The Interesting Case of Hisashi Iwakuma’s 2016 Season

Going into the season, if you asked me who would be the one Mariners starting pitcher to avoid the DL entirely, I most certainly would’ve pegged Iwakuma dead last in my rankings.  Considering I wasn’t too high on the prospects of Wade Miley at the time, my money probably would’ve been on him to stay healthy all year, but that’s neither here nor there.  Iwakuma seemingly did the impossible; he made over 30 starts for the first time since 2013.  That year, you may recall, Iwakuma was worth over 7 WAR, finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting, and made his only All Star appearance.  He was the legitimate #2 starter we’ve always been lacking (except for a brief, glorious run with Cliff Lee way back when).

Unfortunately, his 2013 season is also the year everyone points to as his ceiling.  Face it:  we’re never seeing those days out of him again.  We’re never seeing anything CLOSE to those days out of him again!

He was as healthy as he’s ever been in 2016, making 33 starts – just as he did in 2013 – but he was far from the godsend everyone has made him out to be.  For starters, in 33 games, he couldn’t even crack 200 innings, finishing stuck on 199.  That’s an average of 6 innings per start, which sounds all right, but you have to remember that’s an average.  Five of his starts were less than 5 innings, including two of the last three (when wins were at a premium); those counter-balance his five starts where he was truly dominant (7 innings or more, 2 runs or less).  The rest of his starts, as I’ve written before, were just sort of meh.  In that 6-inning range, anywhere from 2-4 runs given up.

I’m not saying Iwakuma’s bad!  I’m just saying that maybe people give him more credit than he deserves.  He’s not a #2 pitcher, but he’s treated like one, and it’s a mistake.  If I’m going into a 5-game series in the playoffs, I sure as shit don’t want to see Iwakuma going twice!  Once would be enough; Iwakuma is a fine #3 starter.  He’ll keep you in games more often than not, but for every game he’s dominant, there’s an equal number of games where he’s terrible.  I don’t like those odds if I have to see him twice in a 5-game series, but I’ll accept them if I only have to see him once.

The shitty part of it is that no one has really stepped up to take hold of that #2 starter job.  Really, it should’ve been Taijuan Walker’s to win, but his leg injury and an alleged lack of maturity prevented him from taking that next step everyone pegged him for going into the season.  It might be Paxton’s spot going into 2017, but he’s got his own health issues to deal with.

So, unfortunately, it looks like it’ll be Iwakuma once again.  He reached the threshold to have next year’s salary guaranteed at $14 million.  And, given the structure of his contract, all he needs to do is throw 125 innings in 2017 to make his 2018 contract guaranteed at $15 million.  He already earned all of his 2016 incentives (there don’t appear to be any built into the next two years), so his salary this year inflated to $13.5 million, bringing his likely 3-year total to $42.5 million, or just $2.5 million less than what the Dodgers were going to pay him before they failed him at his physical.  So, you know, not quite the bargain we were expecting.

Iwakuma could spend two full months on the DL next year (like he did in 2015) and still vest his 2018 contract at $15 million.  Think about THAT for a likely future pitfall.

It’s hard to get a handle on a Best Case Scenario for Iwakuma next year, because I’m pretty sure 2016 is it!  Keeping him healthy for a full year, with an ERA and a FIP over 4.  It’s either that, or a healthy Iwakuma for half a season and he somehow reverts back to his 2014-2015 form of an ERA and a FIP right around 3.50.  We can only work with that scenario if we have a viable 6th starter somewhere in our organization, which you have to figure is pretty likely (my guess is the team will go hunting for one this offseason, but I’ll get more into that another time).

Getting a fully healthy Iwakuma next year is probably our Worst Case Scenario, if you think about it.  I just don’t think he has the stamina to produce a full season’s worth of quality starts.  2013 Kuma isn’t walking through that door anytime soon!  BUT, he might be able to give us a half season’s worth!  Like, say, he gets injured in Spring Training, or sometime in April, misses three months, returns in July/August, builds up his arm and his timing, then puts in a dominant stretch run in September just as this team is playing for a playoff spot.  THAT, right there, is your Best Case Scenario.

Plus, let’s face it, any scenario where his 2018 salary doesn’t vest is probably the one you want to root for.  He’ll be 37 years old at the start of 2018; is that the age of the presumptive #2 starter you want to see in your Mariners rotation?  I know it’s not what I want.

The bottom line is, someone has to step up and overtake Iwakuma.  Or, the GM has to bring in someone to do so.  Maybe going into the season, more likely someone at the trade deadline.  But, if this team has visions of going to the playoffs in 2017, it has to find a better #2 than Hisashi Iwakuma.

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