Archive > 24 March 2009

The Life and Times of Hisashi Iwakuma

» 24 March 2009 » In npb » 2 Comments

More than anyone else on the Japan team, it was Hisashi Iwakuma that made a name for himself in this year’s WBC. Iwakuma put in an outstanding performance in the round two elimination game against Cuba, and again in the final when he left the game with a lead over Korea. He isn’t a new face to NPB fans, but he’s not a phenom like Yu Darvish and hasn’t gotten much exposure abroad. 

It’s been somewhat of a winding road to this point for Iwakuma. Let’s take a look at how he got here.

2002
I was living near Osaka in 2002, when Iwakuma arrived on the scene for the local Kintetsu Buffaloes. The Buffaloes were coming off a Japan Series appearance, but had a pretty weak rotation, and he put up respectable numbers in his first full year. More than anything, I recall his funky two-stage delivery, and that people were talking about his as someone to watch in coming years.

2003
Iwakuma broke out with a 15-10 record and 3.45 ERA in 195 2/3 innings, and along with Jeremy Powell gave the Buffaloes a solid front-end rotation.  Kintetsu’s power lineup was aging at that point though, and they weren’t able to compete with the strong Fukuoka Daiei Hawks for the Pacific League title.

2004
Iwakuma started the season with a 12-game winning streak and was the top vote-getting pitcher in the Pacific League for the All-Star game.  Iwakuma plays in the Olympics later in the summer and finished with a 15-2 record.

More signficantly, the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix Blue Wave agreed to merge their baseball operations in the summer of ’04, leading to the establishment of team currently known as the Orix Buffaloes. The merger spurred talks of contraction, which eventually led to a fan-supported players’ strike and the creation of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles franchise. The merge was a sad event for me, as it meant the end of the Blue Wave name, which I really liked.

2004-5 Offseason
Iwakuma refused to play for the merged Buffaloes team, and was traded to the Rakuten expansion team. Rakuten seemed to have a decent foundation to its rotation with Iwakuma and college ace Yasuhiro Ichiba
. Ichiba never panned out, and was just recently traded.

2005-7
Wilderness years. Two-stage delivery’s were banned in NPB, forcing Iwakuma to re-work his mechanics. This video gives you a sense of the changes he had to make; you can see his Kintetsu-era windup from about 1:00-1:20*. He also struggled through injuries and had a doormat of an expansion team behind him until 2007.

 *note about the video: click the large button that says 再生 to play the video. There is also an annoying comment feature that can be disabled if you click the button in the lower right of the video player, the one that kind of looks like a chick with a cartoon talk-bubble

2008
A big return to form. Iwakuma stayed healthy and apparently mastered his mechanics. The video I linked to above shows a change he made to his arm slot, which resulted in him getting more groundball outs, and dramatically reduced his home run rate. Despite his excellent season, Iwakuma was snubbed from the Olympic team, which in part allowed him to win a league-leading 21 games. He was the first 20-game winner in NPB since Kei Igawa
 and Kazumi Saito both won 20 in 2003, and the first 21-game winner since Yoshinori Sato in 1985. 

For his efforts, he was awarded the Sawamura Award as NPB’s best pitcher, and the Pacific League MVP despite playing for a 5th-place team.

The Future
Iwakuma signed a 3-year, 1.1bn yen ($11m) deal with Rakuten after the 2008 season. It’s uncommon for NPB players to sign multi-year deals prior to reaching free agency, so his contract is evidence that Rakuten really thinks highly of him.  Since I was getting asked this during the NPB chats, as far as I can tell he has about five years of NPB service time, which means he has another four to go before reaching international free agency. Rakuten seems to be commited to building a competitive team around him.

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A Classic Worthy of The Name

» 24 March 2009 » In international baseball » 14 Comments

Last night’s Japan-Korea final was certainly the best WBC game I’ve ever seen, and probably the best one in the WBC’s short history. The live chat I hosted during the game was missing a few of the usual suspects but was a great one — thanks everyone who participated.

Here are my bullet points on the good…

  • Both Japan and Korea should be proud of the game they played. Both teams had a chance to win and I think they both earned a lot of respect internationally. I’ve always been interested in Korean baseball, but I’ll certainly follow the KBO a little more closely this year. Rather than winning bragging rights over each other, I think they’ve both earned bragging rights in the international baseball world.
  • For my money, Hisashi Iwakuma was the tournament MVP.
  • Japan executed small ball tactics pretty well over the last three games. I saw at least three successful hit and run plays, and a number of good bunts and lots of good defense. 
  • The Japan-Korea rivalry created an electric atmosphere. I’d love to see the two countries get together for something like The Ashes.
  • Everyone is second-guessing Korea manager In-Sik Kim’s decision to pitch to Ichiro in the 10th, but to me the decision wasn’t totally cut and dry. Ichiro hadn’t performed in the WBC until the final game, and Hiroyuki Nakajima had had a pretty good tournament. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with his call, but had he walked Ichiro we might be wondering why he loaded the bases for Nakajima.
  • I actually think Hara made pretty good moves over the last few games. 
  • Unheralded players of the tournament for me are Toshiya Sugiuchi and Satoshi Komatsu.

And the less good…

  • Yu Darvish really struggled with his command in the 9th inning last night. Ultimately it made the game more exciting, but he could have challenged hitters with his excellent fastball a little more, particularly with no one on base.
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka, like Darvish had a bad habit of nibbling until he got into trouble, and then challenging hitters. Guys, you have good stuff! Go after hitters.
  • Japan played five games against Korea, two against Cuba, and one each against China and the USA. It didn’t detract from the final, but the seeding game was pretty mellow compared to the others. 
  • Japan won despite having Yoshiyuki Kamei on the roster.

Thoughts?

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