felix hernandez

Mariner Pitching and 1-1 Counts

The 1-1 count is the most important count in baseball. So far in 2013, MLB hitters have a .684 OPS after a 1-1 count. If the next pitch is a strike, and it is a 1-2 count, hitters have an average OPS of .505 OPS. If the 1-1 pitch is a ball, giving the hitter a 2-1 count, MLB hitters have a .802 OPS on average. Teams have based much of their pitching and catching philosophy on getting from the 1-1 count to the 1-2 count. This is a Seattle site, so I was interested in how the Mariners’ starting rotation pitched with the 1-1 count, both from a point of whether or not they are being effective in those counts and to get an idea of which pitches they rely on more in important counts. So using pitch selection (MLBAM tags) and average locations, I took a look at what pitches they throw and where they locate them when in a 1-1 count.

I broke down the graphs by platoon of batter faced because obviously pitchers are going to pitch much different when it comes to platoon, and it may help us get a look at why some pitchers have platoon splits, while some don’t. I included Brandon Maurer instead of Jeremy Bonderman because Maurer has more pitches and is frankly more interesting when it comes to the future. I also have a feeling that Bonderman won’t be on the Mariners much longer. After each pitchers’ name, I put their 2013 (I am only looking at 2013 data in this post) OPS after 1-1 count (per Baseball Reference) so we can get an idea whether or not they are good in those situations (the OPS’ are not park adjusted, so we should proceed with some caution, along with typical small sample and DIPs concerns. Perhaps the best way to view the data is that Felix and Iwakuma are most likely doing something right in these situations if 1-1 counts are important since their overall numbers are good, while Maurer was most likely doing something wrong).

Hisashi Iwakuma: .540 OPS

Against left-handed batters:

Hisashi Iwakuma LHB

Everything is rightly kept away from lefties by Iwakuma, He throws a lot of sliders, but they barely catch the zone and are kept extremely arm side, quite odd for a slider. Down and away is the basic approach, with a lot of fastballs and splitters, against lefties in 1-1 counts.

Against right-handed batters:

Hisashi Iwakuma RHB

Iwakuma works both sides of the plate about equally against righties with 1-1 counts (which, as we will see, is unusual), going to the slider (that now gets glove side, though not as extreme as most pitchers’ sliders) a lot more, and the splitter a lot less (but is more likely to be thrown in the strike zone and is thrown glove side).

Felix Hernandez: .679 OPS

Against left-handed batters

Felix Hernandez LHB

Just like Iwakuma, Felix keeps the ball low and away from lefties, going to a lot of fastballs/sinkers, and curveballs.

Against right-handed batters:

Felix Hernandez RHB

The slider goes to a more traditional place, and he throws more sinkers than fastballs (if MLBAM tags are to be believed). He keeps throwing the changeup, and it stays arm side. It is tough to argue with anything King Felix does, but this is dangerous. The curveball also stays arm side.

Joe Saunders: .768 OPS

Against left-handed batters:

Joe Saunders LHB

Hard in, soft away for Saunders against fellow lefties.

Against right-handed batters:

Joe Saunders RHB

Saunders doesn’t really throw the 4-seamer in 1-1 counts to lefties, and he doesn’t really throw it for a strike to righties. Occasionally he throws a dangerous slider, but he is mostly changeup happy, staying low and away.

Aaron Harang .585 OPS

Against left-handed batters

Aaron Harang LHB

Harang will throw the 4-seamer in, and in previous posts, I have noted that it is much more effective than the 2-seamer away. He has really been unable to get the changeup down.

Against right-handed batters

Aaron Harang RHB

I think you have to admire Harang’s ability to keep the ball away, even if it hasn’t translated into a good home run rate this season. Harang totally ditches the changeup and locates the 2-seamer glove side like the 4-seamer (the FT is below the FF, which is why it appears to be missing). A lot of sliders and curveballs in 1-1 counts in good locations.

Brandon Maurer: .921 OPS

Against left-handed batters:

Brandon Maurer LHB

Maurer really struggled against lefties, and the slider usage seems to be the main culprit. He did work it arm side on average but it stayed too high, and it is after all, a slider, a pitch meant for when the pitcher has the platoon advantage. He did throw the changeup frequently, and it seemed to be located well, even though it wasn’t successful. He failed to get the curveball down and probably should have thrown more fastballs.

