Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma came to the United States from Japan in 2012 with far less publicity than his countryman Yu Darvish, but after spending the early part of that season in the Mariners’ bullpen he pitched well in 16 starts (2.65 ERA, 7.4 K/9, 2.7 BB/9) and entered 2013 as a potential sleeper for fantasy baseball owners.
Iwakuma did not disappoint last year, going 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA in 33 starts (219.2 innings) along with a solid K/9 rate (7.6) and an excellent BB/9 rate (1.7). Can fantasy owners expect a repeat this year?
Iwakuma’s 2014 season is already off on the wrong foot, with Wednesday’s report he will not throw for 4-6 weeks due to a strained tendon in his right middle finger. That means he will not be ready for the start of the season barring something unforeseen, and it’s a real possibility he does not pitch at all in April. But I want to leave aside his injury, if only for a minute, and take a closer look at Iwakuma’s chances to perform well again this year.
Iwakuma allowed 25 home runs in 2013, but he is most certainly a ground ball pitcher (48.7 percent ground ball rate) even with an increase in his fly ball rate last season (33.7 percent; 27.3 percent in 2012). He did have some good fortune in 2013, with a .252 BABIP allowed and a strand rate (81.9 percent) that is higher than average. Both of those numbers may regress some once he returns to action this year, so if Iwakuma’s control does not remain at an elite level (4.4 K/BB ratio in 2013) a higher ERA is likely to follow.
Iwakuma is obviously falling down fantasy draft boards with this injury news, and his age (33 on April 12) and history of shoulder issues in Japan should not be forgotten. But even with a projection that has to be revised to less than 30 starts with the uncertainty of when he’ll make his season debut, Iwakuma may fall far enough in mixed league drafts to become a value pick for owners that don’t disregard him.
Brad Berreman is a Senior Writer at Rant Sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.