Is King Felix still the Mariners’ true ace?
Last weekend, Hisashi Iwakuma pitched a great game for the Mariners.
In fact, he’s pitched so many great games over the last year and (almost) three months that I had a heretical thought: Might Iwakuma be the Mariners’ best pitcher?
Heretical, of course, because of Felix Hernandez.
King Felix. So popular in Seattle that he’s the only pitcher in Major League Baseball with a large, organized cheering section for each of his home starts.
Back to Iwakuma, though … We’re not talking about some flash in the pan, here. Iwakuma’s now started 58 games in the majors. In those 58 starts, he’s 27-13 with a 2.65 ERA, and better than four strikeouts for every walk.
Naturally, I wondered how Hernandez has fared in his last 58 starts … 25-19 with a 2.94 ERA.
So Iwakuma’s got the better record and the lower ERA? Let’s give that man a Cy Young Award! Or at the very least, his own cheering section. We’ll call it Kuma’s Korner (or if you don’t like that, then Bear’s Boosters).
Of course, wins and losses and earned-run averages often don’t tell the whole story. The smart sets looks beyond those numbers, and especially at strikeouts and walks and home runs. It’s lately in vogue to look, not at strikeout-to-walk ratio, but rather strikeouts minus walks. That figure for Iwakuma is 234; for Hernandez it’s 322.
That’s a pretty big edge for Hernandez.
And the home runs? They’re essentially dead even there. Which surprised me until I discovered that Iwakuma ranks with Hernandez among the American League’s top ground-ball pitchers. Both throw their fastballs about half the time, and both rely heavily on change-ups. Granted, Iwakuma’s change-up is a split-fingered fastball while Hernandez’s is more traditional. But the effect is roughly the same.
Which doesn’t mean they’re the same pitcher, as Hernandez routinely throws in the low 90s while Iwakuma works mostly in the high 80s with his fastball. And perhaps it’s that big difference between their fastballs that best explains the big difference between their strikeouts (their walks are essentially the same).
And so it’s the big difference between their strikeouts, far more than anything else, that keeps the King atop his lofty throne. Well, and also because he’s the King.
This shouldn’t keep us from appreciating Iwakuma. Yes, he did finish third in the Cy Young balloting just last fall. But I worry that he’s still not getting his due, probably because of his famous teammate and also because he doesn’t throw hard. Not often, anyway. But while Hernandez has arguably been the American League’s best pitcher since Opening Day of last year, you might also reasonably argue that Iwakuma’s in the top six, along with Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, David Price and Max Scherzer. Which is pretty heady company, no?
Pretty heady stuff, too, considering that after signing with the Mariners before the 2012 season, he spent nearly all of April and May rotting away in the bullpen, pitching only five times in that span. When he finally joined the rotation in July, he sported a 4.75 ERA, and you might have forgiven anyone for considering Iwakuma merely a stopgap, a potential No. 4/5 starter for a while.
On nine or 10 American League teams, Iwakuma would be a No. 1 starter. Just not on this team. Not with a potential Hall of Famer ahead of him.
Hernandez and Iwakuma do give the Mariners’ one of the greatest one-two punches in the majors, right there with Kershaw and Greinke. Which is obviously a big advantage. But remember, the Mariners had Hernandez and Iwakuma thriving last season, and all it got them was fourth place. The M’s are playing better this season, thanks in part to an overachieving bullpen.
There doesn’t seem to be much room for improvement, though. Maybe young Brad Miller or young Nick Franklin will remember how to hit, and maybe Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak will finally remember how good they were supposed to be.
You want a freak stat, though? In his last five seasons before signing for a billion dollars with the Mariners, Robinson Cano averaged 28 home runs per season. In 66 games this season, he’s hit three home runs.
Then again, it took Hisashi Iwakuma a few months to find his way, too. Cano will undoubtedly find his power stroke eventually. One can merely wonder if he’ll find it in time to make the Mariners real contenders.