Against right-handed batters

Brandon Maurer RHB

Against righties, Maurer threw the ball away pretty well, though his fastballs did stay more arm side than you would want. He also couldn’t get the curveball down.

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Iwakuma

A Look at Hisashi Iwakuma’s Home Run Problem

Hisashi Iwakuma has been a very good pitcher with the Mariners, with one fatal flaw, the long ball. Despite pitching most of his games in a pitcher friendly ball park, he has given up 17 homers in both years in the Majors so far. So looking at data from both 2012 and 2013, I wanted to look at his home runs and see why Iwakuma is so home run prone and whether or not he can fix it.

Here are the locations of the pitches he has given up homers on, labelled with the MLBAM tags:

Hisashi Iwakuma Homers

There are a lot of arm side fastballs here, both high and low, along with some hanging sliders and sinkers. There are a few splitters, but perhaps even more alarming than all the fastballs hit out of the park are the sliders hit out of the park, especially the well located sliders (perhaps you could argue that they aren’t glove side enough, but there are several low ones).

But how do his home run locations compare to his other average locations. Here Iwakuma’s average locations, based on result, labelled with average velocity

Hisashi Iwakuma Average Locations

Not surprisingly, even though he keeps the ball low on average, it is the highest pitches that are being hit for home runs. His average contact is a little higher than all his pitches on average, and also more arm side (even though the home runs are a little more glove side). The contact plays are a little harder in velocity than the average pitch, so the higher and harder pitches (read fastballs and sinkers) are the ones that are hit. His whiffs come on glove side pitches that are a little slower (there really isn’t much deviation in velocity) and lower (read the splitter).

More of the homers have come against right-handed batters (4.4 % to 2.6 % against lefties), probably because of the splitter neutralizing lefties (his OPS against both is about equal). We see this come out in the spray chart of batted balls Iwakuma has given up (via Katron.org, just 2013 at Safeco)

Hisashi Iwakuma Spray

Despite facing more left-handers than righthanders, Iwakuma is giving up a lot of balls to left field, suggesting righties pulling the ball. So I thought it might be helpful to see how he is pitching right-handed batters:

Hisashi Iwakuma RHB

So Iwakuma is able to keep the ball glove side, away from right-handed batters on average. He doesn’t throw a lot of curveballs, but he isn’t getting them down. When he gives up homers, not surprisingly, especially considering the spray chart, he is keeping the ball arm side and high in the zone. The sinker is getting somewhat down, and the fastball is getting glove side, but when he is getting in trouble, it is with these pitches against right-handers.

In a previous article this year, I noted that Hisashi Iwakuma was throwing pitches basically right down the middle without great velocity and getting away with it. Now, it doesn’t appear he is. He still has a solid strikeout rate, and he isn’t walking very many batters, but he has a home run problem that I think is directly related to his fastball velocity. Unless he is willing to throw more pitches out of the zone (he is 14th in zone % out of 93 qualified pitchers) and walk more batters, this is just going to be a problem for Iwakuma. Of course, this would have undesired side effects as well. Despite the good splitter, his stuff isn’t overpowering on the whole, and he is just going to be hittable at times (the low BABIP aside). If he keeps the walk rate low and keeps missing some bats, then you can live with the home runs, as there won’t be many runners on base when the home runs are hit.

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hisashi iwakuma

MLB.com on Hisashi Iwakuma

hisashi iwakuma

Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are the best duo in all of baseball at the moment. Only one other team can claim they have two starting pitchers with ERA’s under 2.00 – the Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke. Grienke, however, has only made three starts this season because of his broken collarbone incident when he tried to “Kam Chancellor” Carlos Quentin. 

More: Seattle NHL Team Names

I also carry a strong belief that National League pitchers have an advantage statistically, since they face another pitcher two to three times per game instead of a designated hitter.

People around MLB are starting to notice Iwakuma and MLB.com did a great segment on what makes Iwakuma such a great pitcher.

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iwakuma 2

How Is Hisashi Iwakuma Missing Bats?

