Sep
02

A Burden Lifted: The Kei Igawa Story

By

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Yesterday was a rather hectic day in Yankeeland, so I’m sure a few of you didn’t notice that Kei Igawa was put on Double-A Trenton’s disabled list. The minor league season ends on Monday, so for all intents and purposes, the DL stint ends his season and also his time with the Yankees. Five years after joining the organization, Igawa’s contract will expire in a few weeks and the Yankees will be free of the scarlet letter they’ve worn since 2007.

* * *

It all started with Daisuke Matsuzaka, the next great Japanese pitcher that was going to take MLB by storm. The Yankees bid handsomely for his services after the 2006 season, somewhere between $32-33M, but the Red Sox blew everyone out of the water with a $51.1M submission. Off to Boston went Dice-K, leaving the Yankees still in need of another arm. That’s where Igawa came in, and he had all the credentials. He was a two-time strikeout champ with the Hanshin Tigers, a former league MVP, a former Eiji Sawamura Award winner (Cy Young equivalent), left-handed, and just 27 years old. It was a fit for a team in need of an arm.

The Yankees won the rights to negotiate a contract with Igawa with a $26,000,194 bid in November 2006, the last $194 an ode to his strikeout total from the previous season. “We have been following Kei Igawa’s very successful and accomplished career in Japan,” said Brian Cashman after the winning bid was announced. “We are excited about the opportunity to begin the negotiating process with him.”  Then-Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine offered a more ominous statement after the news broke, saying: “The first time I saw him, I thought he was a lot better. Four years ago, he was a lot better than he is now. But he’s still good.”

Twenty-eight days after winning the bid, the Yankees inked Igawa to a five-year contract worth $20M that would pay him exactly $4M every year from 2007 through 2011. He started the ’07 season as the number four starter behind Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, and Carl Pavano, and his first start could not have gone any worse. The first batter he faced, Brian Roberts of the Orioles, hit a fly ball to the warning track in dead center, and two batters later Nick Markakis welcomed Igawa to the States with a solo homer. Baltimore tacked on four more runs in the second inning thanks to a bases loaded walk and a Melvin Mora double, and then two innings later Mora went deep for a two-run homer. Igawa’s first start consisted of eight hits, three walks, seven runs, 17 fly balls, three line drives, two strikeouts, and three ground balls.

His next two starts went much better, three runs in 5.1 IP against the Athletics and two runs in six innings against the Indians. After the then-Devil Rays hung seven runs on him in 4.1 IP in his fourth start, the Yankees took advantage of an off day to skip Igawa’s turn in the rotation. His best outing as a Yankee came five days after the disaster in Tampa, when he tossed six scoreless innings against the Red Sox in relief in Jeff Karstens, who had his leg broken by a line drive in the first inning. I was actually at that game, and I remember Igawa pitching exclusively from the stretch and me thinking that maybe that would help get him on the right track mechanically. Alas, it did not.

Igawa made seven more starts after his relief outing against the Sox, allowing 29 runs and 47 hits in 35.2 IP. He did strike out 32, but he had walked 19 and given up ten (ten!) homeruns. The Yankees pulled the plug in early-August and sent Igawa to the minors, but not to Triple-A. They send him to their minor league complex in Tampa, where the pitching instructors were waiting for him. “That didn’t work out too well,” said Igawa years later, after the Yankees tried to overhaul his mechanics by changing everything from his arm action to his leg kick to where he stood on the rubber.

(Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)

He made 13 minor league starts after the demotion, pitching to a 3.49 ERA with a 77-18 K/BB in 77.1 IP. The Padres claimed Igawa off trade waivers in August, and rather than work out a deal or simply foist his entire contract contract onto San Diego, the Yankees kept him because “ownership was not willing to let him go yet.” Igawa rejoined the team in September, making one one-out appearance in relief and one five-inning start in game 157, when the Yankees were more concerned about lining up their playoff rotation than winning.

