Nov
01

The Yankees and Hisashi Iwakuma

By

It’s no secret that the Yankees need to acquire at least one starting pitcher this winter, and it’s even less of a secret that they want that pitcher to be Cliff Lee. They won’t be able to pursue him until the free agency period begins five days after the end of the World Series, but that applies to MLB players only. As MLBTR noted yesterday, the Rakuten Golden Eagles are making ace righty Hisashi Iwakuma available via the posting process this winter, and the bidding begins today.

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Of course, the Yankees still have the sour taste of Kei Igawa (and to a lesser extent Hideki Irabu) in their mouths (and on their payroll, unfortunately), but it would be foolish to eliminate an entire demographic of talent just because of one horrendous mistake. They’ve been scouting Yu Darvish rather heavily over the last two years, so we know they’re not afraid of acquiring another Japanese pitcher. They just have to make sure it’s the right Japanese pitcher.

I remember watching 29-year-old Iwakuma (30 in April) pitch twice in the 2009 WBC (including in the Championship series) and being impressed but not blown away. Subjectively speaking, he didn’t have blow-you-away kind of stuff but threw lots of strikes and mixed his pitches well, similar to what Colby Lewis has been doing with great success this postseason. Let’s not go off my shoddy memory though, here’s a scouting report courtesy of Baseball America

… Iwakuma has had some health concerns, as he missed most of the 2006 season with a shoulder injury, and he struggled in 2007 as well. But he returned to full health in 2008, as he went 21-4, 1.87 to lead the Pacific League in ERA and wins to earn the league’s MVP award.

Iwakuma doesn’t light up a radar gun, as his fastball sits around 89-90 mph and tops out at 93, but he pairs it with a nasty split-finger fastball that dives at the plate and a solid-to-plus slider. As he showed throughout the World Baseball Classic, Iwakuma is extremely efficient. He carved up Cuba, needing only 66 pitches to work six innings.

[snip]

“He would step into any rotation in the majors right now; he might be the No. 1 for half the teams in the majors,” an American League scout said. “He’s very impressive across the board.”

Always love the anonymous scout quotes thrown in at the end. Anyway, the indispensable NPB Tracker shared some velocity data for one of Iwakuma’s recent starts, which confirms the above (a shuuto is basically a two-seamer). He’s thrown 571 total innings over the last three years (including 200+ in 2008 and 2010), so the injury concerns mentioned above appear to be a thing of the past. He’s posted a 6.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, and 0.5 HR/9 in those years, which is something like a 2.95 FIP using the MLB factors. Don’t take that to heart though, it’s just a ballpark number. Here’s a video, and you can see Iwakuma has a traditional Asian delivery, with the hesitation and everything.

Unlike Darvish, it’s not a package that screams frontline starter, but rather something more along the lines of a mid-rotation guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The key to any deal would be keeping it short, because for whatever reason Japanese starting pitchers seem to hit a bit of a wall after their first two seasons in MLB (see right). Perhaps it has to do with the different schedule; they pitch once a week in Japan, the same day every week, rather than a set five man rotation. Maybe it takes two or three years before the added workload catches up to them. Maybe MLB hitters eventually adjust, who knows. Either way, a four- or five-year deal should be avoided. Two or three is the way to go, if that.

Given his low strikeout tendencies, I don’t believe the Yankees should make a serious push for Iwakuma in the next few weeks. Chances are his strikeout, walk, and homerun rates will suffer during the transition to MLB, and the strikeout rate might not be good enough to make up the difference. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical about Iwakuma’s ability to succeed pitching in the AL East with a hitter friendly home ballpark.

That said, I don’t see any harm with submitting an $8-10M bid (or whatever amount they’re comfortable with, really) just to see what happens. Rakuten is hoping to get a $16M bid according to the link above, so I’m talking about basically half of what’s expected. The Rays landed Akinori Iwamura when they submitted a $4.5M bid with no expectations in 2006, and they ended up receiving 6.1 fWAR out of him for a total of $12M from 2007-2009, a great bargain. The Yanks should take a chance to see if Iwakuma falls into their laps at a below market rate, but they shouldn’t go all-out to pursue him.

Categories : Hot Stove League

54 Comments»

  1. Dick Whitman says:

    The only reason I am slightly intrigued is because he throws a split finger, which is such an effective pitch when rated a plus pitch.

    • Zack says:

      Isn’t it also hell on the arm?

    • TomG says:

      Don’t they use a smaller ball in Japan? Not sure how the transition would go for a guy who depends on the split.

    • Al B says:

      He sounds like a younger Chen Ming Wang.

      • JCK says:

        I could go for a couple more years of vintage Wang.

      • Larry says:

        Wang’s heater was consistently in the 93 94 mph range. With a bowling Ball type sinker. According to the article, Iwakuma sits in the 89 90 mph range with a top of about 93 with a split, that is Very HARD on the arm. Ask Bruce Sutter. That is not Chein Ming Wang’s numbers. I’ve never seen this guy pitch and obviously the scouts have. I would be very skeptical of looking at this guy above a No. Five Starter on a one year deal.