Hisashi Iwakuma has had a great start to the season, pitching almost lockstep with King Felix so far. I don’t need to go over the numbers or tell you how good Iwakuma is, because there have been articles written on that already, stats are really easy to look up, and if you watch the Mariners you see how good he has been with your own eyes. What I am interested in for the purposes of this article is his 26.7 strikeout percentage, and the fact that he has gotten 85 swinging strikes out of the 720 pitches measured by Pitch F/X so far this season, a stellar 11.8%.

Let’s look at Iwakuma’s pitch selection on his swinging strikes so far this season, which gives us an idea of what he is throwing:

Hisashi Spin and Speed on Whiffs

The breaking balls are not the pitches that he gets him most of his whiffs. He gets a decent number with his fastball, but is getting the majority of them with a heavily spinning splitter, a pitch he has been throwing between about 85-89 MPH. This is Iwakuma’s best pitch and what sets him apart from the vast majority of pitchers in the Majors.

Here are where his whiffs are being located:

Hisashi's Whiff Zone

As you can see, he can go high with his fastball and get whiffs that way, but he would much rather go below the zone with his splitter. I wanted to see if we could tease out some of the sequencing Iwakuma is using (such as, is he setting up his splitter low by throwing his fastball high?), so I took all the pitches in at-bats that have ended up in strikeouts so far this season, and tried to put them in a strike zone chart labelled with the count at the time of the pitch (you may want to click on it a couple times to zoom):

Iwakuma Strikeout At-bats

We see that Iwakuma in those at-bats really likes to start the count by just throwing the ball basically down the middle, as all those zero zero counts indicate. When up 0-2, he will throw a pitch way out of the strike zone, but there isn’t anything else that is obvious (such as armside versus glove side).

The thing about Iwakuma challenging with his fastball and having success is that he doesn’t have a plus fastball. In fact, the hardest pitch Iwakuma has thrown this year is 93.71 MPH. On a good day, Iwakuma has about league average right-handed starter fastball velocity. Iwakuma is going to sit between 89-92 MPH with his fastball in a game. However, he throws them right down the middle, and this year, he hasn’t been hurt. Last year, when Iwakuma was in the rotation, when he was hurt, it was because of the long ball, mainly off of his fastball. If Baseball Heat Maps is to be believed, than Iwakuma’s fastball, when it gets hit, is getting hit a little further this year. It hasn’t become a magically better pitch, he isn’t throwing it harder, it isn’t inducing weaker contact, and yet, Iwakuma is getting away with throwing a lot down the middle, starting counts with it and using it to set up his splitter. Will this continue? There isn’t a real way to test this. Average fastballs down the middle, especially with a pronounced tendency, usually get hit. They can’t touch the splitter, but you might suspect that they would eventually hit the fastball. On the other hand, Iwakuma brings years of professional success to the table, so maybe in some sense, he knows what he is doing, not in an abstract way, but is using his MLB caliber stuff to continue to miss enough bats to be a very good 2nd tier starter, and on a good day, an ace.

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Blake Beavan Mariners

How Well Are Mariner Starters Repeating Their Deliveries?

Blake Beavan Mariners

Through 5 games, one whole turn through the rotation, the Mariner starters have walked just 5 batters, 4 of them by Joe Saunders. In this post, I wanted to look at how well the starters were repeating their deliveries. We usually use at release point charts to get a general sense, especially by looking for stray marks or how big the general area is, but in this post I will use numbers so we will be able to compare a little better. Basically what I did was copy the tabular data from each start from Brooks Baseball and had Excel calculate the standard deviation of the horizontal and vertical release points for each pitcher’s start. This means that the lower the number, the better (for a little more context, read here).

Felix’s opening day start:

Horizontal: .188

Vertical: .148

Hisashi Iwakuma’s first 2013 start:

Horizontal: .108

Vertical: .138

Joe Saunders’ first start as a Mariner:

Horizontal: .245

Vertical: .152

Blake Beavan’s start against the White Sox on Friday

Horizontal: .286

Vertical: .204

Brandon Maurer’s first big league start:

Horizontal: .205

Vertical: .165

So we see, through one turn of the rotation, Iwakuma has the most consistent release point (meaning he is “repeating his delivery” the best), while Blake Beavan’s seems to be the worst. This is a little surprising to me (though not if you look at the chart of the game), as Beavan usually exhibits good control, if nothing else. We have seen that Beavan has a somewhat new delivery. It got me thinking, is he having a harder problem repeating this new delivery? So let’s look at his last 5 starts of 2012, and break down the standard deviation per each game, then on a whole.