The Yankees sent Igawa back to the minors to start the 2008 season, though they did call him up for an early-May spot start against the Tigers. It was a disaster, an eleven-hit, six-run effort in three innings. A return trip to the minors followed, then Igawa resurfaced in late-June as bullpen depth for a doubleheader against the Mets. June 27th, 2008 would be Igawa’s final appearance in the Major Leagues, a one-inning outing in which he allowed singles to Fernando Tatis and Jose Reyes in the ninth inning of a game the Yankees won 9-0. He was designated for assignment after the game, removed from the 40-man roster less than two-years after the Yankees invested more than $46M in him.

It’s been more than three full years since that happened, and Igawa has toiled away in the team’s minor league system ever since. He’s set the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise record for career wins (29), and is in the all-time top ten in career losses (ninth), starts (fifth), innings (fifth), hits allowed (sixth), runs allowed (tenth), homeruns allowed (second), and strikeouts (second). That’s going back to when SWB was the Phillies’ affiliate as well. When the Yankees didn’t have a place for Igawa in Triple-A this year, they sent him to Double-A Trenton. He moved between the two levels whenever a spare arm was needed, missed several weeks with an elbow injury, came back briefly, and was just placed on the DL again. Unceremoniously, his Yankees’ career ended with a devilish 6.66 ERA in 71.2 big league innings and a 3.83 ERA in 533 minor league innings.

* * *

Bill Pennington of The New York Times profiled Igawa back in July, an article that painted the Yankees in an unfavorable light, perhaps intentionally. Igawa, quiet, prideful and marching to the beat of his own drum, lived in his East Side apartment during the entire length of his contract, commuting to games in Scranton or Trenton or wherever with his translator Subaru Takeshita. He had trouble with the cultural transition and being away from his family for seven months a year, but he refused to go home to pitch in Japan. Cashman twice worked out a deal that would have sent Igawa to a Japanese club, but the now 32-year-old declined each time. It was made clear to him that he would not be returning the majors. The Yankees simply had no interest in seeing him wear their uniform again.

Igawa’s tenure in pinstripes exemplifies the team’s pitching failures over the last eight years or so. They paid top dollar for a less than elite talent, but because they are the Yankees, they were able to bury him in the minors and essentially eat the contract. Pitching up in the zone with a fastball that often failed to crack 90 mph was no recipe for success in the AL East, and the fly balls he produced often went over the fence and to the wall for extra bases. The Yankees received next to nothing for their investment, and will be free of the burden in the coming weeks. “It was a disaster,” said Cashman recently. “We failed.”

Categories : Players

61 Comments»

  1. HyShai says:

    The picture reminds me of a long time question. Why do pitchers not wear sunglasses when pitching? Is is a rule?

  2. Jesse says:

    It’s interesting that the Padres claimed him off waivers that one year. What would the Yankees have gotten for him? A bucket of baseballs? The San Diego Chicken?

    • jsbrendog says:

      they could have just let san diego have him. for nothing. or maybe they could’ve gotten something like they did when veras went to cleveland was it? something like $10,000 i want to say… haha

  3. Shuffle Cards for fun says:

    Thus showing why we truly are an evil empire

  4. jsbrendog says:

    i hope he goes to petco and has some success. poor guy

  5. jkra0512 says:

    I read that NYT article and I did feel bad for him. We have to remember that in Japanese culture, failure is very much suicide. They are a prideful people and I think that plays some role with him staying here.

    I must be difficult to hear somebody say, “You’re never coming back.” Especially, when you were there and didn’t do so well. I hope Igawa latches on with an NL team and carves out a little career that he can look back on and say he did achieve some success in the US.

    The way Brian Cashman sounded in that article goes against everything I ever thought about the guy. I know baseball is a business, first and foremost, but he sounded spiteful and resentful for Igawa decision to not go back to Japan. You don’t bring feelings and emotions into business decisions…unless, of course, you’re negiotiating with Derek Jeter…

    • Midland TX says:

      Totally your interpretation. I read the same quotes and I saw no malice or spite toward Igawa–just regret that the deal didn’t work out for the Yankees, and honesty about the player’s current situation.

  6. jkra0512 says:

    I read that NYT article and I did feel bad for him. We have to remember that in Japanese culture, failure is very much suicide. They are a prideful people and I think that plays some role with him staying here.

