Hisashi Iwakuma has become an important part of the Mariners’ rotation and clubhouse
There are scouting reports and then there are internal scouting reports in a big-league clubhouse. The pitcher will do this, that and the other. What will be his out pitch? What count will he use his breaking ball? Good, well-researched information, but yeah, yeah, what’s the velocity of his fastball? Is his name Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel or that of a handful of other aces? Those names are the ones that are in the hitters’ heads days in advance. They know a tough day is coming.
Other pitchers can sneak up on them. While Mariners opponents may be thinking about getting past Hernandez, in recent years it has quite often been two days of frustration with Hisashi Iwakuma quietly sneaking up on them. Despite stellar numbers, despite having the second-best walk rate and 12th-best WAR of an American League starter the past three years, Iwakuma has often been overlooked following Hernandez.
“Every time,” Nelson Cruz said when asked how often Iwakuma sneaks up on opposing hitters. He would know, having managed just four hits with five strikeouts in 21 plate appearances against Iwakuma before becoming a Mariner.
“You don’t see the 95-96 (mph fastball). You see the 88-90, tops. But the ball got to you quick, what it looks like,” Cruz added. “After a while, it’s, ‘What is going on?'”
That was the view from the other side. In the Mariners’ clubhouse, it is a little different. They know what’s going on, and Iwakuma knows what’s going on. While we don’t hear much about him – he never gives much up in interviews, which are always through an interpreter – there is no mistaking the quiet confidence about him. He is confident in what he can do, and he has the confidence of his teammates as well.
“I was upset when I heard he was gone,” Hernandez said of the news that Iwakuma had agreed to a contract with the Dodgers last December.
It was while golfing with Iwakuma last fall that Hernandez heard that he could soon be leaving for another team. The two have become friends, both spending significant portions of the offseason in Seattle. While Seattle is where Iwakuma wished to remain, the Dodgers’ offer was much larger.
“I told him, ‘Man, we need you, we need you.’ But I tell him, ‘You have to do whatever is best for your family,'” Hernandez said.
Iwakuma did just that, accepting the deal that – luckily for the Mariners – unraveled a week later.
“I was upset when I found out he was gone,” Hernandez said. “We need Kuma. He’s one of the best in the league. And then when I realized he didn’t sign with the Dodgers and came back with Seattle? I was so happy. We are really close. We play golf together in the offseason. We always talk. We talk about pitching. We talk a lot. It’s fun.”
How happy was he? As happy as he was when he put on the Kuma “Bear Hat” and ran onto the field after the Iwakuma’s no-hitter last season. Iwakuma was also happy as well as relieved according to the accounts of those behind the scenes. Seattle is where he wanted to be all along. His family was happy there, he was happy in his clubhouse and grateful for the friendship that had developed with Hernandez and others.
“We’re very close teammates,” Iwakuma said of Hernandez. “He takes care of me, he looks after me, he’s always thinking about me, so that’s a great feeling to have. Off the field, when we spend time like that it creates and builds a bigger bond. I feel grateful for that relationship because stuff like that you can’t build just here on the field or in the clubhouse. That tells you he is a great teammate.”
Others have said the same of Iwakuma.
“He’s always there when you need him. He’s a good teammate,” Cruz said. “I see him helping young guys. As a veteran, that’s your role also – be a leader, help your team win games. That’s what he does.”
Taijuan Walker is one of the young pitchers that Iwakuma has helped.
“I talk to him all the time,” Walker said. “In the clubhouse, during games, in between innings of his games. He has some of the best command I have seen. Obviously he is not an overpowering guy so he has to be crafty, really study hitters, and that’s one thing he is really good at is knowing what hitters are at the plate. He really pitches to his strengths and the hitters’ weakness.”
While at first glance Iwakuma may be an odd choice for Walker to study, assistant general manager Jeff Kingston pointed out the reasons why he is exactly the kind of pitcher that Walker can learn from.
“I think Kuma exemplifies a pitching style that’s very comparable and similar to how Taijuan goes about getting hitters out,” Kingston said. “Both of them, it starts with pitching off their fastball. They obviously have different velocities, but Kuma’s fastball is very deceptive and plays well up in the zone, which is where Taijuan gets a lot of his swings and misses. Taijuan likes to go fastball/changeup, breaking ball – which is kind of his third pitch, which is similar to Kuma – fastball, splitter, breaking ball. They both like to use their fastball, change eye levels with it, then go to their off-speed, which is very comparable.
“So it makes sense for Taijuan to pick Iwakuma’s brain as far as how to attack hitters, how to prepare and plan to get them out.”
That’s not the only thing Walker is watching.
“He is always calm out there,” Walker said. “He gets in trouble, he doesn’t panic, he keeps the same mentality. Everything is just calm. Even when he was throwing his no-hitter, everything looked the same. You don’t ever know if he is in trouble or if he is throwing a no-hitter.”
For a young pitcher like Walker, who is just starting the process learning to improve at the big-league level, there is a lot to learn from the veteran Iwakuma. In this game, nothing stays the same. There are no guarantees of what you will be the next year, and maintaining is not enough.
To that end, Iwakuma attacked the offseason with one important focus.
“I need to stay healthy and pitch the entire season,” he said.
With that in mind, Iwakuma did not start throwing this offseason until January. His focus was on his strength, his base and the balance that we often hear him talk about. Some of the work he did at his new Iwa Academy in Tokyo. Yes, he now owns an academy.
“It was all about giving back from all the support I get from the fans,” he said of his new venture. “There are a lot of kids back in Japan that dream of becoming a professional ball player, a Major League Baseball player as well. Just that, keeping the dream alive for the kids in Japan, you want to build that environment. Just to be a part of that system was very special for me and that was the main reason I started that academy.”
This isn’t your typical baseball academy. According to Iwakuma, it is for young and old. All abilities are welcome. Weekend softball players can work alongside professional baseball players such as Nori Aoki and Kenta Maeda, just two of the pros who worked out there in the offseason. The focus of the work is different as well. It’s not just batting cages and pitching mounds.
“It is in general for every sport that is played in Japan and that starts from training, learning about the body, the physical movement and also treatment as well,” Iwakuma said. “We have a floor for treatment, a floor for training, a floor just for baseball. We have educators as well that teach mechanics. It’s a wide range of education. I think it is going to help down the road.”
The same training, awareness of the body and physical movement and treatment have helped Iwakuma get to where he is now.
“I need to stay healthy and pitch the whole season,” he said. “That’s the only way I can contribute for this team. If I can stay healthy, I know what I can do. I have already proven that.”
And then there is that quiet confidence. For as unassuming as he may appear, I have little question that he views himself, at his best, to be among the league’s best. Why shouldn’t he be an All-Star? Why shouldn’t he be a third runner-up to a Cy Young Award? Why shouldn’t he throw a no-hitter? Why shouldn’t he take on high expectations?
“This is the team that gave me the opportunity,” he said. “The Mariners gave me the opportunity to come back to Seattle. That was what I was looking forward to and I am very happy for that outcome. The expectation is very high again this year. I need to do my part for the team to make it to the playoffs. That’s what I look forward to doing, to overcome the expectations and make it to the World Series.”
And the key?
“No. 1, for me to stay healthy. And No. 2, to stick with Felix,” he answered. “He’s our No. 1. I need to be the No. 2 and I need to be strong. We need to be the best 1-2 punch. We need to get that going, and if we can get that going and keep it going to the very end, something special is going happen here.”
Iwakuma’s confidence in the Mariners’ 1-2 punch is anything but quiet.