10/3/12:

Horizontal: .333

Vertical: .16

9/28/12:

Horizontal: .32

Vertical: .181

9/22/12:

Horizontal: .292

Vertical: .234

9/16/12:

Horizontal: .296

Vertical: .216

9/4/12:

Horizontal: .335

Vertical: .13

9/4-10/3:

Horizontal: .335

Vertical: .256

It would seem, at least if we are looking at this data correctly, that Beavan was actually better at repeating his delivery in his first 2013 start with the somewhat new delivery than he was at repeating his delivery at the end of last year. Again, this is surprising information because Beavan has been a control guy who has stayed pretty healthy, so we wouldn’t really expect inconsistencies.

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felix-hernandez-2

The Mariners Rotation Batted Ball Rates: Home/Road Splits

mariners rotation

In a previous post, using players that had played with the Mariners and at least one other team, we saw that there wasn’t a lot of evidence that batted ball distance rates dropped for players that played for Seattle, at least on average. Rationally, one could use that data to conclude that there wasn’t a real “marine air effect” in Seattle, or at least there wasn’t a lot of evidence that it brought down average batted ball totals. Elsewhere, I looked at batted ball distance rates in both Colorado and Texas (two extreme offensive parks) using similar methodology, and concluded that there was evidence that the environments in those parks made balls go further, and that one could even quantify it. Using the splits I did for Derek Holland and Dexter Fowler in that post, I wanted to look at the projected 2013 Mariners rotation and see if they had home/road splits when it came to batted ball data.

Felix Hernandez

[table id=22 /]

The King gave up an average batted ball distance of 244.9 feet at home, and 256.4 feet per batted ball on the road.

Hisashi Iwakuma

[table id=20 /]

On the road, Iwakuma gave up 255.1 feet per batted ball, while at home he gave up 253.8 feet per batted ball.

Erasmo Ramirez

[table id=23 /]

Small sample size obviously (one start had to be taken out thanks to a complete Pitch F/X failure), but Erasmo gave up 238 feet per batted ball on the road, and 268.4 feet per batted ball at home.

Blake Beavan

[table id=26 /]

On the road, Beavan’s average batted ball given up was 260.7, and at home it was 253 feet.

Hector Noesi

Unfortunately, Noesi currently projects as the number 5 starter. Evidently the Mariners are still looking for a starter, but I think the retirement of Kevin Millwood hurts them more than most people realize. While I supported the trade of Jason Vargas, partly because I didn’t think he would survive the new fences very well, the Mariners still have some serious holes in the rotation. Joe Saunders looks more and more attractive as a guy who can fit in the rotation and help them eat some decent innings. He is a lot like Vargas, but he does throw a couple MPH harder on average.

[table id=24 /]

Noesi’s average batted ball distance at home was 259.5, while on the road it was 267.7.

Before even looking at the batted ball data, perhaps the most striking thing about the Mariners rotation is that Felix was the only pitcher to pitch full time as a starter last year. Noesi, Ramirez, and Beavan all spent time in AAA, and Iwakuma’s first half of the season was spent hiding in the bullpen. That is not a good sign. We obviously knew that this rotation doesn’t project very well, as ZIPS projects the 5 to have a 6.7 WAR total (carried by Felix’s 4.8 WAR), which would have been in between the Royals and Astros last season. The point of this post was to see if there was any real batted ball distance difference between Safeco and the road for the 5 pitchers. It does appear there was, as the 4 (throwing out Erasmo’s small sample size and outlier statistics) averaged 253 feet given up per batted ball at home, while giving up 260 feet per batted ball on the road. As we have seen when messing around with batted ball distances, 7 feet is not extremely large, but it isn’t insignificant. Now, this may not necessarily be because of environment. The pitchers could just feel more comfortable at home, and pitch better. That is, without a real control group, it is tough for us to say whether the fact that Mariner pitchers gave up less feet per batted ball was just because they pitched better, or because of the environment. There were two ways that I thought we could test this, and decided to use them both. First, using pretty simple splits, we can have an idea of whether or not the 4 pitchers (again throwing out Erasmo because of sample size) were pitching better at home or on the road.