    It must be difficult to hear somebody say, “You’re never coming back.” Especially, when you were there and didn’t do so well. I hope Igawa latches on with an NL team and carves out a little career that he can look back on and say he did achieve some success in the US.

    The way Brian Cashman sounded in that article goes against everything I ever thought about the guy. I know baseball is a business, first and foremost, but he sounded spiteful and resentful for Igawa decision to not go back to Japan. You don’t bring feelings and emotions into business decisions…unless, of course, you’re negiotiating with Derek Jeter…

  7. 1stbase says:

    Yea dude was living in a nice ass apartment in NYC getting chauffeured to his job in a lexus, making 4 million a year to do absolutely nothing besides be terrible at his job, yea my heart aches for him really bad

  8. 1stbase says:

    I like the way cashman handled it, he didn’t buffalo him at all he told him like it was, you suck you’re never gonna pitch with the yankees and tried to do igawa a favor sending him back to pitch in his homeland which igawa refused

    • jkra0512 says:

      Is there more to life than just money? Is being paid well mean you’re happy? Does money = success? Despite what a capitalist society wants you to believe, it can cause more problems than cure them.

      It’s obvious the guy wants to prove he can be successful and no amount of money can give you the same feeling as being successful at the highest levels of your profession.

      So while being chauffered to your job in a Lexus, getting paid millions and told, “you suck and you’ll never make it” may be all well and fine for you…for some people, there’s more to life than being wealthy.

      I’m sure Pennington meant to make Cashman look like a monster in that story, which helped drive the point home that Igawa is “suffering.” But, he did come off as a disrespectful jerk. All in all, he is just as much to blame for signing him, so really he should be pointing the finger at himself for failing (which is sorta said)…

      • JohnnyC says:

        “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, from a short story called “Rich Boy”

      • Midland TX says:

        You’re completely wrong. It’s a business transaction. If Igawa felt there was more to life than money, or wanted a chance to prove himself, or whatever drivel you’re spouting, then all he had to do was agree to void or renegotiate his contract with the Yankees to gain free agency, or accept a trade.

        He made his choice. $20 million buys a lot of anti-depressants and hours of therapy.

        • jkra0512 says:

          Wow, way to go personal…

          • Midland TX says:

            Please show me in the article where Igawa critiques the capitalist system, then reflect on who made it personal.

            I didn’t criticize you as a person–I just deconstructed your flawed and unsupported assertions.

            • jkra0512 says:

              Where did I say that Igawa critiqued the capitalist system? Easy man, don’t over think yourself to try and prove a point.

  9. IRF says:

    When people complain about how tough it is to watch AJ Burnett pitch or Javy Vazquez last year, they should remember the horrifying spectacle that was Kei Igawa.

  10. in all honesty... says:

    The Yankees gave him a chance , multiple chances at that.

    They paid him good money for a projected 4th starter at that time.

    Sucks that it didn’t work … He was a awsome pitcher to use in MLB POWER PROS 2007 for the playstation 2.

    Good luck on your future endeavors

    … Oh yeah Jean Aferman should get the blame on this one NOT Cashman…since she’s involved and in charge with the international signings.

    • Ed says:

      I thought Afterman mostly handled contract/legal/business issues. I never had the impression she dealt with talent evaluation.

  11. mustang says:

    “We” If I remember it correctly Mr. Cashman picked Mr. Igawa over Mr. Lily because he didn’t want to pay an extra 5 million or so in luxury tax.

    Cashman has done a great job as the GM, but to this day I will NEVER understand Igawa over Lily (which RAB gave a stamp of approve on at the time) or LaTroy Hawkins.

    Buy hey no one is perfect.

  12. Daniel says:

    I was at Igawa’s debut with my father. Was the single greatest game that my father or myself had ever seen. Igawa pitched horribly… but Giambi and Arod bailed him out with longballs… Arod delivering the walk off grand slam to win the game.

    One month later my father was diagnosed with cancer. Two months after that he died.

    So I thank Kei Igawa for that game. It sounds kind of crappy to say it… but his less than stellar performance set up one of the happiest memories I have of my father. So oddly enough, I’ll always see him in a fond light.

