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Don’t Forget Hisashi Iwakuma

You probably had to own Hisashi Iwakuma to really appreciate how helpful he was down the fantasy baseball stretch in 2012. Iwakuma flew under the radar perhaps because he was pitching for a team that was taking a wet noodle approach to their youngsters by mid-July, already trying to figure out who might stick in 2013. Iwakuma, in real baseball, was largely ignorable. But in looking ahead at 2013, he might warrant your attention in fantasy baseball.

Iwakuma pitched in in 30 games and posted a 3.16 ERA (4.35 FIP) with a real affinity for giving up home runs, a ho-hum 8.3% walk rate and an equally thrilling 19.5% strikeout rate. If that were the story right there, you could move on to, I don’t know, Ervin Santana in hopes of solving your starting pitching problems on the cheap.

But Iwakuma was rather miscast as a mop-up reliever where he very much stunk. Out of the bullpen, Iwakuma’s results were a 4.75 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, almost a 12% walk rate, and just an 18% strikeout rate. It wasn’t until July that the Mariners decided to do the same with Iwakuma as they were doing with their youngsters and see what kind of jib this guy was cut from. Because you can’t have enough quality jib around.

And that’s when the light seemed to go on.

Iwakuma made 16 starts the remainder of the season and the results were a 2.65 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. He struck out 20% of opposing batters and walked just 7%. Just like that, Iwakuma stuck, and he should be someone you take a gander at when you’re preparing your late round and/or auction cheapies list. Because although Iwakuma didn’t make enough starts to appear on the infamous Zach Sanders end-of-season-ranking-list, had he thrown 180 innings with these results and won just 12 games, he would have been worth the same as players like Wade Miley and Max Scherzer at $13.

Before you skip down to the comments to call me unflattering names that would upset my long deceased mother (God rest her soul) — I’m not saying Iwakuma and Scherzer are equals. And yeah, I know — you can’t just take his 95 innings pitched as a starter and project it out over the season because you, in fact, need to actually perform as a starting pitcher against millionaire hitters for that amount of time. And that’s really hard. You get this, I know you do. It’s just illustrative of the kind of potential that might be there in a very cheap player should you play in standard 5×5 roto leagues.

The key for Iwakuma, as it is for many pitchers who can’t simply throw right by opponents, is good control. When Iwakuma is ahead in the count, he can lean on his very good split finger fastball, which you can read more about in this post.

And it is remarkable to look at Iwakuma the starter based on counts. I’m not going to bore you with his approach in each and every count, but let’s just take 1-2 and 2-2 counts to illustrate when he’s ahead and a 3-0 and 3-1 count to illustrate when he’s way behind. First, his repertoire and results in a 1-2 count:

1-2 count
Type Count Selection Whiff
FS 67 48.60% 20.90%
FF 34 24.60% 5.90%
SL 22 15.90% 18.20%
CU 8 5.80% 12.50%
SI 7 5.10% 0.00%

When he’s ahead in the count, Iwakuma went to his splitter and slider about 65% of the time and generated some big whiff percentages. Even in the 2-2 count, his distribution changed very little and the whiff rates actually increase:

2-2 count
Type Count Selection Whiff
FS 52 45.20% 23.10%
FF 27 23.50% 11.10%
SL 18 15.70% 22.20%
SI 14 12.20% 14.30%
CU 4 3.50% 0.00%

But when Iwakuma is behind in the count, he throws mostly a four seam fastball or sinker, and it’s frequently for a strike:

3-0 count
Type Count Selection Whiff
FF 8 88.90% 0.00%
SI 1 11.10% 0.00%

And the 3-1 count:

3-1 count
Type Count Selection Whiff
FF 10 45.50% 0.00%
SI 10 45.50% 0.00%
CU 1 4.50% 0.00%
SL 1 4.50% 0.00%

Indeed, over his 95.2 innings pitched as a starter, Iwakuma threw just 31 pitches in a 3-0 count or a 3-1 count and exactly zero of them were swung on and missed. His four seam fastball was more than a run below average per 100 pitches, so that’s not insignificant either. When batters were ahead of Iwakuma, they posted a .295/.487/.509 slash line. When Iwakuma was ahead, they posted a .189/.189/.256 line (AL league average was .205/.213/.304).

So the Mariners realizing all this picked Iwakuma back up for a couple of years, and now his role is well defined. He enters the 2013 as a starter, we don’t need to futz around with this reliever bologna where he was ineffective, and well, maybe Iwakuma can actually help your fantasy team. If you’re optimistic, perhaps you think he can perform like this over the course of a full season. If you’re not so optimistic, then maybe his shoulder starts to bark again, maybe hitters adjust to his stuff, and/or maybe he’s some approximation of the evil reliever and the wonderful starter that we saw in 2012. Choose your side and draft accordingly — pitchers and catchers report in less than two months.