Felix:

Home: 26.5 K%, 5.2 BB %, 48.7 GB %,

Road: 20.4 K%, 6.9 BB %, 49.1 GB %

Difference: 6.1 K%, -1.7 BB %, -.4 GB %

Iwakuma:

Home: 22 K%, 8.5 BB %, 55 GB %

Road: 15.9 K %, 7.9 BB %, 48.4 GB %

Difference: 6.1 K%, .6 BB %, 6.6 GB %

Beavan:

Home: 9.3 K %, 3.1 BB %, 35.8 GB %

Road: 11.5 K%, 4.3 BB %, 37.2 GB %

Difference: -2.2 K%, -1.2 BB%, -1.4 GB %

Noesi:

Home: 13.8 K %, 7.8 BB %, 31.8 GB %

Road: 16.3 K %, 9.5 BB %, 42.6 GB %

Difference: -2.5 K %, -1.7 BB %, -10.8 GB %

Overall, the home/road differences for the 4 are: 7.5 K %, -4 BB %, -6 GB %. That is, strikeouts tend to be higher at home, walks tend to be lower at home, and ground-balls tend to be higher on the road. There are two ways to look at this data. Obviously the pitchers aren’t really pitching more to contact at one place or the other (as the strikeouts and walks don’t both rise or both fall at either home or the road), but they are getting more ground-balls on the road. This could be because they don’t believe that ground-balls are as important at Safeco, and this is by design, as they are not trying to get ground-balls when they are pitching in Seattle, but they are in Texas (and other parks). Considering the K/BB struggles on the road, the idea that they are controlling how they are pitching seems a little unlikely. The more plausible explanation is that, for whatever reason, the pitchers just come out and execute better (we didn’t look at things like velocity in this post, and while we could, we would have to zero out Pitch F/X park effects) when they are pitching at home. That is, we can explain the difference in batted ball rates by just the general principle that they are throwing the ball better, so this may (or may not) make the idea of “marine air” helping the pitchers be superfluous. So this is why I wanted to use the 2nd way I believed we could test the batted ball difference. Using FanGraphs’ “Guts”, I found the park that played the most neutral, according to basic park factors, home run factors, and fly-ball factors, and determined that it was the Washington Nationals’ park. Since the “Guts” is from 2011 (they haven’t posted 2012 yet), I looked at the 5 pitchers that threw the most innings for the team in 2011. Like I did with the Mariners pitchers, I looked at their game logs, and broke each start down into home/road and batted ball distance.

If for some reason, you want to see the data in its totality, you can download the spreadsheet here. On the road, the 5 National Pitchers averaged 260.78 feet per batted ball over 64 starts. At home, over a 57 game sample size, they averaged 250.9 feet per batted ball given up. This is not only larger than the difference between the Seattle pitchers, the 251 feet per batted ball in the Nationals park in 2011 is actually lower than the 253 feet per batted ball given up by the projected 2013 Mariners rotation in 2012. This seems to show that pitchers are just normally better at home than they are on the road (and that even the 2011 Nationals rotation, which was nowhere near as good as the Nationals 2012 rotation, is probably better than the Mariners 2013 projected rotation). This makes the idea of a “marine air effect”, or the idea that the atmosphere in Seattle suppressing offense, unlikely at best, with no real evidence supporting it. This would seem to mean that the moving in of the fences will be a big deal and radically change how the park plays in 2013. Obviously time will tell, but I plan on looking at a few Mariner hitters in the near future.

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Staff Photographer

Ground-Balls, Contact %, and the Difference Between Jaso and Paulino

Matt Klaassen of Fangraphs recently did studies that showed which numbers for both pitchers and hitters were the most predictive. For hitters, contact percentage proved to be the best predictor from season to season, while ground-balls were the best predictors for pitchers. If these statistics are the best predictors, then if a player has a significant change in them one way or the other, it is a bigger deal than if they have changes in those numbers than other numbers.

