The Mariners and key rotation staple, Hisashi Iwakuma have reached a crucial point in their relationship. In the last year of his current contract -before a 2018 team option- Iwakuma will need to court the M’s front office if he wishes to remain attached by his arm.
Iwakuma has been a reliable fixture in the Mariners rotation for the past four years.
After his long and majestic career in the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization where he amassed a record of 107-69 with an ERA of 3.25 over two hundred and twenty-six games, Iwakuma was finally recognized by the Mariners organization and took the journey to the United States to play in the MLB.
The Mariners especially knew that Iwakuma had MLB potential when he rolled over the rest of the Nippon league during his standout 2008 year. The right-hander recorded a record of 21-4 with a league-best ERA of 1.87. It earned him the Eiji Sawamura Award -the equivalent to the Cy Young.
He also worked hard to get through forty-eight games from start to finish -six of those being shutouts. None of those six happened to be no-hitters, but he would achieve that feat later in his career.
Once he landed in Seattle, the Mariners tried to wean Iwakuma on the MLB by starting him off as a bullpen supplement. The initiation was a little rough. In fourteen games he allowed six home runs, five doubles, and walked fifteen men. His ERA during that span was 4.75.
When he was moved into the rotation, it was like he felt he was back at home, metaphorically speaking, since his hometown of Tokyo, Japan was four thousand seven hundred and seventy-nine miles away from Safeco Field.
Highlighted by nine quality starts, Iwakuma excited the Mariners faithful with his play. He struck out thirteen batters in one start and held the Minnesota Twins to one hit over six frames in one affair.
In his next campaign, Iwakuma would flourish in the majors. He upped his quality starts to twenty-three in thirty-three starts. On top of that, he went at least seven innings deep in over fifty percent of his outings -three times making it eight innings without allowing a run.
His season-encompassing record of 14-6 and ERA of 2.66 clinched him a third place spot in the American League Cy Young voting.
Yet, despite all of his success that year, he was about to be greeted by a very unpleasant guest: the injury bug.
Before the beginning of 2014, Iwakuma would strain his finger, postponing his season debut until early May. His stats did not take a noticeable hit after the inconvenience, though.
In all, his ERA would jump to 3.52 but his walks would reach an MLB-low -only giving up twenty-one free passes in the span of one hundred and seventy-nine innings. The rest of his numbers stayed around his MLB averages at the time.
On his latest return to the field, Iwakuma was remarkable, minus a few glaring blemishes. If you were to take out his starts where he gave up five, six and seven runs respectively, his ERA post-injury would have been 1.93.
Mixed in with many of his extraordinary performances through those summer months was his first career no-hitter.
It was the Mariners franchise’s fifth no-no and the league’s second Asian-born player to post a no-hitter other than Hideo Nomo.
The hope was that he would continue this level play in 2016, but, even though he was healthy -not missing a single scheduled start- Iwakuma had his worst MLB seas
It would be the first year Iwakuma would complete a season with an ERA above 4.00 since 2005 in the NPBL.
It wasn’t that Iwakuma was particularly bad, he was just giving up more runs than usual per outing. What I mean by that is that, instead of having games allowing zero, one or two runs, Iwaukama surrendered three or four runs more than a third of the time.
Surprisingly, Iwakuma never let up more than five runs in 2016 despite his high ERA. He had not achieved this feat as a starter since he entered the league back in 2012.
Now, heading into a “contract year” it is anyone’s guess which Iwakuma the Mariners will see in 2017.
With a much-improved infield, this could be just what Iwakuma needs, as he mostly induces groundball outs.
But, if his age -Iwakuma will turn thirty-six at the start of next season- plays a menacing factor, that could create an unpleasant year for the former all-star.
We’ll have to wait and see what this upcoming year will bring. Hopefully for Iwakuma and the Mariners, their relationship will continue to blossom instead of fizzle out, ultimatley ending in a bitter split.