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Why Hisashi Iwakuma Came So Cheap

That is a provocative headline. A provocative and declarative headline that is also misleading. There are probably a number of reasons for why Hisashi Iwakuma signed for $1.5 million guaranteed, only some of which I will get into. But look who's reading this post right now! It worked!

So the Mariners got Iwakuma for pretty cheap. There are reports that Iwakuma turned down more money from other teams, but we don't know if those offers matched the Mariners' incentives, and in any case no one offered Iwakuma anything close to what the A's offered him a year ago. Iwakuma came cheaper than I and most others assumed that he would.

Why? Well, last year, as we've talked about, Iwakuma missed about two months with a sore shoulder. It was not the first time he'd been sidelined by shoulder problems. Injuries tend to drive down price tags. Additionally - well, there's a table below. Iwakuma made six starts in 2011 before going on the shelf, and then he made 11 starts after coming back. Data is provided by NPB Tracker. I cannot speak to the quality of the data, but it is the best that we have, and it's probably reliable enough.

Starts avgFA K/9 BB/9
Pre-DL 6 87.7 7.9 1.9
Post-DL 11 86.1 6.1 1.8

Over Iwakuma's final few starts of the 2010 season, his fastball averaged about 90mph. That was more or less his usual velocity. In 2011, he lost a couple ticks before taking a break. Then when he came back, his velocity didn't recover, nor did it even stay the same - it dropped a little more. It dropped, and he was easier to hit, although he was still successful.

You can see how that would be kind of a red flag. You don't like to see a guy lose velocity, miss time, and then lose more velocity. That's actually the opposite of what you'd like to see. You'd like to see a guy gain velocity, not miss time, and then gain more velocity. That guy would be something!

Now, a few things. It's possible there's a problem with the data. I'm not familiar with the source of the data, and maybe there's something wrong. Or maybe the system changed last year. Alternatively, it's possible that Iwakuma reduced his velocity on purpose. I don't know why he'd do that, but pitchers do things. Finally, maybe Iwakuma really did lose velocity and then lose more velocity because of an injury, but now he's all better. The offseason provides rest. Iwakuma has undergone a physical. He passed, and I'm guessing special attention was paid to his shoulder. The Mariners had him examined and then signed him anyway.

This is just something to think about. And a line in Greg Johns' recent writeup wasn't the most reassuring line ever:

Iwakuma said he recently threw 30 pitches in a light bullpen session and felt no pain.

I guess that's not bad news.

Hisashi Iwakuma appears to have lost velocity and missed time. He came back and then appears to have lost more velocity. I'm guessing this is a big reason why he signed for so little. In 2012, he could bounce back. He could pitch effectively without bouncing back. Those are definite possibilities. But he could have a rough go of it, or he could get hurt again. As much as I think the Mariners have a potential bargain on their hands, there's a reason he signed as a potential bargain in the first place. Be careful with your expectations.