What is Hisashi Iwakuma Worth in Free Agency?

As far as results go, there have been very few pitchers who have been as successful as Hisashi Iwakuma since he became a starter. Iwakuma has posted a 2.42 ERA and a record of 5-2 in 11 games that have totalled 67 innings. For some perspective, Felix has been absolutely amazing in the second half of the season too—you may have heard—has an ERA of 1.57 and a 7-1 record in 81 innings. That perspective sucks as a comparison, but I just wanted to compile that and look at it. Felix’s results have been very good. Very very good. Iwakuma only deserves one very.

The troubling part though, is that Iwakuma has significantly out-resulted his peripherals. That’s not to say that he’s been bad. He’s been pretty good. This isn’t the Fuck Iwakuma manifesto. It’s the “Let’s be real, he’s way above his head” manifesto.

Iwakuma has posted a 3.73 xFIP as a starter. League average xFIP for starters is 4.08. The problem though, is that Iwakuma isn’t particularly great at anything, and while his peripheral-results spread may be explained by Safeco Field’s propensity to hold balls inside the fences, Iwakuma’s future demons may be balls that don’t leave the yard, but that are hit hard nonetheless.

If we assume that Iwakuma doesn’t have the ability to intrinsically influence the flight of say, a line drive, we can assume that his batted ball type should somehow reflect his BABIP. If we set BABIP to league average for Iwakuma’s groundballs (51.9 percent of batted balls), fly balls (27.8 percent of battled balls), and line drives (20.4 percent of batted balls), his BABIP should be around .294. Even if we believe that Iwakuma may have influence on the quality of batted ball that he allows, which may be true, the chances that he’ll be able to sustain the .267 BABIP that he currently boasts is basically none.

Iwakuma doesn’t miss a ton of bats, and in fact, when you look at some of the other advanced indicators Iwakuma is almost exactly league average in every category as it relates to contact rates too, including pitches inside and outside of the strike zone.

If it weren’t for a swing in BABIP, Iwakuma would be a peripherally average pitcher. One of the concessions we make as amateur analysts is that some guys are going to be outliers, good or bad. We make that decision, however, usually after several hundred innings pitched.

What makes Iwakuma unique compared to those guys is that because of the terms of his contract he’ll become a free agent after less than 200 innings pitched.

If Iwakuma continues to out-result his peripherals there is a good chance that he could become quite expensive this offseason. The Mariners are a team that has built their future off the idea that they’ll be able to avoid inefficient pitfalls of teams that analyze players traditional ways, and to take advantage of market efficiencies.

When Iwakuma was signed, and the main man Mega Mariner was still allowed to write for a hobby, he opined that the Mariners had made a very low risk signing for what could be a pretty good return. He was right, and so were they.

Going into this offseason that may not be true any more. Iwakuma will probably not only sign a multi-year contract, but also one for several million dollars per year.

Of course, some people will point out that Iwakuma has intimated that he’s happy in Seattle, and there may be some inherent loyalty on his part. It’s not the place of this blog though, or really anyone without personal knowledge of Iwakuma’s sincere feelings to begin to quantify the kind of “hometown discount” Iwakuma would be willing to give the Mariners to remain in Seattle.

With that said, Iwakuma staying in Seattle relies on two elements that will be pulling against eachother: Iwakuma’s loyalty to the team, and his market value.

Since we can’t quantify his loyalty, it may be wise try to find a comparable for Iwakuma, and then determine his market value.

Iwakuma will turn 32 at the beginning of next season, and is a free agent for the first time. On the surface that certainly doesn’t make him an outlier. His inexperience does, and how we interpret his inexperience and how it relates to his market value is the true pivot point of his market value.

Perhaps the easiest comparison is a guy like Edwin Jackson. Jackson was a guy that was pretty disappointing early in his career, and that reinvented himself as a strike-thrower instead of a strikeout pitcher. He’s around seven strikouts and three walks per game for the last three years, and has seen his peripherals and results both dive to better-than-average levels. If we interpret Iwakuma’s lack of track record in MLB as a negative we can assume that teams will tread cautiously in negotiations with Iwakuma, as Jackson had to wait most of last offseason to receive a one-year, $11 million deal. Jackson is about two and a half years younger than Iwakuma, and three years the way the league counts age for stats (age on June 31). We have to assume that the value of a 32 year old Jackson clone is a lot harder to sell than a 28 year old version. However, short term deals certainly see less effect of age on their annual value.

To find a positive representation of Iwakuma’s allure though, we may have to go outside the box. Usually Cuban defectors come in with a fair amount of hype and an advanced set of physical tools, so while their advanced age makes them a valuable comparison, their physical abilities are better comparables to precious metals than the value of Iwakuma’s low-90s fastball.

Even while Iwakuma has out-resulted countrymen like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, they too possessed greater physical talents.

But while it may be cliché to compare him to a guy that came from the same country as he did, there may be no better comparable than Hiroki Kuroda.

Kuroda came to the US prior to his age 33 season, and had an extended track record of success in Nippon Professional Baseball, but was coming off a season of mixed results. Kuroda was old enough to simply declare free agency—skipping the posting system—and signed with the Dodgers for a three-year, $35.3 million contract.

Spending is much different in baseball than it was back then, and the Mariners haven’t been keen on paying for anyone that was just kind of average in all categories. And Iwakuma had an arm issue that led to his one-year deal this year, and that held him out of the rotation for much of the beginnning of the year.

So if we look at a guy as marketable as Edwin Jackson, and extrapolate what a Jackson deal may look like with a resume and allure of Hiroki Kuroda, we arrive somewhere in the three-year, $24-27 million range. That’s not coincidentally a range that borders on a level of discomfort for even the most bullish Iwakuma fan.

Of course, the Mariners could just sit back and hope that Iwakuma becomes the Edwin Jackson of the 2013 offseason, which is a risk in itself, but one that works to mitigate a much greater risk: overpaying for poor production.

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  • maqman

    I agree he can probably get a three year contract in the $24-$27MM range from some team.  I share your concern that he may prove to not be worth that kind of a deal.  Maybe a two year deal for $14-$18MM total with an option for a third year based on his results.  His age is a negative but his experience in a positive.