Four years ago, the Detroit Tigers acquired a pitcher from the Seattle Mariners that relied primarily on pinpoint for success. While he had a solid ERA in the mid-3s, the pitcher had not attained national recognition. Of course, Doug Fister went on to make a name for himself with the Tigers, using that vaunted command to help lead the Tigers into three consecutive postseasons.
Free agent starter Hisashi Iwakuma is not Doug Fister, but his peripherals convey the same profile: a no-walks pitcher who doesn't need a high-octane fastball to be successful. Iwakuma is likely to turn down a qualifying offer from those very same Mariners, entering MLB free agency for the first time at age 34. This is Iwakuma's first and only chance at a big payday, and Tigers general manager Al Avila has confirmed interest in the former Nippon Baseball League star. Could the Tigers be the team to hand Iwakuma the dough he's seeking?
Who is he?
Iwakuma is a 34-year-old righthander from Tokyo, Japan. He came stateside in 2012 to pitch for the Mariners after a long career in the Nippon Baseball League, pitching for the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Rakuten Golden Eagles. Through four seasons, Iwakuma definitely paid off the Mariners' investment in him. He has posted a 3.17 ERA, 3.62 FIP, and 9.3 fWAR over the last four years while winning almost two-thirds of his decisions. He took third in the 2013 American League Cy Young voting.
Iwakuma will not overpower hitters with his fastball. Instead, he relies on a nasty splitter to keep hitters off balance, which has kept his ground ball rate around fifty percent during his major league career. He's not a one-trick pony, though, as he has a respectable 21.1 strikeout rate against a stellar 4.9 percent walk rate. His walk rate is the 10th-lowest among qualified MLB pitchers since 2012, just behind -- you guessed it -- Doug Fister.
Why should we care?
The Tigers need pitchers, and Iwakuma is a pitcher. He's even a good pitcher: despite only making 20 starts last year, Iwakuma's 1.8 fWAR would have ranked third among Tigers pitchers, trailing two guys named Verlander and Price. Iwakuma's 50.4 percent ground ball rate would lead to a lot of balls hit into the vacuum-like center of Detroit's infield.
Iwakuma also would not require a massive commitment in money or years, as his advanced age will preclude teams from giving out too many years. Long-term contracts almost never work out for pitchers, and a renewed focus on the farm system may result in more cost-controlled talent coming through the pipeline. There's a decent chance that Iwakuma is able to shake off the inevitable decline for the duration of the contract, as pitchers who rely on command -- Bartolo Colon and A.J. Burnett come to mind -- have recently shown that they can pitch longer than those that rely on overpowering hitters alone.
Why should we stay away?
For one, signing Iwakuma would mean forfeiting a draft pick in 2016. The Tigers were kind enough to #ProtectThePick, so they would only be losing a second round slot, but it's still not fun to give those picks up. Of course, it's probably not the biggest concern with signing Iwakuma, but I figured we should break up the discussion about his age, since that's the biggest reason to stay away.
Yeah, Iwakuma will be 35 next April. He's probably going to get three or even four years from a team (all it takes is one GM to go crazy!) at around $15 million per year. That's going to put a big dent in the "won't someone please think of the bullpen" fund. Not only that, but there's a solid chance that by 2018, Iwakuma is blocking a spot in the rotation for a promising young arm like Michael Fulmer.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Signing Iwakuma isn't a total YOLO move for the Tigers, and it would fix easily their biggest hole. He would make their team far more competitive in what should be a highly competitive AL Central next year. The future implications could be bad, but that's true of all pitchers. He's the perfect short-term risk-reward commitment the Tigers should look into.