Michael Morse didn’t see a contact % drop in 2012 from previous years, but struggling Dustin Ackley’s actually improved by 2 %. Brendan Ryan saw a concerning drop of nearly 2%, which was a career low. Michael Saunders had a career high contact %, showing that his improvement was perhaps real. Weirdly, now former Mariner John Jaso’s contact percentage actually dropped. Kendrys Morales’ contact % predictably dropped when he came back from injury.

King Felix saw a small drop in GB % in 2012 from his career norms, as did Blake Beavan. It is hard to compare most of the Mariners pitchers since pitchers like Erasmo Ramirez, and Hisashi Iwakuma had no prior MLB experience. Former Mariner Jason Vargas saw a decent increase in ground-ball percentage last year, as did Kevin Millwood. Hector Noesi saw a big drop in ground-balls as a Mariner, while Charlie Furbush was basically the same in 2012.

The newest Mariner, Ronny Paulino, saw a drop in contact percentage in 2012, but he only played in 20 games. In 2011, he put together his best contact percentage of his career in a much bigger sample size. I have written about Paulino here before, but I wanted to see if we could quantify the difference between Jaso and Paulino. The question with Jaso was always defense, so let’s see if we can quantify the differences between the two. According to Matt Klaasen’s authoritative catcher rankings, Paulino was worth -.7 runs in 2012, while Jaso was worth -1.2. Of course, as we said above Paulino’s 2012 in the Majors was a small sample size, and you always want to look at multiple years anyway. In 2011, Paulino trended negatively again, worth -3.7 runs, but Jaso was worth -4.6 runs with the Rays. What about pitch framing? According to @Yonada’s (a Japanese Sabermatrician) work on pitch framing, Paulino has been worth positive 5 runs in framing since 2008, while Jaso has been worth -17 runs (for the record, Montero, who projects to catch a ton in 2013, was -4 runs in 2012). So defensively, this is the big difference between the two players. Just based off of empirical probability, we would expect Paulino to be worth ~ 6.2 runs more defensively than Jaso. Offensively, we can use the simple fantasy projections from MLB on the Bump (@mlbonthebump) since ZIPs isn’t out yet for the Mariners or Paulino. Paulino is projected to hit .264 with a 6.5 BB%  and 4 homers (1.5 %). Jaso on the other hand, is projected to hit .255, but with a 13.2 BB%, and 7 homers (2.1 %). So clearly, Jaso is projected to hit for more power, and get on base more than Paulino. Paulino is projected to get on base about 86 times, while Jaso is projected to get on base about 120 times. Even if we are extremely regressive and assume that just 1 in 4 of the times a hitter gets on base he scores, Jaso is still worth 8.5 runs more than Paulino, even without calculating power. If you assume each homer is worth about 2 runs, this brings Jaso to 14.5 runs better than Paulino in 2012 offensively. So if we combine the offense and defense (and assume that since they are both catchers, they are both bad baserunners, though Jaso is a much better baserunner according to speed score), Jaso is worth about 8.3 runs more than Paulino (obviously when the better projections come out, we will have a better idea).

Of course, that Jaso is better than Paulino is no surprise, as Paulino will make a maximum of 1 million dollars (versus Jaso’s 2013 salary of 1.8 million). When I wrote up the trade, I did say that I think that Jaso is better than Morse, but just how much better? The big thing is team control. Paulino and Morse will both be free agents after the 2013 season while Jaso will be under Oakland Athletics’ team control for two extra years. So the combination of Morse and Paulino for 2013 would have to be better than 3 years of Jaso for the Mariners to win the trade from a value perspective. There is no rational reason to believe this. To go back to the MLB on the Bump projections, Morse is projected to hit .284 with with 24 homers and 29 walks in 525 plate appearances, or worth about 90 runs according to our regressed formula. This actually would put the combination of Morse and Paulino over (or at least close to) 3 years of Jaso. I don’t really believe that, but the projection is interesting, even if it’s main purpose is to just to play devil’s advocate.

