The Life and Times of Hisashi Iwakuma
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.