Iwakuma Has an XBox Cheat
A's 3 ...


We've been complaining that Iwakuma-san was due to fall out of dreamland and tumble back to earth.  You bet, he's got 5-6K stuff, and excellent command, but ... 8K+ per game?  Nada.

But he's got a dangerous split, you say.  

Well ... every MLB starter, who fans 5 or 6 men per game, has dangerous stuff.  Iwakuma's arsenal seems awfully pedestrian for him to be striking out 8 per game after Friday, he's got 53 whuffs in 53.0 innings.  

His stuff isn't remarkably different from Ricky Nolasco's ... 90 fastball, solid slider, good split.


Samurai Moment

You've seen the old Japanese language films. Two samurai step out in the street. They lowered one brow, raised the other, and glared into each other's souls, as it were.

You could see what they were thinking in their eyes. The glare-challenges volleyed back and forth silently, first one man having the upper hand, then the other. Suddenly one sheathed his katana, turned and walked away respectfully.  Both men knew who would win.

Our NPB friends have told us that the pre-at-bat staredown is a big part of the entertainment in their game. I never got what they were saying, until Friday night.


First Inning, Yoenis Cespedes

Blowers made some offhand remark about Iwakuma's pitchability.  Something about, when it comes to knowing what the batter wants him to throw, Iwakuma is as good as it gets.  He didn't fully grok it either; he and Rizzs cast about the rest of the game trying to pinpoint his special gift.

We talk about pitchability plenty. For some reason, it grokked this time – I think because Blowers as a hitter was sizing Iwakuma up that way.  If a hitter is going up there worrying about the pitcher knowing what he's thinking, then there must be more substance than we gave it credit for ...


I think it was the same at-bat, but I'm not sure. 

Iwakuma threw four baffling pitches. On a 2-2 count, a film came off the TV for Dr. D like a motocross driver ripping away a layer of visor. Cespedes was standing there confused - the confusion was on his face, in the limp way he took his stance. We realized with the cold certainty of death that WBC-san was going to throw a high fastball by him.

Iwakuma came letter high with a fastball. Cespedes swung hour late and the inning was over.

From there on, Dr. D watched transfixed as WBC-san crossed up one hitter after another.  Watching him, the fog lifted as to what MLB batters are expecting on each pitch.  

We fancy that it has been lifting, also, for one Jesus Montero.


*Batters are aggressive, starting the bats early, guessing fastball, or they are passive, confused, taking a long look before they pull the trigger.  You go fastball vs passive and offspeed vs aggressive.


The Fangraphs Column

I doubt that were going to see, any time soon, a column that tells you how often a pitcher throws a fastball when the hitter is expecting offspeed.

Therefore you will see a natural tension, when you try to talk about pitchability to the average sabermetrician. Many such amigos take the attitude, "if it cannot be measured, it does not exist, or at least does not matter." (No word on how they measure, say, courage, or melancholy, or the butterfly effect.)  Dr. D is not accusing them of taking this attitude.  They explicitly state it, and proudly.

So the fact is, you will always see this facet of a baseball game:  MINIMIZED.  If we were to discuss it much, the scouts would be talking and we would be listening.  ;- )


Pitchability is often a cliche.  But Hisashi Iwakuma is the living embodiment of pitchability, like Aphrodite is the personification of love.  (Hence the title image.)



Iwakuma was taking 25+ seconds per pitch last year, obviously laboring on each pitch.  The last several games, he's known what he's going to do three pitches ahead of time, it seems.  I dunno if his pace has quickened much, but his decisiveness certainly has.

That's what was going on in his transition.  He hadn't "solved" the Powerful-But-Unreliable American approach to hitting.  Now he's completely solved it.



You could get started on measuring it by looking at SwStr%  on fastballs – compared to fastball velocity.

There are other ways you could start measuring it ... I once got destroyed by a computer at Rock-Paper-Scissors.  It annotated by saying, "You have followed the last XYZWAB sequence with G, over 90% of the time."  A super-computer* could do the same with pitchability.

Or you could have Hisashi Iwakuma explain it to you.  We saw it with our own eyes.  He knows what they're thinking out there.  He knows, pitch to pitch, whether a hitter will be starting his bat.  That's his edge.  It's the inverse of pitch tipping.

It sounds like a cliche.  But the reality is, that's how he gets 9 strikeouts per game with 5 strikeout stuff.  Once we realized what he was doing it, we realized that he was doing it routinely.

