Seattle Mariners Sign Hisashi Iwakuma

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2012

The Mariners signed Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma for a $1.5 million base salary and possible incentives of another $3.4 million based on innings pitched and games started, according to

This is almost a no-lose deal for the M’s. If Iwakuma bombs, he only costs the team very little guaranteed money by MLB standards, and if he’s healthy and the M’s play better defense in 2012, it’s highly likely he could have a big year for them.

I’ve been following Iwakuma’s career in Japan for some time, and he really knows how to pitch.  He won’t strike a lot of people out in the U.S., but recorded better than 3.4 strikeouts per walk in NPB over the course of his career, which is just terrific.

Iwakuma first caught my attention when he went 15-2 for the 2004 Kintetsu Buffaloes, a team that went 61-70-2 (games end in a tie in Japan if neither team has a lead after 12 innings).  What really caught my attention was the goings on between the 2004 and 2005 NPB season.

The two worst teams in Japan’s Pacific League, the Buffaloes and the Orix Blue Wave, were struggling.  [Something like 60% of NPB's fan base roots for either the Yomiuri Giants or the Hanshin Tigers, both of whom play in the Central League, with the remaining roughly 40% of fans rooting for the remaining ten teams.

The Giants and Tigers draw far bigger crounds and make far more money than any other team in NPB.  Here's the attendance figures for the last two seasons for the Central League and the Pacific League.

As you can see from the numbers, the 2011 Softbank Hawks were the only team to come within half a million of the Tigers or the Giants in either of the last two seasons.  As a result of both the Giants and Tigers playing in the Central League, the Central League teams generally draw better than their Pacific League counterparts right down the line thanks to home games scheduled against the behemoths.]

Anyway, the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix Blue Wave were merged to become the new Orix Buffaloes, and after the NPB players’ association carried out a two-day strike in September 2004, the first players’ strike in NPB history, the owners agreed to add an expansion team, which became the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

It was clear the Golden Eagles were going to be dreadful in 2005, if not 1962 Mets bad, then at least 1969 Expos and Padres bad.  The new Orix Buffaloes basically cherry picked all the best players from the Buffaloes’ and Blue Waves’ rosters and gave the dregs to the Golden Eagles.  All except for Iwakuma.

Iwakuma was unwilling to be sent to play for the new Orix Buffaloes unless he got a big pay raise.  Ownership wouldn’t give it to him, and he ended up being sold to the Golden Eagles.

He was the only star on the team in 2005, and he finished 9-15 with a 4.99 ERA, by far the worst season of his NPB career.  However, the Golden Eagles as a team were far worse, finishing 38-97-1 with a team ERA of 5.67.  The Golden Eagles’ defense was just dreadful, which was a big reason for Iwakuma’s poor season.

From that point on, I thought it would be only a matter of time before Iwakuma ended up playing the U.S.  I got the impression that he’s a very strong-willed guy who wants to do things his way and isn’t willing to be taken advantage of.  That’s not a popular personality type in Japanese organizations, but it’s much closer to the norm for North American athletes.

Iwakuma had injury problems the next two seasons, but in 2008 he had a season for the ages, finishing 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA on a team that went 65-76-3.  It’s an exceptionally rare thing for a 20-game winning pitcher to finish a season with a winning percentage more than 350 points higher than his team as a whole.  HOFer Steve Carlton did it with the Phillies in 1972 — I’m not aware of any others.

Iwakuma came back down to earth in 2009 and 2010, but still pitched very well.  Last year, injuries limited him to 17 starts and a 6-7 record, but his ERA was only 2.42 with a better than 4.5/1 K/BBs ratio.

It’s a little surprising to see Iwakuma sign for so little a year after he reportedly rejected as much as $17 million over four years after the A’s won the posting process last off-season.  However, I get the impression that Iwakuma does not lack for confidence, and my guess is that he wants to get his foot in the MLB door with a one-year deal with the idea that if he has a big year as a starter, he’ll command a much bigger contract next off-season when he’ll again be a free agent.

I think that MLB hitters will have a lot of trouble with Iwakuma his first two years in the U.S. since they’ve never seen him before.  Like I said, he’s not overpowering, but he really knows how to pitch.

The main concern with Iwakuma is that he gets hurt a lot, having faced elbow and shoulder problems in the past.  He turns 31 years old in April.

Also, Iwakuma isn’t going to miss a whole lot of bats in the U.S., so he needs a good defense behind him, as his 2005 season with Rakuten strongly suggests.  Fangraphs ranked the Mariners’ defense as only 11th best in the 14 team American League last year based on ultimate zone rating.  The Mariners’ are going to have to play better defense in 2012 to get the most benefit out of Iwakuma.