Saturday, November 6, 2010

Texas in on Hisashi Iwakuma

Ken Rosenthal and Patrick Newman have reported that Texas Seattle and Oakland are among those teams who submitted bids for Hisashi Iwakuma. The best overview of his career is at Wikipedia. He seems to profile like a mid-roto caliber starter, sitting 89-90 with his 4s (86.5-92.5), coupled with a shuuto (89), slider (84) and forkball(89). He has a "show me" CB that he uses less than 5x/game. He is a ground ball pitcher in contrast to Colby Lewis. Newman reports that he can get a little extra on the fastball when needed, flashing 94-95, but he maxed out at 92.5 in a majority of starts, flashing 93-94 in September. It appears that his 4s was harder during the WBC in 2009, sitting 91 and flashing 95 by some accounts. He pitched 200 innings last year with solid peripherals all around: 28gs(4cg/1so)/2.82/201/184/11hr/36/153.

Just a word about the NPBT pitch tracker. I did a piece on Colby Lewis in January using info from that pitch f/x and it seems that the info is more unreliable than we are used to. The sources used for NPBT routinely confused all 2-seam pitches (slider, sinker, cutter, changeup) and slightly mischaracterized Lewis' profile in my opinion. This also affects the velo ranges on everything but in this instance his ave velo and velo range were a couple of tics higher using this data (which might also point to juiced guns maybe?) than he showed in his return to TX. It turns out that while Lewis does throw a cutter, he slows a slider much more and his 4s also has natural cutting action. He also still throws his CU. So, as a word of caution, it could be that Iwakuma might be slightly different than advertised once we actually see him throw and hear him (and the coaches) talk about what his throws.

Here are a couple of other info items that I came across or that have been posted elsewhere. Note how skinny this kid looks in the video:

NPBT March 2009
BP Nov 2
Amazin' Ave Oct 10
Groundballin' Jan 09 UTube
HBT March 2009

The posting fee that Rakuten was looking for in order to cede his negotiating rights to an MLB team was rumored to be (steep) at 16-19 million. I haven't heard any figures tossed around for his yearly salary demands, but if the posting fee is $16m and he gets, say, $8m over 4yrs that comes out to 48/4 or $12m/yr. That is quite a lot of money for a mid-roto arm coming over from Japan. However, maybe our sense of "value" has to change now that this club can spend money and take the risks that a big market team normally would take. We just aren't used to that yet.

And the risk here, when weighed against the possibility of missing our on Cliff Lee (and the difficulties of trading for an elite starter generally) and the stellar caliber of the starting rotations for both LAA and Seattle in 2011, might be well worth it, and the price, after some consideration, might be just right, or at least, it might be the price of returning to the World Series.

Iwakuma does seem to come with some risk. He pitched with a sore shoulder in 2005 then only pitched 129 innings over the next 2 years. He had his elbow scoped during the 2007 off-season and then put together a nice 3 year run. He appears to have missed some time due to injury all three of these years however, only making 24 starts in 2009 and missing almost 5 weeks in 2010, despite pitching 200 innings.

In looking over his pitch f/x during 2010, and mulling over his profile over the last 3 years, he appears to be similar to Colby Lewis, sans the plus plus pitch. Iwakuma doesn't throw as hard as he did when he was younger and before his injury problems, attacking hitters with an average 4s but pitching inside very well with both his 4s/shuuto combo and getting a lot of groundballs and giving up minimal HR. His walk rate is above average if not plus at times but not as stellar as that of Lewis' rate 2008/2009. Both pitchers have a 5 pitch mix but Lewis misses more bats with his repertoire. There are mixed reports on the quality of Iwakuma's slider ranging from average to above average while the take on his split is that it is an above average offering. His cutter seems to be an above average pitch while his 4 seamer seems just average (movment/velo) though his velo range seems to indicate that he changes speeds well on both of his fastball offerings.

I would hazard a guess that Iwakuma will be a solid mid-rotation starter who can pitch 180-200 innings if he can stay healthy. I think that Colby Lewis has better stuff and command - maybe he has more movement and/or deception coupled with the reemergence of the excellent curveball from his youth to go along with his plus slider - but that Iwakuma is worth the gamble in the unusual situation that is the NPB posting process, that is to say, you can't really compare it economically to the going rate for a #3 in the current FA market. So yes you have to over pay in this scenario, but the going rate for someone who does perform like that would be about 10 million right? Not a great difference when the team has the need and the money to spend (not to mention the accrual of Pacific Rim karma that might come in handy in the years to come). The biggest risk in my estimation, and it is something that no one has really focused at this juncture of the process, is INJURY. I assume that he will have to pass a physical in order to validate any contract so it looks like the medical staff will be a critical part of attesting to his long-term value and reliability. This fact alone makes me a might uncomfortable should he come our way.

I've linked to a couple of pitch f/x charts from NPBT detailing a sampling of his 2010 starts. I should note that he appeared to pitch injured the first 2 weeks of June (pitching limited innings) and was finally shut down for almost a month (mid-June to mid-July) and was skipped over for a start at the end of July:


Keith Law had him rated at the #16 FA this offseason in his insider report. Like many, he thinks of him as a #4 starter, whereas I think he can put of solid #3 numbers based on his command, pitchability and decent secondary offerings to go along with his nice cutter. After all, Colby Lewis pitched like a top rotation arm with a 4-seamer that sat 89-91, so, clearly, velo isn't everything, even stateside. We will have to see if Law's assumptions about "pitching/hitting Japanese" will out during his transition to the bigs. I'm betting that the problems that those differences create are exaggerated while a good pitcher's ability to make adjustments are undersold. It seems to me that the biggest problem that Japanese pitchers have in their transition to the bigs is simply staying healthy, and I think that is, once again, the case in this instance. Keith Law also noted that he thinks Iwakuma pitches backwards at times but with the limited reliability of the pitch f/x data this remains to be seen:

Iwakuma projects as more of a mid- to back-of-the-rotation guy than an ace despite his record in Japan, which includes a Sawamura Award (their equivalent to the Cy Young). He pitches differently than most of the Japanese pitchers who have come over, with a more conventional delivery and a pitch-to-contact approach that yields ground balls and few walks but not many strikeouts. He's 6-foot-3 and strong, getting good downhill plane on the ball, and likes to pitch backward, throwing a lot of sliders early in the count. He has a plus two-seamer, a splitter and a big slow curveball, as well as a four-seamer that's mostly 88-92. He tries to pitch down in the zone, only elevating the ball to change a hitter's eye level, and has been more effective against left-handed hitters, throwing two-seamers away and sliders at their back feet. However, he missed most of 2006 and part of 2007 due to injury, and like most Japanese starters has a history of very heavy use. In addition, Japanese hitters are taught to swing down at the ball, which works to his advantage, but he won't have that benefit when facing MLB hitters who are geared to hit line drives. Guys who don't miss bats in an inferior league worry me, but I like Iwamura's approach and willingness to use his off-speed stuff in any count, so for a team looking for a potential No. 4, he's a solid option.


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