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May 8, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Mariners hope their patience with Hisashi Iwakuma finally pays off

PHOTO CAPTION: Hisashi Iwakuma, above in spring training, had trouble getting MLB hitters out in Cactus League play.
After watching Hisashi Iwakuma up close this spring, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik knew there was no way he could turn him loose on a major league mound when it mattered. Not as a starting pitcher, anyway.
Iwakuma kept giving up multiple baserunners in his Cactus League outings and more often than not, they came back to haunt him. But it wasn’t just that. If you watched the opposing hitters step into the box against him, their comfort level seemed uncanny. They would plant their feet, crowd the plate and just dare Iwakuma to throw something they wouldn’t like.
More often that not, he simply served up the dish of their choice. His pitches were flat as pancakes and the odd time he did get any decent movement on them, they sailed harmlessly out of the zone. When he’d fall behind in counts, Iwakuma would try to come back in with a strike and his velocity — at times precariously lower than anyone expected — enabled hitters to easily catch up. Even when he’d get ahead on hitters, sometimes with two strikes, he’d try to throw one of his breaking balls and have them stay flat, fat and hittable. He’d get lucky on a handful of occasions and have balls hit right at people to minimize the damage. But he did not look like a major league starting pitcher.
It didn’t take long for Zduriencik, Eric Wedge and anyone who’s worked with pitchers to notice this. Heck, even media members who don’t work with pitchers were scratching their heads wondering how the Mariners could spend seven figures on Iwakuma.
You could tell things were serious when, partway through spring training, Zduriencik and a group of assistants were seated in the stands behind home plate at Peoria Stadium, eyes glued on every Iwakuma pitch. Zduriencik tries to watch all his pitchers, but there are times you can walk up and talk to him and he’ll let an inning or two drift by while watching out of the corner of his eye.
Not this time. This was serious. Zduriencik and company were looking for things and did not see them. The things they did see told them Iwakuma was not ready to start in the major leagues. That his shoulder issues of a year ago were still not completely behind him. Sometimes, it’s a matter of arm strength. There’s a difference between a shoulder being healthy and being healthy enough to crank fastballs up to 93 mph. Some pitchers coming off arms woes also find it tough to completely unleash their arms full throttle. There’s a part of them — sometimes a subconscious part — that causes them to hold back, which can create a whole new set of mechanical woes to be overcome.
At that moment, the woes outweighed the pros for Iwakuma.
Zduriencik at that point made the tough decision to relegate Iwakuma to the bullpen. Such calls are always the GM’s to make given that they alone will often suffer the political fallout of giving a seven-figure contract to a pitcher who can’t hack his role. At that time, Zduriencik was already about to part ways with relief pitchers Hong-Chih Kuo and Shawn Camp, two other arms he’d given major league deals to. He could see that George Sherrill’s elbow was not 100 percent. It was not looking good for Zduriencik as far as his free agent pitching acquisitions went, so making the call on Iwakuma to the bullpen was not an easy one for him.
But Iwakuma was that bad. He was bad enough — still a ways removed from what Zduriencik had been hoping for — that the GM was wiling to take any further political hit. That’s what good GMs have to do. You can’t send a batting practice machine out there to face MLB hitters.
When I spoke to Zduriencik about his decision in Tokyo, prior to Iwakuma taking the mound against the Yomiuri Giants, he was surprisingly calm about the whole thing. He told me that with Hector Noesi’s and Blake Beavan’s strong springs, the team realized it had more ready options it could use early on in the season. Zduriencik believed at the time that Iwakuma’s biggest problem was getting over his previous shoulder woes, for some of the reasons I mentioned above.
He believed Iwakuma was close, but that he’d be more of the pitcher needed by the Mariners if he took another month or so to get stronger and sharper, both physically as well as mentally. He’d be used in a long relief role because then he wouldn’t have to face MLB hitters as often and even if he did, chances are it would be in a game the Mariners were going to lose anyway. That’s usually when you see long relievers.
And in the interim, he could work closely with the team’s coaching staff on his mechanics and building arm strength in side sessions.