  13. CS Yankee says:

    After reading the article the things i take from this is;
    1) Kei is a gamer, is a honorable person, and over-achieved (or was injured) before the signing.
    2) Cashman stated the facts, but went too far saying he drives faster than he pitches…that was cold, funny, but a GM should not do standup comedy.
    3) The politics and pride got in the way here…I don’t feel bad for Kei or the Yankees…just too much pride and politics in play.

    It always seemed to me from the signing… from the “he’s a bottom-half rotation guy” quote that you paid over 46M$ for was to counter-balance the Dice-K drama/attention.

    He might of made a meh reliever…and maybe we’ll see that next year for some sucky team that wants to take a chance.

    Clearly wasted investment that they would rather have rot away than get a little back. Which is like buying GM at $46, seeing it tank to $3 and your broker calling you and telling you the government is helping them out but will put your stock position to worthless so you better sell, and then you still don’t sell.

    The 46M$ investment could of been sold for 15M$ but instead lead to a handful of minor league wins and a larger carbon footprint.

  14. Elmgrovegnome says:

    It is all business. Igawa wanted the money and he took the chance. In Japan they may want to kill themselves if they fail. In America we get up off our butts and try again, or try something else, or move on to greener pastures.

    Cashman was straight forward and realistic. He came to realize that Igawa was never going to work out as a Yankee and tried to do the best to help him move on. Igawa chose not to take advantage of it.

    If you want to feel sorry for someone go to your nearest hospital and visit some patients, volunteer at a camp for kids with spina bifida, visit a nursing home or vacility for parapalegics, visit a mental institution. But dont feel bad for Kei Igawa.

    • DF says:

      As an alternative, you could be a decent human being and see the many different sides to this story and understand that these are real people, and thus deserving of empathy. Even if they make choices you don’t like or understand.

      Seeing Kei Igawa as a real person who has clearly struggled with this turn of events in his life does not preclude you from feeling sorry for mental patients or sick kids. This isn’t, or doesnt have to be, an either/or situation. There’s plenty of pain in the world to be empathetic about.

      • Oscar Gamble's Fro says:

        Please stop with the “decent human being” crap. I’m an extremely decent human being and I have zero sympathy for Kei Igawa. None.

  15. Foghorn leghorn says:

    The lesson here is don’t sign a Japanese pitcher

  16. PaulF says:

    Wasn’t he signed to be the #5 starter? I think he only started the 4th game of the year because Wang missed the first month with injury.

  17. Jonathan says:

    My main memory of Igawa was him pitching game 4 of a 4 game series against the Royals in the summer of 07. The Yankees had DOMINATED the first 3 games of the series and I had free tickets for all 3 games (I went to a game on the 4th of July and the rain ruined the fireworks shows so all tickets were redeemable for a ticket of the same or lesser value so I spent 30 minutes go around the stadium and good seats looking for tickets people dropped). ARod had hit his 499th HR of his career late in the third game but struck out against Dotel in his last AB. I obviously didn’t want to miss my chance at seeing one of my favorite players make history but part of me didn’t want to even go because I knew we would lose with Igawa on the mound. All of my friends who didn’t follow baseball thought I was some genius for actually being able to predict a Royals team beating the Yankees. Little did they know how obvious it was to Yankee fans.

    We have a lot more painful contracts to survive after this one but at least AJ/ARod/Jeter etc are MLB players and in DJ/Arod etc good ones. I can’t believe Igawa turned down a return to Japan though….that’s some serious pride. Best of luck to him but nobody is going to miss that garbage he threw.

  18. Mr. Wallace says:

    This guy seems better than AJ. What happened to the other former Yankees Japanese pitcher that killed himself? Not a wise ass answer like “he died” please

  19. Mr. Wallace says:

    This guy seems better than AJ. What happened to the other former Yankees Japanese pitcher that killed himself? Not a wise ass answer like “he died” please.

    • Andrew 518 says:

      Irabu…Yankees traded him to Expos, bounced around a bit, returned to Japan and then made a short lived comback attempt in independant leagues.

  20. Troll Killer says:

    Kei Igawa is not better than AJ Burnett!! Stop it people!!

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