Could it be that Japanese hitters are much more familiar with this game, and that American hitters are naive with it?

Wouldn't have believed it, except tonight we watched him do it, pitch after pitch.  He's toying with them.  We'll do a pre-game next time, and we can watch him do it together.  It's hilarious!

He stands there and looks at the batter, and he knows whether the batter is starting the bat early on that particular swing.  It's an XBox cheat.



I'm showing my age, aren't I.  Nowadays, cell phones are "super-computers."




Doc, I wonder if Iwakuma is one of those guys who just doesn't have any "tells" in his windup and release, if every pitch looks pretty darn like every other. Or perhaps he throws every pitch from a couple of release points. But I'll bet on the first idea.
If the heater and the change and the shuuto ALL look the same as they leave his hand, then the batter has completely lost the battle for the bottom half of the strike zone, already. Add his slurvey offerings and it becomes a Bad Day at Black Rock for MLB-slugger types.
There's an interesting dilemma when facing 'Kuma. His most hittable offering is his fastball, down in the zone, because it is relatively pedestrian. But I think that we're seeing a place where batters are laying off (or will) anything down, because his shutto and change are such secret-type weapons. Which means they are LESS likely to hit the one pitch he throws that they might square pretty consistently.
If Felix is the King does that make Iwakuma the Shogun?
BTW, I have had wonderful images lately of Felix and 'Kuma meeting in some dark place after their back-to-back starts and sharing whatever magical potions, incantations and bewitching powers they've developed independently of each other.
I would have said that Iwakuma was Radagast to Felix's Gandalf, but I have a better literary analogy.
How about Felix and Iwakuma as Shakespeare's Witches/Weird Sisters in Macbeth.
In some dark corner of Safeco's catacombs (Probably in left-center field, where fly balls use to go to die and where you might also find the grotesquely dead souls of Ryan's bat, Raul's glove and Andino's career) Felix and 'Kuma meet over bubbling broth:
Both: Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.
Felix: When shall we two meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
'Kuma: When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
Felix: Scorpion's sting, eye of newt, tongue of adder
Such are the things of my mystical power
'Kuma: Serpent's scale, sting of wasp and Shinto prayer
Conjured as one, calls Shuuto's spirit.
Felix: All hail, Iwa-San! hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
Kuma: All hail, Felix! hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
Both: Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Then they laugh diabolically!
What a scene that would be (with apologies to The Bard, of course)! One worthy of Kurosawa!

Brent's picture

Also known as "how Jamie Moyer pitched until he was 50". He's been saying that to every fresh-faced kid in whatever dugout he was in for the past 20 years. Bases loaded, young guy at the plate eager to drive in a run? Hello, Bugs Bunny change-up. Got him thinking about the change? Blow that wicked 82 MPH heater right by him and watch the head hang and shoulders slump as he shuffles back to the dugout.
Interesting point about the American vs Nippon approach to hitting that I hadn't (but should have) thought of before. For the most part the only hitters in Japan who swing big and don't care much about strikeouts are the American players. Wladimir Balentien is the current poster boy. I can see where a hitter whose game is short swing with great bat control could have success against Iwakuma - the Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs (Rod Carew or Pete Rose for us older guys) fouling off pitch after pitch until they get a walk or drop one in. Of course Iwakuma seems to be able to handle non HoFers of that type too judging by his success in NPB. But if you are going to swing from the heels, unless you guess right or Iwakuma makes a mistake and leaves one out over the plate you can't correct when the ball you thought was going to be thigh high ends up around your ankles.


"Pitch with composure". That was Iwakuma's answer in the post game interview to the question, "what was the key to retiring 16 in a row"?. It's such a...precise answer. Love it.
I don't know that you could come up with a better description of him on the mound. He just pitches with composure.


It hides tells.
Other pitchers, their fastballs vs their offspeeds, there TENDS to be something in the hunch of the shoulders, or release, or something, that subtly helps give away the pitch.  The Japanese hesitation certainly is the equivalant of glasses at the poker table.
You can think of Iwakuma-san as a type of George Sherrill out there, in which the ball is "appearing" at the 50-foot point out of thin air, nothing subconscious in there to help the batter.


Any idea what exactly he is talking about, Grizz?
I know that, in 2012, they were all over him about slow pace.  But what does a young pitcher do?  Heave the ball and hope for the best.

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