        • Ted Nelson says:

          You’ve never seen him pitch, but you would be very skeptical beyond #5 starter 1-year deal? How does that work? Also, you acknowledge that the scouts are more familiar with him but choose to ignore the one who says he could make any big league rotation and could be a #1 starter… I’d probably watch the guy pitch before making too many judgements…

  2. pat says:

    Sign him only if he agrees to bring the powder blue glove from japan.

  3. That’s some serious hesitation in his windup; I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that before.

  4. kosmo says:

    If there is a need why not go after Kuroda ? he´s performed well and wouldn´t require a posting fee.2 yrs 6-8 million per?

    If you look at Igawa´s totals over a 4 year period while pitching in Japan you might say the same thing.Looked how that turned out.
    Darvish is the only SP in Nippon worth throwing money at.

    • Jimmy McNulty says:

      I mean, Kuroda is what he is. An aging 4th stater, at least Iwakuma has some upside.

      • Mike HC says:

        He doesn’t even strike out that many guys in Japan. How much upside could be possibly have as a 30 year old pitcher who throws low 90′s, or high 80′s fastballs? A good reliever maybe?

        Just as an aside, Colby Lewis struck out almost one per inning in the Majors this year. He is not even close to as good as Colby Lewis and really not a good comparison.

        • Jimmy McNulty says:

          Well this guy might still have some years in his physical prime left, Kuroda doesn’t.

        • Jimmy McNulty says:

          Note: I don’t want either pitcher to play for the Yankees.

        • Ted Nelson says:

          “He is not even close to as good as Colby Lewis and really not a good comparison.”

          Have you scouted him extensively or do you have a strong working knowledge of Japanese baseball? I mean chances are he is not that great, but Colby Lewis has a career WHIP of 1.5 and ERA+ of 87…

  5. Kei Igawa’s contract is finally up after the 2011 season. I guess the Yankees will need more pitchers for the Scranton rotation after that.

    Zing!

    • Benjamin Kanacki says:

      One mistake means that all other pursuits are destined to fail?

      If the price isn’t outrageous, I agree with Mike. Not a bad idea to check out all options, regardless of how past endeavors turned out.

      Worst case, the Yankees win a posting bid, he sucks and spends a few years in the minors like Igawa did. But there’s always the chance he becomes a passable MLB option in the middle of the rotation or switches to a reliable bullpen arm.

      Writing someone off because of the failings of a completely different individual is asinine.

  6. MikeD says:

    Does he wear sunglasses and run in the OF before and after games? Because that might cause Michael Kay to have a stroke, which could make the contract very cost effective. (Not that I’m really wishing anything bad to happen to Kay.)

  7. Zack says:

    I’m guessing that anonymous scout looked at his 1.87 ERA and thought “OMGz #1 pitcher!”

  8. Jimmy McNulty says:

    Pass. Not just Igawa, and the fact that he’s not the best pitcher in Japan. Look at the NPB players’ careers in Japan and then coming state-side. They typically all have a drop off. I’d be all for signing a reliever like Iwase, but I don’t want to gamble with a rotation spot on an NPB pitcher.

  9. JohnathanCold says:

    I don’t see any harm with submitting an $8-10M bid

    I do. We’ve been duped twice on Japanese pitchers. Lets hope the Yankees don’t go for the hat trick.

  10. That YouTube clip intrigued me. Deadly splitter, sinking fastball with a lot of movement — he’s a groundball machine. He is not striking out a ton, but he’s not walking many either.

    He will allow more home runs, but fewer than Hughes, say, or Burnett, or the late Javier Vasquez. We could use a better #4 starter. Yanks should bid accordingly on a three year deal.

    • Mike HC says:

      That video made it seems like he throws a bunch of meatballs for Major League standards. But it is tough to tell from just that little video.

      I wouldn’t even take a chance on this guy for anything but extreme budget price. Not even close to 8 million just to negotiate with him. That is insane.

  11. anon says:

    Emphatic pass.

  12. j_Yankees says:

    i often come here to RAB and sing the praises of Yu Darvish. Unfortunately i don’t think i can do the same for Iwakuma.

    I don’t have a crystal ball so i can’t see the future. But i would venture to guess Iwakuma would have trouble in the Majors for a couple of reasons.

    He is like a lot of Japanese pitchers in he doesn’t have a great FB. Which means you’ll see a lot of breaking pitches, in all counts. Now this works in Japan and can work here in U.S as long as he can command his FB. But it seems Iwakuma’s stong suit is getting guys to swing at balls out of the zone (Again something that his common place in Japan), it’s what makes him so efficient. And that wouldn’t fly over here.

