When the Mariners re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma in December--announced at the holiday party and later shared on social media, in what I now realize was an awesomely crafty move by Dipotus may he forever reign in glory--the initial response was the stuff little kid birthday parties are made of, all ear-to-ear grins and balloons and thickly frosted cake. But then the sugar high wore off and fans began to wonder: why exactly was Iwakuma available to return? The Dodgers have enough money to swim through, Scrooge McDuck-style; surely they weren't balking too much as Kuma's asking price. After articles such as this insufferably gleeful one came out in the LA Times crowing about how the Dodgers, er, dodged a bullet, the question began to hang over our heads: just how fragile is Kuma?
Lately, that question has been replaced by the more immediate concern of just how hurt is Felix? But back when it was still dark when you woke up and went to bed, durability questions about Iwakuma, whose season was shortened last year with a lat strain that kept him out from late April until July, hung over the upcoming season. A strong spring training effort didn't quell any of those worries because, well, it's spring training and that's like topsy-turvy time at the Feast of Fools.
When the season finally started, Iwakuma had a rough on-road into it, like when you let the car drift too far over in the right lane and hit the safety grooves. In the five games Kuma pitched in April, the Mariners lost three of them, and in the two they won he didn’t get a decision, despite a fine pitching performance from Kuma, who only gave up two ER each time, striking out five in one game and issuing only one walk in the other. Pitcher wins are a lousy metric but they have a way of clouding assessment, especially when ROOT puts up that big graphic with the pitcher’s face and his ERA and record, and Kuma’s final game in April—a stinker at home against Houston where he gave up five runs in as many innings—didn’t close the month on a high note. ERA and pitcher wins aren’t particularly insightful measures of a pitcher’s performance, but 0-3 with a 4.65 ERA is a pretty ugly mark to ignore. Words like "inconsistent" and "disappointing" and "ineffective" began to sneak into game descriptions, and the specter of injury gave a slight cough to let you know it was still in the room.
If there was a bright spot to that outing against the Astros, it was the seven strikeouts Iwakuma recorded in that game, which matched his previous high of seven against the Rangers back on April 11. Here’s a compilation of those, since I can’t find video of the Astros hacks:
There's a lot of what made Iwakuma successful last year on display there: a fastball that rises on Fielder and Odor to induce swinging strikes, the splitter that falls through a trapdoor that Moreland and Andrus chase. Kuma's fastball is a tick down in velocity over this year from past year (87.9 mph vs 88.9 in 2015), as is the splitter (83.1 compared to 83.4), but the pitches continue to show good movement that fool batters. Iwakuma has never been a fireballer, so a slight decrease in velocity shouldn't impact his effectiveness too much as long as the pitches continue to move on batters. For all the garment-rending about Iwakuma turning 35 this season, his pitches haven't fallen off a cliff. The key for Kuma is his ability to locate his fastball and make sure it doesn't hang out over the plate, something he struggled with in this game and against the Astros. Bad pitch location and poor run support combined to give Iwakuma a forgettable April, putting him into an unusual position--weak link in a rotation that was ranked fifth in baseball for April.
May would show some improvement for Iwakuma, even if his performance was largely uneven. His batting average against dropped from .289 (ouch!) to .267—still well above his career mark of .237 but an improvement nonetheless. He started the month with a strong outing at Oakland, going seven innings and only giving up one run in collecting his first win. Unfortunately, he followed that up with two weak outings: at Houston on May 8, in an anemic performance by the Mariners on both sides of the ball, he lasted only five innings while giving up three runs on seven hits; and on May 14—on a Saturday night at Safeco before a sizeable crowd, stop me if you know how this ends—he was tagged by the Angels for four runs on nine hits. N I N E. By the Angels, who okay, have Trout and Calhoun, and someone dropped a flowerpot on Pujols’ head and he remembered how to hit, but they did not account for all nine of those hits. Blech. Luckily, a trip out of town to face the hapless Reds fixed him right up, as did two blowout victories to end the month against Oakland (13-3) and San Diego (16-4), giving him a 4-1 record for May. I know, I know: batting average and pitcher wins. But the thing is, even including the extra game in May, Kuma’s numbers are maddeningly consistent. He gave up about the same number of hits and runs, walked about the same number of batters, and induced about as many strikeouts as in April. So, with a larger sample size, we can start to look at how his numbers compare with last year's:
At first glimpse, this does not look great. While lasting about the same number of innings per game, Iwakuma is giving up more hits per game in 2016, and striking out less batters while walking more of them. His hard contact is up and his ground ball rate is down, although thankfully this hasn’t translated into an elevated home run rate (keep in mind, too, that this number includes the three dingers he allowed San Diego because he didn’t want the Padres to take their ball and go home). His ERA of 4.13 looks pretty close to his FIP of 4.08 and very close to a not-nice 4.19 SIERA. So does James Paxton begin measuring for curtains in Kuma’s spot in the rotation? Not so fast.
First, the BABIP there is well above career numbers, and that's down 25 points from where it was in April alone, which suggests it will continue to fall. There's also an argument to be made that Iwakuma's mindset in the early part of the 2016 season is different from his approach to an injury-shortened 2015, when he really only pitched the last half of the season. Also, in such a limited sample, the no-hitter is going to inflate his 2015 numbers some.
There are some worrisome numbers here, or some that are just flat-out weird. Last year, Kuma's season high for number of walked batters per game was three; he's already had three games this year where he's walked three batters. Kuma hit only one batter with a pitch last year; so far this year, he already has three. One was in the first game in which he appeared on April 5 (second game of the season), and he hasn't hit anyone since April 27, so hopefully that was a case of early-season yips that's now under control.
Despite his uneven performance in April and May, things are trending upward for Iwakuma. In his past three appearances, Kuma has gone seven innings each time; two of those were blowout wins, against the A’s and the Padres, but in each of those laughers he did not issue a single walk, and only one against Texas. (Iwakuma turned in an excellent pitching performance against Texas but the Mariners were like, oh didn't you save any of those 29 runs we gave you the last two times?). So far, Kuma’s highest strikeout games (7+ strikeouts) have all been losses, so one has to believe that eventually that will sync up with a win. The thing I'll be keeping the closest eye on in the coming month is the number of hits he gives up, especially now that Marte and Martín are coming back, which means hopefully the defense will quit re-enacting episodes of the Keystone Kops. So far, Kuma is putting a lot more pitches in the zone this year (50%, well above the league average of 47.2 and way higher than his 2015 rate of 46.9%), so that's another thing to watch--if he's able to locate and deceive batters, his strikeouts should go way up, but if he's leaving slow stuff out over the plate, yeowch. But Iwakuma has always proven to be a methodical, cerebral pitcher, and I'm not particularly worried about his ability to make adjustments and execute his plan. The question will be, as always, if he can remain healthy, but nothing in this early part of the season suggests there's anything to worry about on that front. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to knock on some wood.