Seattle Mariners’ unlikely palace coup

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Hisashi Iwakuma (Photo by LiAnna Davis)

By Rob Nishihara
Northwest Asian Weekly

The best pitcher in Seattle doesn’t wear a crown.

He doesn’t have a regal nickname or inspire a loyal horde to wear yellow T-shirts and shake “K” cards whenever he’s on the mound.

In fact, there’s little about Hisashi Iwakuma to indicate Major League star quality, except the box score. The numbers, in this case, do not lie.

Since becoming a part of the Seattle Mariners starting rotation in July 2012, Iwakuma has fashioned a sparkling 2.58 ERA en route to a 25-10 record. Both marks lead Seattle’s pitching staff — in fact, are among the best in the entire American League over that span — and catapult the unassuming Japanese right-hander past a much more celebrated teammate in those telling categories.

Felix Hernandez has been the gold standard for starting pitching in Seattle ever since Randy Johnson left town. More than that, he has the intimidating duality of pedigree and panache.

Anointed baseball royalty by his legion of fans, King Felix has the 2010 American League Cy Young Award and four All-Star selections to substantiate the adoration.

As for presence, he has the hard, heavy arsenal of an elite power pitcher and the physicality to match. At 6’3” and 230 pounds, he’s big and broad shouldered. He wears his cap askew, just to make sure the impression lasts.

Even so, ever since July of nearly two seasons past — when Iwakuma made the Mariners’ rotation almost by default — King Felix has been the second-best pitcher in a town he’s owned for years.

Consider the numbers, particularly earned run average and wins. Hernandez is 24-15 with a 3.05 ERA since Iwakuma joined the Mariners’ starting rotation — very good if not stellar numbers. It’s just that Iwakuma has been better.

Given Iwakuma’s inauspicious beginning with the team, his success in the big leagues is all the more remarkable. Signed to a one-year contract for $1.5 million prior to the 2012 season — a low-risk afterthought if ever there was one — he arrived in Seattle with so many more questions about his place in American baseball than answers.

He’d been a star in Japan for over a decade, but suffered a series of injuries during that time as well. Foreign pitchers with repaired arms and uncertain, distant legacies rarely inspire much confidence in the majors.  As such, Iwakuma began the 2012 season buried so deeply in Seattle’s bullpen that it took him over two weeks to dig his way out. Even at that, his big league debut was a four-inning mop-up assignment in a blowout loss to the White Sox.

In the Mariners’ first 55 games in 2012, Iwakuma made precisely six appearances, nearly all under dispensable circumstances.

Meanwhile, 37-year-old Kevin Millwood and inconsistent bookends Hector Noesi and Blake Beavan trumped him for opportunities in the rotation, while he sat and rusted in the bullpen.

However, by July, Noesi and Beavan had both pitched their way out of the big leagues, and Iwakuma was finally given a chance to start, albeit under seriously hamstrung conditions. He hadn’t pitched nearly enough to build the arm strength necessary to start or to develop the familiarity with hitters — and their tendencies — in a brand new league and country.

Essentially, he was tossed a baseball, given a quick pat on the back, and a rather firm shove out on to center stage.

Despite the lack of adequate preparation, Iwakuma quickly established himself as a legitimate Major League starter. His undeniable moment of arrival on the big league scene came in his fifth start — a 13-strikeout, four-hit masterpiece against Toronto.

Of course, when healthy, he had always been a winner. So, his seemingly unexpected success as a starter in the majors shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise.

In 10-plus seasons in Japan, Iwakuma won 107 games with a 3.25 ERA. His numbers likely would have been significantly better if he hadn’t been slowed by a series of injuries. As proof, in 2008, he dominated the league by going 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA. For his efforts, he won the MVP and Sawamura Award — Japan’s equivalent to the Cy Young.

In the 2009 World Baseball Classic (WBC), he pitched brilliantly, leading Team Japan to the tournament title. In fact, on a team with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, Iwakuma got the nod to start the championship game against South Korea. In 20 innings of work in the WBC, he gave up only three runs and struck out 15 batters.

As if to emphasize his impressive 2012 Major League debut — which he finished with an 8-4 record and 2.65 ERA as a starter — wasn’t an aberration but rather just a continuation of his winning legacy, he got even better in 2013. And he hasn’t slowed in 2014, despite an injury that cost him over a month of the burgeoning season.

He finished 2013 with the third lowest ERA in the American League (2.66), the second fewest hits/walks allowed per innings pitched, and led the league in the sophisticated new statistic — wins above replacement — which is designed to measure how many more wins a player contributes to his team over an average, generic substitute.

For all of that, Iwakuma — not Hernandez — was voted the 2013 Pitcher of the Year for the Mariners by the Baseball Writers of America.

In 2014, although missing the first month of the season with an injury, he’s been nearly flawless since his return – posting a downright microscopic 1.76 ERA and a perfect 3-0 record (which should have been 4-0 had not closer Fernando Rodney blown a 1-0 lead and eight superb shutout innings by Iwakuma).

All the more impressive is that Iwakuma has achieved all of this without the ornate weaponry of his power-pitching brethren. His fastball, which once hit the mid-90s, now resides mostly in the 90 to 92 range. However, he has compensated for the dip by spotting it to set up a hard slider, a decent curve, and his true out pitch — a bottomless splitter.
Granted, Hisashi Iwakuma is not the King.

For now, at least, he’s been better. (end)

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