    This goes for any pitcher who doesn’t have a great FB (which is most japanese pitchers), If you don’t have enough command and/or velo on the FB and you keep trying to go to the well with your breaking stuff you are going to get burned by high pitch counts and walks in the major leagues. Something i fear will be taught to Mr.Iwakuma the hard way.

  13. I’m pretty sure Hisashi Iwakuma is Japanese for “Right Handed Ted Lilly”.

  14. bonestock94 says:

    If Pettitte isn’t back there’s probably better MLB options, or at least more proven ones.

    • After reading this, I agree with you guys: pass on Iwakuma. But, the ML FA options are pretty slim when it comes to starters. If Pettitte doesn’t return, I’d rather look to the trade route (discounting Cliff Lee for the moment) or go internal (just for the money saving).

  15. vin says:

    I really can’t see the Yanks gambling on a NPB starting pitcher anytime soon – unless if he’s a young, elite talent.

    Let the smaller market teams try to catch lightning in a bottle with unproven players. The Yanks are ready, willing and able to spend money on guys with proven track records.

    It’s nothing against Iwakuma or Japanese pitchers in general. I just think its their business strategy. Which is why I don’t believe there is any chance they go into the season with Nova as their 5th starter. Let the unexperienced players earn their playing time out of the bullpen, off the bench, or as spot starters. That’s the way I see the front office operating anyway.

  16. MikeD says:

    Is the Pacific League considered the stronger of the two professional leagues in Japan (the other being the Central League)? I seem to remember that was a knock against Igawa. He came from the Central League, where they don’t use the DH, indicating that pitchers from the Pacific League pitch against stronger line-ups, as A.L. pitchers do in the States. (On the other hand, the team often called the “Japanese Yankees”, The Yomiuri Giants, play in the Central League.) If so, it could be a plus that Iwakuma comes from the Pacific League. That all said, agree with the above. Pass.

    Last, I read that the Pacific League uses the DH in “home games.” Ummm, that’s an interesting statement, since at least one of the teams is the home team, so my first reaction is it’s a very awkward way of saying the Pacific League uses the DH. Then it hit me. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Do they mean that ONLY the home team gets to use the DH? Is that possible? Do they really penalize the visiting team by not allowing it to use the DH against the home team with the DH????

    • Joe says:

      I think that means that the Pacific League uses the DH in home games like the American League uses the DH in home games. If a Pacific League team were playing an away game in a Central League stadium, no DH for either team.

  17. larryf says:

    In 1977, Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young for us but the next year he was replaced by Goose Gossage and ended up in Japan. Graig Nettles said he went from “Cy Young to Sayonara”. We are still looking for a guy to reverse that direction.

    I thought Uehara was pretty effective with his split finger for the O’s this year. Too bad he didn’t throw it to Alex enough.

  18. Avi says:

    “Chances are his strikeout, walk, and homerun rates will suffer during the transition to MLB, and the strikeout rate might not be good enough to make up the difference.”
    I totally agree.
    If you’re looking for a back end guy might as well stick with an MLB proven guy or give it to one of the kids.
    I’d bet Nova or Noesi would have a better year in the Majors next year than Iwakuma.
    After all they both pitched in triple A which is a higher level of competition than Japan.

  19. RobH says:

    We should do it, because the Yankees have recruited so many successful Japanese pitchers…..and Matsuzaka has been an overwhelming success, that 50,000,000 dollar posting fee the Red Sox paid sure looks like a bargain doesn’t it?

    Those who don’t learn from history, are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

    • Zack says:

      No different than people saying: Javy, Randy, and Pavano failed coming from the NL, so stay away from Josh Johnson.

      Those who make decisions based on poor logic, are doomed to miss opportunties.

  20. ADam says:

    No…. No… No…

  21. Andrew says:

    The posting fee isn’t taxed, so it definitely makes sense to at least place a bid. A third or fourth starter in this years free agent market is going to get a lot of money – Ted Lilly just signed for 3 years at 11 mil without even hitting the open market – Yankees may have to overpay drastically for a fourth or fifth starter if they do not go in house. Someone like De la Rosa may well get four years for close to sixty million. If the Yanks post a 15 mil (untaxed) bid, then they all the leverage in a potential contract negotiation and can sign him for something like 3 years for 18 mil. Even if he sucks at that point, you could get an asset for him since his salary is low and it costs you less, in real dollars, than signing a comparable starter because the posting fee is not taxed.

  22. Basil F. says:

    Some people forget that Cashman flipped Irabu to the Expos for Jake Westbrook and Ted Lilly for what I think was one of his best deals ever. Cashman vindicated the Yanks on that one.

  23. cano is the bro says:

    “How can you give 12 million dollars TO HIDEKI IRABU?!”

    /seinfeld

  24. Clint M says:

    I’ve have one reason why they shouldn’t even try to get this guy, Kei Igawa, nuff said!

  25. shimmy neufeld says:

    Gardner + some minor league talent to A’s for Gio Gonzalez

    Swisher + some minor league talent to Braves for Tommy Hanson

    Sign Werth, sign Crawford.

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