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Should Hisashi Iwakuma be in the Mariners Hall of Fame?

Does the Robin to Félix’s Batman deserve a spot with Seattle’s greatest superheroes?

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In six years with the Seattle Mariners, pitching under Félix Hernández’s royal shadow, Hisashi Iwakuma quietly put together a terrific career. In his own trademark unassuming ways, Iwakuma personified the word solid. If Félix was the favorite meal, combining taste and presentation to create a lively sensory experience every fifth day, Iwakuma was the comfort food for the next day when you don’t feel like cooking.

Through his first four years with the club – the first of which he began as a reliever – Iwakuma never finished a season with an ERA above 3.54. In 2013, his best season in Major League Baseball and first as a full-time starter, Iwakuma made life miserable on American League hitters. In 219.2 innings, pitching in his age-32 season, the Japanese control artist posted a 2.66 ERA, walked just 4.8% of the hitters he faced, made the All-Star team, placed third in Cy Young voting, and wound up being 38 percent better than the league-average starting pitcher.

With numbers like that in his early MLB days, Iwakuma looked to be on the fast track toward Mariner immortality. While he was spectacular yet again in 2014 and still quite good in 2015, the lingering effects of a long international career eventually took their toll. He had dealt with shoulder tenderness as early as 2005 when he was pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Nippon Professional Baseball. This kept him out for most of the 2006 season in Japan as well. He was set back by more minor injuries in 2007 and opted for arthroscopic elbow surgery in the offseason before finally getting fully healthy in 2008. All of that was four years before he even arrived on American soil, effectively beginning a second career once he joined the Mariners in 2012.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

That same shoulder that gave him hell as a 24-year-old also ended his career as a 36-year-old. If not for the early issues and the impediments that came with them, maybe Iwakuma would have left Japan earlier and started his MLB journey as a younger, healthier pitcher. If that had happened, maybe he would have been able to pitch a few more seasons for the Mariners, and in turn solidify his case for the team’s Hall of Fame.

But as it stands right now, he exists as a complicated figure in the Mariners’ grander story: too good for cult hero status, but not dominant enough to be a surefire Hall of Famer. Iwakuma was divine for a short amount of time but doomed by his own body to never be quite good enough for quite long enough. Still, like his longtime rotation mate James Paxton, Iwakuma’s place in Mariner history is worth discussing.

Hisashi Iwakuma (2012-17)

Seasons w/ SEA Starts IP W L ERA FIP WHIP ERA+ K/9 BB/9 bWAR fWAR
Seasons w/ SEA Starts IP W L ERA FIP WHIP ERA+ K/9 BB/9 bWAR fWAR
6 136 883.2 63 39 3.42 3.86 1.143 111 7.3 1.9 17.0 12.0

Both Iwakuma and Paxton donned the Mariner uniform for parts of six seasons. But while still missing a fair share of time himself, Iwakuma was able to pitch over 300 more innings than his injury-stricken Canadian teammate.

If he had one elite skill, it was limiting damage. That 1.143 WHIP (more on that later) essentially translates to “people had a very difficult time reaching base against Hisashi Iwakuma”. Part of this is because of surgeon-like accuracy which limited his walk total but also allowed Iwakuma to evade hitters’ barrels. Aside from his final year in 2017 which was just six starts and a career-ending injury, Iwakuma never allowed a hard contact rate above 33%. In other words, over two-thirds of the hitters who stepped in against Kuma left without squaring the ball up.

The lasting image of Hisashi Iwakuma is perfectly etched in every Mariner fan’s mind. The wiggly veteran unfurling all of his limbs – which never seemed to move too fast or too slow, always in concert with one another – to unleash yet another perfectly-placed splitter. His opponent, whether a fearsome slugger like Mike Trout or contact-based speedster like Elvis Andrus, more often than not pounded the splitter into the dirt, rolling a three-hopper right to a waiting infielder for a stress-free putout. This happened over and over again until the seventh or eighth inning, at which point it was time to turn things over to the bullpen and give #18 the ovation he often deserved. Except for, of course, the Wednesday afternoon in August 2015 when he became a creamy groove machine, turning the bullpen and the Baltimore Orioles into spectators of history.

Iwakuma vs Current HOF Pitchers

Pitcher Seasons w/ SEA IP W L K ERA FIP WHIP ERA+ bWAR fWAR
Pitcher Seasons w/ SEA IP W L K ERA FIP WHIP ERA+ bWAR fWAR
Randy Johnson 10 1,838.1 130 74 2162 3.42 3.34 1.250 128 39.0 44.2
Jamie Moyer 11 2,093.0 145 87 1,239 3.97 4.38 1.254 112 34.2 29.9
Hisashi Iwakuma 6 883.2 63 39 714 3.42 3.86 1.143 111 17.0 12.0

I’m not sure you could create two more disparate pitchers than Randy Johnson and Hisashi Iwakuma. One a mountainous, mulleted, left-handed beast trying to remove your soul with balls to the wall speed, recklessness, and intimidation. The other an artful, delicate righty meticulously placing the ball wherever he wanted and daring you to hit it.

