Seattle Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma Verging Towards Elite Status

By Thom Tsang
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry, Felix Hernandez.

It’s now two full months into the 2013 MLB season, and Hisashi Iwakuma is still arguably the best pitcher on the Seattle Mariners‘ starting five.

If you thought that the second-year Japanese import’s tear through the bigs was going to have slowed by now, there’s a chance that his name would have already passed you by. Not that anyone should be blamed for taking the conservative approach, of course, especially after Iwakuma’s ineffective five-run outing over six innings of May 20.

The home runs were going to catch up to him. The 3.36 FIP and the 87.7 percent strand rate would bring his numbers up.

Instead, all the righty has done since then is get back to the program, throwing 15.2 innings of two-run ball over his next two starts, including a 7.2 inning gem on Friday against the Minnesota Twins in which he allowed no runs on seven hits and a pair of walks.

And as for the Felix comparison? Well, Iwakuma’s got the durability (80.1 IP to Hernandez’s 83.1), and the Mariners’ duo are tied in wins at six, for those in the traditional numbers boat. On the other hand, the NPB veteran has fewer losses (just one), and he’s ahead of the King in ERA (2.13 to 2.38), WHIP (0.87 to 1.06), BAA (.197 to .232), K/BB (5.69 to 5.44).

So if Hernandez is an elite pitcher, what does that make Iwakuma?

Well, the correct answer might be someone who has a small sample size when it comes to data of of him starting in the majors … except he also threw 95 innings over 16 starts in 2012 with a 2.65/1.23 ERA/WHIP as well. So, that’d give him 175.1 total innings of work as a starter with a sterling 2.41/1.07 ERA/WHIP and a .224 BAA.

In other words, it would easily put Iwakuma among the best pitchers in the majors.

But wait, what about his .228 BABIP? That’s surely going to come up, with his strand rate coming down, no? Well, when he’s attacking opposing batters like he is (66.1 percent first strikes), and generating weak contact (15 percent line drives, second-best among MLB starters), he’s really just as good as he’s is lucky right now.

Throw in the fact that he’s actually seen an uptick in this swinging strikes to 11.3 percent, and his improved 8.29 K/9 isn’t really much of a fluke either.

All that, and on a fastball that averages just 89.5 mph? Iwakuma might not be the flashiest pitchers out there, but it wasn’t so long ago that a certain Cleveland Indians pitcher also broke out as one of MLB’s elite with control being his calling card, winning the Cy Young off the back of a 90.2 mph fastball …

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