The A’s have won the bidding for Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. As yet unsubstantiated reports indicate the A’s offered roughly $17 million for his services to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Iwakuma’s old team.
I became aware of Hisashi Iwakuma back between the 2004 and 2005 seasons. In 2004, at age 23, he had gone a spectacular 15-2 for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, one of the Pacific League’s perennial also-rans.
It was the second year in a row he had won 15 games, which is a lot given NPB’s shorter seasons, and his great 2004 season positioned him as one of the top young pitchers in Japan’s NPB.
That offseason, there was a great deal of conflict in Japanese baseball. The second division teams were tired of losing money, and the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix Blue Wave, another Pacific League also-ran, decided to merge to become the Orix Buffaloes.
NPB threatened to contract 11 teams, and the Japanese players union finally struck for the first time in its history to prevent the loss of what would have been 8.3 percent of their jobs. A deal was eventually worked out to create a new expansion team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, to keep the Pacific League at six teams.
Here’s where Iwakuma came in. He was the best player on either the 2004 Buffaloes or Blue Wave, and the new Orix Buffaloes fully intended for him to be their ace in 2005. Iwakuma had other ideas.
Iwakuma didn’t want to play for the merged team, held out for more money and eventually forced Buffaloes management to let him play for the expansion Golden Eagles. What impressed me about Iwakuma is that there are not a lot of ace pitchers in their prime who would rather play for what everyone knew was going to be a brutally bad expansion team, instead of sticking with a team that would have the best players from two major league squads.
It was apparently at least in part a matter of principal for Iwakuma (I don’t know if the Golden Eagles ended up paying him more than the Buffaloes were offering—they might have). I had a feeling then and there Iwakuma, as a player willing to make waves in a culture where that is not highly appreciated, would pitch in MLB one day if his arm held out.
In fact, Iwakuma had his struggles. In 2005, he went 9-15 with a 4.99 ERA. However, the Golden Eagles were even worse, finishing their inaugural season a dreadful 38-97 with a team ERA of 5.67.
I suspect Iwakuma was pressing in 2005, trying to do to much and be too perfect for an awful team. However, a big part of pitching is defense by the other eight players on the field, and the 2005 Golden Eagles were as bad at all aspects of the game as their season record indicates.
He also had a sore arm. His shoulder was bothering him in 2005, and he had significant arm problems in 2006 and 2007, pitching in only 22 games and 128.2 innings the two seasons combined.
Iwakuma came back with a vengeance in 2008. He went an astounding 21-4 on a Golden Eagles team which finished the season 65-76. He did it by setting personal bests of a 1.87 ERA, 201.2 innings pitched and 159 strike outs against only 36 walks.
Iwakuma wasn’t as good in either 2009 or 2010, although he did post fine ERAs of 3.25 and 2.82 and had double-digit win totals both seasons.
I really don’t know how well Iwakuma will make the transition to MLB. On the plus side, he’s only 30 in 2011 and he obviously knows how to pitch. On the down side, he’s a small right-hander (he’s listed as only 170 lbs.) who has thrown a lot of innings in Japan and has had arm problems in the past (shoulder and elbow).
One thing that concerns me also is that Iwakuma wasn’t a strikeout pitcher in Japan, never recording more than 159 in a season. One wonders how he will fare against MLB’s better hitters if he doesn’t miss a lot of bats.
On the other hand, Iwakuma has exceptional control (well better than three Ks per walk in Japan), and he doesn’t give up a lot of gopher balls. Those are skills that will serve him well pitching his home games at the Oakland Coliseum where both home runs and base hits are hard to come by.
He’ll likely need good defense behind him to be successful because major league hitters can be expected to put the ball in play against him.
All in all, I like the risk the A’s are taking in going after Iwakuma. While I am generally not one to give a lot of weight to intangibles, Iwakuma is a pitcher who has shown a consistent ability to win even on bad teams.
Of course, there are no guarantees, and the failure of Kei Igawa to establish himself as a major league pitcher means that not every pitcher who has had success in Japan is going to be able to make the transition to the American game.
Looking at Igawa’s stats in Japan and the U.S., one thing stands out to me. He gave up a lot of home runs even in Japan, and the gopher ball has really dogged him in the U.S. That shouldn’t be a problem for Iwakuma.