Many fantasy relevant pitchers typically pass through a rather predictable cycle that often spans several years. First, a prospect (or import) gets massively hyped and shows up on all sorts of industry lists. Then, he displays signs that he is ready to take his game to the next level. Soon after, he gets the call and a major league career is born.
The pitcher’s ability to get big league hitters out grows as he gradually refines his offerings, makes adjustments, and picks up the subtleties of pitching. Several years later he hits his prime and fully matures into the player he is going to be.
This pattern is clearly not how Hisashi Iwakuma rolls. There was barely even a peep upon his arrival to the US, and the fantasy community seemed to give his very solid 16 starts in 2012 the silent treatment. It didn’t seem like anyone in fantasy considered him relevant and then…BAM!
In his first full season he puts together a brilliant 2013, which included a sparkling 2.06 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, with 14 W, and 185 K (good for 3rd in the AL Cy Young voting) and a star was born.
Iwakuma will never be one of those pitchers who blows hitters away, as he averages just 90 MPH on his fastball, but boy does he pound the zone like nobody’s business (67.7% of his pitchers were thrown for strikes, 5th highest rate in the league.) Plus, velocity is nothing compared to extreme craftiness. Specifically, he is able to keep hitters off-balance primarily using a lethal mix of four pitches (4-seamer, sinker, split, and slider) that doesn’t include a weak link. He does throw a curve too, but only 6% of the time. What makes Iwakuma so great is not just that he can keep hitters constantly guessing with his bevy of plus pitches, but that he also uses each pitch for a distinct purpose. For most hitters, variety and a plan make Iwakuma impossible to deal with.
Here is the Iwakuma attack — a mosaic of purposeful wizardry:
Iwakuma strategically employs each and every pitch to maximize his success
If your head is spinning from trying to decipher all those numbers, let me break it down for ya, adding in some outcome data I gathered from Brooksbaseball.net:
- He pounds the strike zone with fastballs early in the count.
- When he falls behind he will pitch to contact and attempt to induce a ground ball with his sinker — his sinker induces a groundball on 55% of balls put in play.
- If he gets ahead in the count, he attacks lefties with the splitter (32% whiff rate, 80% GB rate ), and righties with the slider (29% whiff rate, 40% GB rate)
- Once he has hitters on the ropes he puts them away with his nasty split, which in two-strike counts hitters whiff 32% of the time, and hit a grounder on 76% of balls put in play.
At A Glance
- Strengths: IP, W, ERA
- Neutral: L, K, WHIP, K/9, BB/9
- Weaknesses: None
Players With Similar Fantasy Value
2014 Fantasy Baseball Projection
2014 Projection: 211 IP, 16 W, 0 SV, 175 K, 3.17 ERA, 1.18 WHIP
Overall Rank: 86 | SP Rank: 18
What makes Iwakuma so great is not just that he can keep hitters constantly guessing with his bevy of plus pitches, but that he also uses each pitch for a distinct purpose.
Based on the results above a few themes are evident. First, his whiff rates suggest he is pretty darn good at keeping hitters from putting the ball in play, and oh yeah, accumulating those all important strikeouts.
How good? Well his .252 BABIP was 6th best in the league. Also, when batters are able to make contact he practically forces them to put the ball on the ground at will. His 48.7% GB rate was the 18th highest of qualified pitchers last year. Lastly, because he intentionally pitches to contact when he falls behind in the count his walk rate is so nice and tidy.
A pitcher who accomplishes any one of these three will probably be a serviceable fantasy option, but when you have all three, well, that is fantasy gold. In fact, there were only six other pitchers last year that had a combined K/9 above 7.5, BB/9 under 2.0, and greater than 40 GB%.
Iwakuma was on a very short list of strike out, control, and ground ball artists
By now it should be fairly clear that Iwakuma was a special pitcher last year and I have no doubt he will be fantastic again in 2014. However, he has only placed just inside our top 20 starting pitchers rather than closer to top 10. This is for a few reasons.
While, his low BABIP may end up being be due to skill we have a very small sample size to prove this is the case, and thus there is potential for regression in that department.
In addition, he was helped out by an inflated strand rate of 81.9%, second only to Yu Darvish. A rate that high will be difficult to sustain, though not impossible (see Jeremy Hellickson who did it for three straight years, before imploding last year).
Finally, as we now know, Iwakuma doesn’t give up fly balls too often, but when he does he can be prone to home runs.
2015 and Beyond
Iwakuma is going to turn 33 early into the 2014 season and injury has to be given some weight as a long term concern. This is especially true given he had a shoulder injury in 2011 that resulted in the loss of a few MPH off his fastball.
However, he is not a power pitcher (never really was) and he has shown he is more than capable of thriving in the league as such. In the same style of pitchers such as Bartolo Colon and Hiroki Kuroda have enjoyed success well into their late 30’s I am confident Iwakuma has that same ability.
Of course, there is no way of knowing where he will end up when his current two year $14 million deal expires, but based on the way the Mariners are spending these days, if he proves his worth in 2014, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him continue benefiting from the M’s home field park for the next three to five years.
Although my wife tried to get me to listen to the soundtrack from “Frozen” while writing this, but I prevailed with my choice of Kaki King…that was a close one!