A lot of well deserved fuss has been made in the 2014 MLB season over the New York Yankees signing SP Masahiro Tanaka. Not since Daisuke Matsuzaka made his journey across the Pacific Ocean in 2007 or Yu Darvish in 2012 has there been this much enthusiasm towards a Japanese-born player making the transition to American professional baseball. It’s with good reason Tanaka has received such acclaim as well. He plays in the AL East, a division ripe with hitter friendly parks that matches strong hitting lineups. Tanaka is 6-1 through nine starts in 2014 with a 2.39 ERA and is mowing the opposition down to the tune of 10.3 K/9.
Overshadowed in all the Tanaka headlines is another Japanese-born starting pitcher doing wonderful things in the majors, perhaps even more impressive than Tanaka’s current exploits.
Hisashi Iwakuma was posted to MLB following his 2010 season in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league. A contract agreement could not be reached with any MLB clubs, so he was posted again in 2011 and this time successfully signed by the Seattle Mariners. Only a decade earlier, the Mariners made headlines for signing the best Japanese-born player of his generation to a major league contract in Ichiro Suzuki.
Iwakuma’s signing did not garner near the attention national media outlets gave Ichiro, Matsuzaka, Darvish and Tanaka in their contract negotiations. His contract was certainly not as high profile either. The Mariners inked him to a one-year deal for $1.5 million, plus an additional $3.4 million in incentives prior to the 2012 MLB campaign. He initially worked out of the bullpen but eventually entered the rotation. As a 16-game starter in 2012, he posted an 8-4 record with a 2.65 ERA and a K/9 of 7.4, all better numbers than he posted in his 14 appearances that same season out of the bullpen.
So what has Iwakuma done since he became a full-time starter? Only given his team Hall of Fame caliber outings in over 50 starts. Granted, he has nowhere near the track record in MLB as many starting pitchers enshrined in Cooperstown. But for what service he has given the Mariners, he irrefutably has deserved to be paid like a Tanaka. Since 1920 for starting pitchers who qualify with a minimum of 50 MLB starts, Iwakuma ranks first in earned run average with 2.58 mark. That ranking covers a span of nearly the last century of baseball in America. There is no one above him on that prestigious list. Here are some of the names he has bested so far in his career:
- Clayton Kershaw (2.64)
- Hoyt Wilhelm (2.68)
- Whitey Ford (2.71)
- Sandy Koufax (2.71)
- Tom Seaver (2.86)
All the above names are Hall of Famers, save for Kershaw. Iwakuma’s sample size is of course much smaller (53 carer starts), but it is still ample proof that he is giving the Mariners world class outings for a bargain price of $6.5 million base salary in 2013 and ’14.
Another statistical category that further exemplifies Iwakuma’s value in his brief tenure in the Mariners’ rotation is he has thrown 11 games of at least seven innings pitched while allowing zero earned runs. That is good for a top ten spot on the Mariners’ all time list in that category. Felix Hernandez is first with 41, Jamie Moyer is second with 38 and Randy Johnson third with 33. All of these pitchers have spent substantially more time in a Mariners uniform. To give you an idea of percentages, this stat applies to Iwakuma in ridiculous 20.8 percent of his starts, 14.7 for Hernandez, 12.4 for Johnson and 11.8 for Moyer.
After pitching eight innings of two-run ball last night against the Texas Rangers, Iwakuma has picked up where he left off in his 2013 All-Star campaign. It’s surprising, given the fact he did not see any action in Spring Training and had only a single rehab start before being activated from the disabled list on May 3. Despite these obstacles, his season ERA is a minuscule 1.76 and he is in mid-season form at 3-1. The only number that both is and isn’t altogether something to brag about is Iwakuma’s age. At 33 he is dominating the best hitters the globe has to offer, but one can only wonder if a Hall of Fame career might have been on tap had he left the NPB league sooner in life. Iwakuma wears the No. 18, which is normally reserved only for the ace on a Japanese pitching staff, and it’s safe to say he is exactly that and then some.