Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma has a plan to overcome pressure, hitters
Hisashi Iwakuma says he's a control pitcher and doesn't expect to blow away major-league hitters, but he already feels some pressure to perform after signing a one-year contract with Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
Age: 30, born April 12, 1981, in Tokyo.
Height, weight: 6 feet 3, 170 pounds.
Position: Starting pitcher
Pronunciation: Hi-sash-ee ee-wa-kooma
Career highlights: Iwakuma's best season was 2008, when he was 21-4 with an earned-run average of 1.87 and was named Pacific League MVP. In 2009, he was a key pitcher (along with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish) for the Japanese team that won the World Baseball Classic.
Injury problems: Iwakuma missed parts of the 2006 and 2007 seasons with shoulder, back, oblique and elbow injuries. He missed part of last season with a shoulder injury but says his shoulder is fine now.
Scouting report: Iwakuma is a control pitcher who keeps the ball down and doesn't allow many home runs.
TOKYO — Hisashi Iwakuma sat quietly in the back of a minivan shuttling him from one TV interview to another on one of his final nights in Japan. The nation wanted to hear the 30-year-old's thoughts as he prepared to leave behind a successful career to pitch for the Mariners.
If one of his appearances had been a reality show, a back-seat camera would have captured a nice moment that revealed exactly where his thoughts were wandering.
"The team Fielder signed with," he blurted out of the blue. "Are they in the National League or the American League?" When informed that Prince Fielder's new team, the Detroit Tigers, is in the AL, Iwakuma sighed, "Oh boy, all the good hitters seem to be going there."
"There," Iwakuma understood, is where he's going, too. He knew the league's Los Angeles Angels had already added that Albert Pujols fellow, who left an impression on him from watching the World Series last fall, the same event that introduced him to the Texas Rangers' awesome attack.
With a clearer understanding of the challenges that awaited him in his new league, Iwakuma was asked how he felt about his decision now.
"I keep saying that I don't feel much pressure. But truthfully, I do feel it," Iwakuma confided. "It's just that as a starting pitcher, I also know that I have the ability to control the tempo of a game and if I can just focus on doing that, I'll help lead the team to wins."
Then, the ever calm and understated Iwakuma explained matter-of-factly just how he intended to control all those big boppers.
"I also know that I'm not a strikeout pitcher, so I'm not going there thinking I can blow those guys away," he said. "I'm a control pitcher who likes to challenge batters low in the zone and make them hit the ball on the ground to the infielders. That's how I plan to attack them."
Indeed, Iwakuma typically is stingy on home runs — he once went an entire season giving up just three. He became Japan's first pitcher in 50 years to pitch more than 200 innings (201-2/3) and give up so few homers. That was 2008, the season that largely defined his career. He won 21 games in 28 starts and led the Pacific League with a 1.87 earned-run average, earning the Sawamura Award, Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young Award, given to the year's top pitcher.
That offseason, he was selected to represent Japan at the second World Baseball Classic in 2009, an event and an honor infinitely larger in Japan than in America. He was one of the pillars of a Japanese "dream team" rotation that also featured Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox and Yu Darvish, freshly signed last month by the Rangers. Iwakuma went 1-1 with a 1.23 ERA in three starts and one inning of relief. He was chosen over Darvish to start the championship game against Korea, where he took Japan two outs into the eighth inning leading 3-2 before being lifted when he neared the tournament's 100-pitch limit. Japan won in extra innings, 5-3. Matsuzaka earned tournament MVP honors on the strength of a 3-0 record, but many felt Iwakuma deserved it.
While his WBC performance helped solidify Iwakuma's stature in Japan as one of its elite pitchers, the experience had an even deeper meaning for him personally. It was there that the desire to one day pitch in America's major leagues firmly took hold. In four appearances against Korea and Cuba, he faced only one major-league batter, the Indians' Shin Soo Choo, so it wasn't so much the competition that seduced him. Rather, he discovered an exhilaration standing on the mounds at Petco Park in San Diego and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles that made him want more.
"The atmosphere of the stadiums, the overall feeling of baseball, are really what swayed me," Iwakuma says. "I can't really explain it, but baseball in Japan and America is just different. I wanted to experience those differences firsthand. That's why I decided to come."
He actually thought he was coming last season when his team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, made him available to major-league teams by posting him. The Oakland A's won the blind bidding process with an offer reported to be $19.1 million. It was accepted by Rakuten, but Iwakuma's negotiations with the A's soured almost immediately and the sides failed to reach an agreement during the 30-day limit. Once seemingly on the threshold of fulfilling his dream, Iwakuma suddenly became the first posted player from Japan to fail to reach a deal with his major-league suitor. Iwakuma had to return to the Eagles for the 2011 season.
When free agency granted him another opportunity a year later, Iwakuma was prepared to try again with the wisdom gained from his initial setback. During the Oakland debacle, he never met face-to-face with any official from the A's, leaving everything to his agent. He regretted that, feeling personal contact was important to the process. So this time, when talks with the Mariners escalated, Iwakuma flew to Seattle on Dec. 15. He spent four days in town getting a feel for the city, viewing the facilities at Safeco Field, and meeting team executives such as president Chuck Armstrong. He says it was a dinner with general manager Jack Zduriencik that ultimately sold him on Seattle.
"I found him a funny and engaging guy, easy to talk to," Iwakuma recalls. "He told me the team was opening the season in Japan and he'd like to see me start one of those games. I really appreciated that. Overall, he made me feel needed by the team and I decided that's the kind of place I want to play."
At a reported $1.5 million for one year with more than $3 million in incentives, the Mariners got Iwakuma much cheaper than the A's would have because he's coming off a right shoulder injury. It occurred early last season and he was able to come back by mid-July, albeit with caution not to exceed roughly 100 pitches per game. He says the shoulder is fine now.
Two teammates from the 2009 WBC championship figure to impact Iwakuma's first season with the Mariners. One is Ichiro. The two exchanged pleasantries through the Japanese media after Iwakuma's signing — Iwakuma saying there was so much he wanted to absorb from Ichiro, and Ichiro recalling how Iwakuma's quick tempo and ground-ball outs made defending behind him a plus. Ichiro then took his new teammate to dinner in Tokyo.
The other former teammate is Darvish. Longtime rivals in the Pacific League, the two became friendly during the WBC.
"You could say we're close, but I think we feed off each other as rival pitchers," Iwakuma says. "He's an outstanding pitcher who has great tools. We talked a lot during the WBC and I think I really came to understand his thoughts about pitching. We've opposed each other many times in Japan, now I'm really excited about the chance to possibly pitch against him in America. That would be great."
Among their many head-to-head starts in Japan was a much ballyhooed meeting on opening day of the 2009 season, just days after the WBC. Iwakuma prevailed, 3-1. He doesn't have to be told that Darvish's new team is not only in the American League, but in the West Division with the Mariners. Spring training has yet to begin, and Iwakuma is already well versed in the competition, batters and pitchers, all around his new league.
Brad Lefton is a bilingual, St. Louis-based journalist. He covers Ichiro and the Mariners for Japanese media and interviewed Iwakuma in Japanese for this article.