And just in case Zduriencik had any doubts about his decision back then, all he had to do was watch Iwakuma face Yomiuri in an exhibition start that night we spoke in Tokyo. It was a scary sight by his final inning, when batter after batter smoked line drives off him as the bullpen frantically tried to warm up so the M’s could rescue their pitcher before he was humiliated.
Later, in a Tokyo Dome corridor heading to the clubhouse, I remarked to a Japanese reporter covering the Mariners that I’d rarely seen a major league pitcher get hit that badly in succession. And this wasn’t even an MLB team he was facing. It was as if the hitters knew ahead of time what pitches were coming. Like a “rat-tat-tat” machine gun the way balls flew off the bats.
Of course, the Yomiuri players knew exactly what pitches were coming. That’s because they all looked the same to them: slow, fat and flat.
Iwakuma told me that night his velocity was still down at least a mile or two where he needed it — which usually means three or four miles slower when you ask impartial observers who happen not to be the pitcher themself. He also told me he was dropping his elbow too low — a mechanical flaw that causes pitches to come in flat.
Over the past six weeks or so, the Mariners have indeed worked closely with Iwakuma behind the scenes to get his arm strength back. To straighten out the mechnical issues that cause flat pitches so that his curveball can land for strikes, his splitter can fool hitters coming out of his hand and his confidence level could be lifted to the point he wasn’t afraid to use them in key situations.
How could you tell Iwakuma was better last night? Well, there are the stats, sure. He struck out four batters his first two innings and five over three frames.
But you can look at other things, too.
Here’s a tip: want to know whether that flyball off the bat is going to be a hit or an out next time you’re at the ballpark? Watch the outfielders. If one starts sprinting backwards at full throttle, you’ll know it’s time to leap out of your seat. If the outfielder stands there looking like he’s thinking about his chaw back in the dugout, then casually lifts his glove up with a yawn, you’ll know the flyball ain’t going anyplace, no matter how good it sounded off the bat. If the outfielder doesn’t move, doesn’t yawn, then looks over his shoulder behind him, that tells you it’s a no-doubt home run.
Try it next time. It will help reduce the number of excitable types who leap and cheer every pop fly to shallow center.
When it comes to pitchers, you can tell a lot about how they’re doing by watching the hitters. Look and see how comfortable they are, especially after the first pitch or two (if they haven’t hit it out of the park by then, that’s a positive for the pitcher, BTW :)). See whether the hitter looks dug in to the dirt, acting like he owns the box. Or, like last night, when the Tigers appeared up on their toes against Iwakuma.
Watch the timing of their swings.
Are the hitters way out in front? Lagging behind? All over the place? That’s where the Detroit Tigers were last night. Iwakuma was throwing inside so they couldn’t dig in. Then, he was throwing outside where they couldn’t hit it since he’d backed them off the plate. He was changing speeds so that they could not figure out a pattern and time their swings the way hitters did in spring training and in Japan.
Just as importantly, he was throwing quality pitches that looked like strikes before tumbling out of the zone. Or that looked like balls before dropping in like strikes. Without that quality, pitchers are useless. If a pitch looking like a ball remains a ball when it lands in the dirt, or catcher’s mitt, any decent hitter will learn after one or two looks to simply let it go. Then, they will sit back and look for the strike that stays a strike.
That’s the real difference between Iwakuma then and now.
Other things to look for? Watch for how the balls in-play look, not just the strikeout stats. Really good hitters will put balls in play, no matter how good a pitch is. Are the flyball outs line shots that have the outfielders on a dead run? Or are they bloopers and jam shots? Whether or not hitters are squaring up tells you an awful lot about the effectiveness of a pitcher.
Doug Fister didn’t have a lot of strikeouts last night. But most of the balls put in-play by the Mariners had almost nothing to them. And even the oft-maligned Tigers defense had no trouble making those plays because of the ease with which balls were being hit their way.
Anyhow, that was not the same Iwakuma last night. If he can keep doing this, the Mariners will have to seriously look at adding him to the rotation in coming weeks. Yeah, he got lucky on that Ryan Raburn line drive that hooked just foul and spared him two more runs against. That was one of the harder hit balls off Iwakuma all night.
There are other issues to consider, such as Iwakuma’s recovery time between outings. He’s needed more time than the M’s would like and that could impact any decision to use him in place of Beavan if the latter’s elbow is too sore for his next outing. Iwakuma also needs to go more than three or four innings in a start, so the question of whether he must be built up further is still out there.
Also, his ability to prepare on time — more of an issue in relief outings — had been a factor until last night. His last time out in Toronto, he’d given up four runs against the first four hitters he faced without recording an out. Only then did he settle down and look like an MLB pitcher. That won’t cut it — obviously. The team has worked with him on that and last night, as I mentioned in the post-game blog, he was actually ready to go before Eric Wedge thought he would be.
The bottom line? Iwakuma didn’t make the rotation this spring because the other pitchers ahead of him were more ready to face MLB hitters with real games on the line.
We’ll know soon enough whether that’s changed. The Mariners will need to figure out which of Iwakuma, Beavan, Hector Noesi and Kevin Millwood is more likely to get MLB hitters out in the near term — not just who has the best future projections based on ability to “miss bats” (what laymen call striking hitters out). After that, you proceed accordingly. If the team is more confident Beavan can get hitters out than can Noesi and Millwood, then it’s the latter two that have to be worried.
Noesi and Beavan have Class AAA options left as well, while Millwood would likely be released if bounced. So, in any odd-man-out scenario, the two younger guys would have to be decisively better than Millwood in order for them to be kept over the veteran. Also, there’s the question of whether any of them project to be useful in long relief, or starting in the minors.
So many questions, still so few answers. But the M’s at least got one last night. They know that the Iwakuma they’ve been looking for since spring training began might still be hidden in there someplace. If indeed he is — and we won’t know for certain yet — then it’s a nice addition to a mound staff that needs it.
One more good problem to have.
As Wedge said pregame yesterday and we’ve tried to remind folks despite some losing stretches early, a season is played over a full 162 games. Not 20, nor 30. Especially in a rebuilding year when the playoffs aren’t really going to be an issue.
Any attempts to evaluate pitchers or hitters always have to be tempered with that realization. It’s a good lesson to learn from as we all get our torches and pick axes ready to run the next player out of town in April.
Some players will overcome slow starts and get better. And some won’t. So, every attempt by hitters and pitchers to tinker with stuff and overcome flaws has to be looked at with equal seriousness, no matter how we think it’ll turn out in the end. Some guys will surprise you and some will be exactly what we all thought they were. In Zduriencik’s case, to his credit, he felt Iwakuma could do this if given the chance and on this occasion he did. This time, on this night he was right. And he may still be right at season’s end. Other times, things won’t go as well. That’s baseball. Always has been, always will be.

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