Making the Case for Iwakuma as 2013 ASG Starter

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterJune 19, 2013

The pitcher who should start for the American League squad at the All-Star Game isn't some exciting young pup tasting his first success in the majors. He doesn't possess a blazing fastball that blows up radar guns while blowing hitters away. And he certainly doesn't fall into the big-name-that-can't-be-ignored category.

It's not Justin Verlander. Or Yu Darvish. Or even Felix Hernandez.

And Max Scherzer can take his 10-0 record and shove it.

No, the hurler who deserves to be the AL starter at next month's Midsummer Classic is none other than...

Hisashi Iwakuma.

Sure, you know the name. And you should at least be able to recognize that Iwakuma pitches for the Seattle Mariners. You may even be vaguely aware of the kind of season he's having.

But unless you're a Mariners fan or perhaps an owner of Iwakuma on your fantasy team—and if so, congratulations—then you probably think this suggestion is ridiculous.

Here's why it's anything but.

First, a little Iwakuma info to help you get to know the guy who may well wind up winding up for the AL team at Citi Field on July 16.

As alluded to above, Iwakuma is no young pup. In fact, he turned 32 back in April. The right-hander, born in Tokyo, spent a decade pitching in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, where he was one of that league's best arms. Last year was Iwakuma's first in Major League Baseball, while this is his first as a full-time starter.

Also as mentioned, Iwakuma's average fastball doesn't even crack the 90-mph mark (per FanGraphs), which makes what he's doing, like stuff in the video below, all the more noteworthy.

Why haven't you heard more about Iwakuma? Probably because he was overshadowed by Darvish as a Japanese import during the 2011-12 offseason.

Beyond that, Iwakuma actually spent the first part of 2012 hidden in the Mariners bullpen for some reason. He only pitched in five of Seattle's first 54 games a year ago, and he didn't enter the rotation until last July.

Also? Not for nothing, but the guy is on the Mariners. Not only are the M's a bad baseball team for the umpteenth consecutive season, they're also on the West Coast. In other words, many of Seattle's games are just getting started after plenty of folks—even real baseball fans—in earlier time zones have already begun dreaming about the latest gem twirled by Clay Buchholz or Chris Sale.

Now, because so few of you actually have a real idea of what Iwakuma's been up to through the first two-and-a-half months of the 2013 season, feast your eyes on this table:

Those numbers cover the most basic stats, and as you can see, Iwakuma basically aces them all.

Let's delve a little deeper, though. Here's a chart showing where Iwakuma ranks among AL arms in some of the more advanced metrics:

Okay, so Iwakuma doesn't dominate these stats quite as much, but he's still in the top 20 in all of them and in or around the top 10 in many.

And now for the doozy.

This next table lists all of the pitchers in the Junior Circuit who currently meet all of the following benchmarks...

  • an ERA of 2.50 or lower
  • a walk rate of 2.5/9 or lower
  • a strikeout rate of 8.0/9 or higher
  • a FIP of 3.50 or lower
  • an xFIP of 3.50 or lower
  • a WAR of 2.0 or higher

That's right: Only three AL starters hit each and every one of those standards.

Going by those cutoffs—which are admittedly somewhat arbitrary and yet also extremely impressive—you could make just as strong a case for either Hernandez, Iwakuma's rotation-mate, or the White Sox's Sale.

Sale, though, gets knocked down a peg because, great as he's been, he's also thrown far fewer innings—just 85.1—due in part to missing a start in late May with left shoulder tendonitis.

Hey, when you're splitting hairs, that sort of thing counts.

Of course, many would argue that the pitcher who should start is Darvish, given his otherworldly combination of hype, power fastball, never-ending repertoire—and the fact that he leads all of baseball with 137 strikeouts (12.2 per nine).

That, no doubt, is the sort of arm fans want to watch fire pitches at the best hitters the National League has to offer at the outset of the All-Star Game.

What's fascinating in the Darvish-Iwakuma debate is the coincidence of things.

As referenced briefly above, both Darvish and Iwakuma hail from Japan, dominated the NPB circuit for several years and then came over to MLB in within a couple weeks of each other.

Darvish, you'll remember, was the big name who got the big pub—and the big money, thanks to the $111 million-plus commitment from the Rangers—whereas Iwakuma was basically an afterthought, especially after he had failed to agree with the Oakland Athletics the previous winter after posting.

And here we are, 18 months later, and the All-Star starter debate in the AL may well come down to...Darvish and Iwakuma.

It's worth pointing out that there's still time.

Time for Iwakuma, Darvish, Hernandez, Sale, as well as any of the others mentioned above—or any other stud AL starters you can think of—to take a few more turns and really make their case for toeing the rubber in the bottom half of the first inning of the All-Star Game next month.

But as much as he's flown under the radar, both among his countrymen and his teammates, here's hoping Iwakuma gets consideration.

He deserves it.


All statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs; WAR statistics come from FanGraphs.


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