Iwakuma, Johnson, and Hernández are also the only Mariners to ever complete a 200-inning season with a sub-3.00 ERA. By bWAR, Iwakuma’s 2013 campaign is better than any season of Jamie Moyer’s life. His 7.0 bWAR that year ranks behind only Félix’s 2010 and Johnson’s ’95 and ’97 for most valuable season by a Mariner pitcher.

Unfortunately, one great season does not a Hall of Famer make. Moyer earned his place in the team’s Hall of Fame through the sheer power of stick-to-itiveness. Moyer’s eleven seasons with the organization gave him more than enough time to cobble together the innings needed for that kind of recognition. To do that in his age-33 to 43 seasons is quite impressive as well. Iwakuma was no spring chicken when he joined the M’s either, coming over at 31, but that didn’t stop him from a gilded six-year stretch. The list of American League pitchers since integration to amass 17 bWAR from ages 31 to 36 is riddled with legends, and had Iwakuma pitched his twenties in Major League Baseball, there’s no telling what his final numbers would look like.

Seattle Mariners v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Had he been able to maintain his 162-game averages (15-9, 3.42 ERA, 210 IP, 170 K, 4.1 bWAR), my man would have been a lock for the Mariner Hall of Fame given more time. We’ll never know how things would have played out if Kuma had arrived in, say, 2009, fresh off 201.2 innings in NPB with five complete games, a 1.87 ERA, and 0.97 WHIP. Instead, Iwakuma coming stateside at an earlier age lives on as one of the greatest what ifs in Mariner lore.

Iwakuma’s Ranks in Mariner History

Stat Amount Rank in Mariner history
Stat Amount Rank in Mariner history
K 714 8th
ERA* 3.42 T-1st
FIP 3.87 T-6th
WHIP 1.143 1st
K%* 20.0 5th
ERA+* 111 T-5th
*among starting pitchers w/ at least 500 IP

The best ERA and WHIP in team history immediately moves his Hall of Fame resume to the top of the pile. Some of the counting stats move him right back down though. When it comes to the almighty Wins Above Replacement, Iwakuma ranks one slot behind Mike Moore, who had a 4.38 Mariner ERA with a paltry 97 ERA+.

The key to Moore’s success? A shit ton of innings, something Iwakuma simply did not have enough time (or old-school managerial thinking) to accumulate.

Beyond the Numbers

The no-hitter was really, really special. So was the Mariners hitting on a third Japanese signing following Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro’s stints in SoDo. While the jury is still out on Yusei Kikuchi, he was also a huge get for the Mariners at the time. You have to think that Iwakuma’s prosperity in Seattle at least partially helped sway Kikuchi’s decision process. When Kikuchi finally did choose the Mariners, reports emerged that Iwakuma gave him his blessing to rock his old number.

Iwakuma’s nickname – Kuma, which translates to “bear” in Japanese – also gave us some of the greatest promotional giveaways in recent memory. While you may think the jacket with bear ears was silly, or the hat was a bit childish, it did give us one of the greatest photos ever taken at Safeco Field.

Photo courtesy of Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times

Finally, while these are still technically numbers, and they are 100% cherry picked to make his case look more favorable, check out how some of the best hitters of their era fared against Iwakuma.

· Adam Jones: 1-for-15 (.067), 3 K

· Ichiro Suzuki: 1-for-12 (.091), 0 K

· J.D. Martinez: 1-for-11 (.100), 7 K

· Josh Donaldson: 3-for-25 (.130), 6 K

· Mookie Betts: 1-for-8 (.143), 2 K

· Albert Pujols: 9-for-60 (.150), 10 K

· Mike Trout: 10-for-53 (.189), 14 K

· Joe Mauer: 3-for-14 (.214), 3 K

· George Springer: 5-for-24 (.217), 10 K

· Manny Machado: 2-for-11 (.222), 2 K

Should He Be In?

This one is super close, but I think I’m leaning no. Iwakuma has a slight advantage over Paxton, and I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with him getting in, especially considering everything he represented outside the white lines.

Apart from being a prominent Asian player in a city with a sizable Asian population, Iwakuma was also a much-needed free agent signing that gave the Mariners a return on their investment and then some. Mariner fans had put their hand on the hot stove and gotten burned nearly every time, but that changed when Iwakuma showed up and made quality start after quality start. There are few pitchers in Mariner history who ever provided the peace of mind that Kuma did on his start days. Every time he took the ball, you knew the team had a good shot to win, which is the most important part of being a starting pitcher.

I still think six years and less than 900 innings leaves him a bit short though, fitting for a man who existed under the good-not-great title for the entirety of his Mariner run.