Paulino does one of the things Jaso can’t do, he hits left-handed pitching. Of course, Jesus Montero had huge platoon splits in 2012, as he hit left-handers really well but really struggled against right-handers. Replacing Jaso with Paulino means that the Mariners do not really have someone to catch and hit right-handed pitchers (75% of pitchers) unless Jesus Montero improves in 2013.

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Hisashi

Free Agent Watch: Hisashi Iwakuma

Of all of the potential free agents the Mariners have, Hisashi Iwakuma is by far the most interesting. He was brought in on a contract that initially was valued at just 1.5 million dollars (with a total 3.4 million dollars in incentives), and despite not even making the rotation out of spring (thanks to diminished velocity, sitting mainly 88-89 MPH in spring training), he has clearly been worth that. There is almost no doubt that he will get more money than that this off-season, and at age 31, he will get more than a 1 year deal. So what should be the Mariners’ approach when it comes to Iwakuma?

According to ERA -, Hisashi Iwakuma has been above average with a 87 (remember that 100 is league average), but FIP – has him at 117. His FIP comparable is Tommy Hanson, while his ERA comparables are Greinke, Latos, Diamond, and Parker. A .279 BABIP and strand rate of over 80% have significantly helped his numbers. With men on base, Iwakuma gives up an OPS of just .600 and when runners are in scoring position, the OPS shrinks to .543. For the year, he is giving up a .730 OPS. So why the difference? Is it fluky, i.e. something we would expect to regress, or is it a skill that Iwakuma actually possesses. Many people believe that big time pitchers have the ability to “limit damage” or actually pitch better in pressure situations. DIPs theory states that this isn’t true, and that over large sample sizes, strand rates (or LOB %) will stabilize. Especially with the small sample size that we have this year (and lack of data to see if he is actually throwing harder with runners on base), I tend to believe DIPs theory here. As far as luck goes, Iwakuma has  a .88962 xOPS off the bat, versus a league average xOPS of .93546 (league average has a .679 OPS in play, while Iwakuma is giving up a .639 OPS on balls in play, which could be a combination of luck/park/and the amount of grounders he gets). In total, Iwakuma is giving up an OPS of .730, with a total xOPS of .729. So it doesn’t appear that Iwakuma is being lucky (or unlucky, counteracting an argument that his HR/FB % should come down) as far as the total number of hits and homers he is giving up. Since league average OPS is .725, he looks very much like about an average pitcher here.

For the season (on non-bunts), Iwakuma’s average distance on batted balls is 259.399 feet (Hanson’s is 266.835, so while his K/BB/HR is the same as Hanson’s when adjusted for parks, he is giving up weaker contact on average).

As far as velocity goes, Iwakuma is a little below league average (90-91 MPH on average). He has an assortment of pitches and tries to pitch off his fastball by showing a splitter and a sinker off of it. Here is a breakdown of his pitches:

4-seam fastball: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 257.555. Velocity: 86.5-94 MPH, 90.3 MPH on average.

Splitter: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 270.619. Velocity: 82-91.4 MPH, 86.2 MPH on average.

This is his knock out pitch that he throws when he gets ahead, but it has also been the pitch that has been hit the hardest when left up. The splitter having a high distance makes some sense anecdotally. It seems that he has had a lot of problems controlling the pitch this year.

Sinker: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 250.507. Velocity: 86.5-93.1 MPH, 90.1 MPH on average.

Slider: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 255.814. Velocity: 74-88.9 MPH, 82.2 MPH on average

There is some classification issues between the slider and splitter in pitch F/X, and they look quite a bit similar when you watch him pitch. I have had some problems recognizing the difference.

Curveball: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 246.294. Velocity: 67.5-77.5 MPH, 72.8 MPH on average.

Iwakuma throws the curve the least but gets the lowest distance on batted balls. He also seems to have some issues with control and consistency.

Perhaps the big story with Iwakuma this year has been how rarely he was used at the beginning of the season, and how terrible he was out of the bullpen. Then when he was used as a starter later in the season, he was excellent (at least according to ERA).

