view at the time. Nor was this view limited to Dave – I thought he was going to fail as a starter.

    I think Dave was more optimistic than many, but take issue with the idea that Dave’s very qualified statement reflects the opposite of what I said. It may depend on your view of how low everyone’s expectations actually were, but if you find the most optimistic fan’s estimate for Iwakuma’s production, then double it, it still turned our way, way too low.

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