On May 12 I wrote that Akinori Iwamura couldn’t play any worse and that there was nowhere to go but up. I was horribly wrong. Not only was Iwamura designated for assignment today, but his seasonal line somehow did get worse as his Pirates’ career ends with a .264 wOBA in 193 plate appearances. As vital as it is to lay out what we know about a topic, sometimes it’s even more important to spell out what we don’t know.
With Iwamura, we know that he is 31-years-old and suffered a knee injury last season. We don’t know the affect that knee injury has on his lateral movement or agility, with the latter being one of his best defensive assets. We know that Iwamura entered the season with a career BABIP over .330 and exits from Pittsburgh with a .211 BABIP. We also know that despite hitting a career high amount of groundballs, he’s registering a career low amount of infield hits.
Iwamura’s BABIP on groundballs hit is an almost unfathomable .135. His career rate, with this season’s numbers included, is .284. League average for this season is .230. I don’t have timed data on Iwamura’s runs from home to first, or first to third, or whatever distance becomes an acceptable measure of his speed versus the rest of the league, but from my exposure to Iwamura, he’s certainly got above average speed. So what could be the reason for such a seemingly contradicting relationship between his groundball rate and infield hits?
The most obvious and boring explanation is bad luck. With the information we have, this is in all likelihood the most reasonable answer. One could make the case that Iwamura’s time playing on artificial turf helped raise his BABIP but league BABIP rates for grass and turf alike show that grass actually has a higher BABIP this season. Iwamura’s career rates suggest the opposite, yet his grass BABIP is still over .300 and those numbers are predominantly in road circumstances, where Iwamura would be expected to hit worse.
Maybe he’s hitting the ball weaker, but that would seem to suggest he would be beating out more of them using his speed and the assumption that the infield isn’t playing him closer now than they have in the past. Or maybe he’s hitting the ball harder on the ground, but again, wouldn’t a few balls find their way into the holes; or, if the defense began playing further back, wouldn’t this increase Iwamura’s probability of reaching on weaker hit grounders?
The answer to all of these questions are of course: I don’t know. I don’t know what went wrong with Iwamura in Pittsburgh, and I’m not sure the Pirates really do either. They’re in full-blown youth mode in Pittsburgh and playing time for Iwamura was about to be severely restricted, in part due to his own crippling performance. Some team, maybe the Twins, maybe not, should take a chance on Iwamura though. I sincerely doubt he’ll continue to play this horrendously … but I’ve been wrong about that before.