As a reliever: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 265.224

As a starter: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 255.2

So he has been a lot better as a starter (at 10 feet, it is about the difference between pre-Mariner Oliver Perez and Mariner Oliver Perez). For comparison, here are some notable pitcher’s average battled ball distance:

Tim Lincecum this year: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 254.451

Hector Noesi this year: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 262.647

Steve Delabar: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 266.12

Yu Darvish: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 248.925

So as a reliever, he was Delabar hittable (without the awesome K/BB), but as a starter, he has been around Tim Lincecum hittable (1.00 HR/9IP, 1.58 GB/FB, 24.7 LD %, .502 SLG allowed on the road). So while he is better than Hector Noesi (obviously), there is still some concern about him being hittable. You can live this way if you counteract it with a good K/BB. Since becoming a starter, Iwakuma’s K/BB is solid at 2.63 (league average is 2.47) but he has been hittable, with a 1.11 HR/9IP even with Safeco as the home park. He has been a much different pitcher on the road than he has been at home, as opponents are hitting .273/.343/.474 against him on the road. That is a pretty similar slash line to Mark Teixeira and Kendry Morales. As you would imagine, his home run rate is much higher on the road (a baffling 1.64 HR/9IP, which is the same as Phil Hughes’, who pitches in Yankee Stadium), but his strikeout rate is quite a bit lower on the road (15.9% to 21.5%). This, and the difference between Safeco and most other ballparks, may be why he is giving up so many homers on the road, he isn’t missing enough bats.

So if the Mariners do not re-sign Iwakuma, what are their other choices? In the organization, the Mariners have the “big three” in Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker. Hultzen’s season ended in somewhat disastrous fashion as he couldn’t throw strikes in AAA. In AA, he was flat out dominant, looking completely ready for the big leagues. At this point, it is really hard to know what to expect from Hultzen. Perhaps he puts it back together in the spring or in the early going in Tacoma, and perhaps he is in need of a major mechanical overhaul that sets back his ETA to the Majors by significant time. Perhaps the rest of the off-season will allow him to come back stronger than ever, but perhaps not. He is certainly a rotation candidate, but by no means a rotation lock.

Walker is the youngest of the bunch, and has the highest ceiling. He is probably the least ready (depending on how you interpret Hultzen’s command issues), but he was solid (not spectacular) at a tender age in AA (A to AA is an extremely tough jump, and he handled it well). He may not actually be too far from the Majors, but it would be extremely unlikely to expect him to make the club in the spring. I would let him travel and play with the big league club, but wouldn’t allow him on the big league roster until he either dominates AA or proves serviceable in the PCL (skipping AAA altogether would not bother me at all if he pitched well in AA).

James Paxton at this point might be the best bet of the 3 to make the rotation next year. He had a great 2nd half after he got healthy and should start in Tacoma next year (unless he has a great spring and makes the big league club).

The rotation might look something like this next year without Iwakuma: King Felix, Erasmo, Vargas, Beavan, (assuming the club doesn’t bring back Millwood, which I will look at in a future post), plus one of the big 3. This is not a very deep rotation. If they do not re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma, I would expect them to bring in at least starter from the free agent market (and hopefully beyond just the minor league free agent market). This way they are not pressured to rush one of the big 3 if they are not ready. The rotation could use all of the help it can get, but price is everything. For the right price, you will bring in just about anyone. Iwakuma may give the team a “discount”, but I wouldn’t if i were him because of the way the Mariners handled him.

I would expect Iwakuma to struggle in hitter friendly environments, which sounds like an obvious thing to say, but I think his hittability makes him even more vulnerable. Safeco allows you to hide somewhat hittable pitchers as long as they don’t walk batters and miss some bats. Perhaps with the Mariners focus on defense, ground-ball pitchers are more valuable, as you would expect them to turn more balls into outs. Unlike the Tigers, with their terrible difference, the miss bats at all cost approach may not be as wise for the Mariners to take, as the defense and ballpark can hide some flaws. I think he is closer to average to below average (as his FIP states) than being an above average starter. If the Mariners bring him back, it should be more as a number 3 starter in the rotation and the salary that would entail. This would be around a 6-10 million dollar salary per year. On the wrong side of 30, a long term deal just isn’t going to happen, but a 3 year deal isn’t out of the question. That would come with it’s risks, but could really give the Mariners some rotation stability until we know more about how the “big 3″ fit into the Major League rotation.

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