BY Steve Rudman 06:30AM 08/02/2014

Mariners’ Iwakuma: Under-the-radar greatness

Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma doesn’t have a huge national profile, but he is among history’s greatest pitchers when it comes to not walking batters.

Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma,  pitches in Baltimore Sunday, leads the majors in two categories, walks per nine innings and strikeouts to walks ratio. / Wiki Commons

Given the numbers he posts and records he sets, it’s easy to obsess over “The King,” Felix Hernandez, on a run of 14 consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and two or fewer runs allowed. No major league pitcher in more than 100 years has produced such a streak — not Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Clayton Kershaw, or anyone else in or out of Cooperstown.

While Hernandez tops all pitchers in WAR (5.4 to Kershaw’s 5.3) and is prominent on leaderboards in strikeouts (2nd), innings (2nd), WHIP (3rd), ERA (4th) and hits per nine innings (4th), there are two sub-categories in which he pales next to his teammate, Hisashi Iwakuma: walks per nine innings and strikeouts to walks.

Start with the fact that Iwakuma, who starts Sunday in the final of three games at Baltimore, has walked only nine batters unintentionally in 17 starts. That’s the fewest by a Seattle starter through 17 starts in franchise history (Felix Hernandez has 31 walks through his first 23 starts).

If the season ended today, Iwakuma would have the third-lowest walks per nine innings number – 0.69 — since 1914, as the following shows:

Year Pitcher Team IP BB BB/9 Skinny
2005 Carlos Silva Twins 188.1 9 0.43 BB total offset by 25 HRs
1994 Bret Saberhagen Mets 177.1 13 0.66 Also averaged 7.3 SO/9
2014 Hisashi Iwakuma Mariners 117.2 9 0.69 94 strikeouts to 9 walks
1933 Red Lucas Reds 219.2 18 0.74 Finished 10-16, 3.40 ERA
2002 Jon Lieber Cubs 141.0 12 0.77 14-game winner, 4.33 ERA
2010 Cliff Lee 2 teams 212.1 18 0.76 0.52 BB/9 for Mariners
1997 Greg Maddux Braves 232.2 20 0.77 Averaged 1.8 for career
2014 Phil Hughes Twins 137.2 13 0.82 Also averages 7.7 SO/9
1999 Bret Saberhagen Red Sox 119.0 11 0.83 Averaged 1.7 for career

Among Mariners pitchers, the closest to Iwakuma is (never would have guessed this) Blake Beavan, who free-passed 1.42 batters per nine in 2012 over 152.1 innings. Hernandez has walked 1.69 per nine innings this season, part of his case as a Cy Young candidate. And just for comparison;s sake: When Randy Johnson won the Cy Young Award in 1995 while pitching for Seattle, his number was 2.7; when Hernandez won the Cy in 2010, his was 2.5.

That’s half of Iwakuma’s intriguing statistical splurge. His 10.44 strikeouts to walk ratio is as impressive as his 0.69 walks per nine, maybe more so. He leads the majors with that number ahead of National League Cy Young favorite Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who’s at 10.00.

If that 10.44 strikeouts-to-walk ratio holds, Iwakuma will be the second pitcher since 2000 with a number above 10.00 (Kershaw could become the third). Cliff Lee, who spent part of 2010 with the Mariners, had a 10.28 that year, split between Seattle and Texas. Among strikeouts-to-walks leaders since 2000, the only other pitcher to approach 10.00 was Pedro Martinez in 2000 when he posted an 8.88.

Iwakuma, Kershaw and Lee are among nine pitchers since 1945 with a single-season strikeouts-to-walks ratio above 8.00 with a minimum of 117 innings pitched (Iwakuma’s total):

Year Pitcher Age Team IP SO BB SO/BB
1994 Bret Saberhagen 30 Mets 177.1 143 13 11.00
2014 Hisashi Iwakuma 33 Mariners 117.2 94 9 10.44
2010 Cliff Lee 31 Two Teams 212.1 185 18 10.28
2014 Clayton Kershaw 26 Dodgers 121.1 150 15 10.00
2014 Phil Hughes 28 Twins 137.2 118 13 9.08
2000 Pedro Martinez 28 Red Sox 217.0 284 32 8.88
1997 Greg Maddux 31 Braves 232.2 177 20 8.85
2004 Ben Sheets 25 Brewers 237.0 264 32 8.25
2014 David Price 28 Rays 170.2 189 23 8.22

And, finally, in the first inning of Iwakuma’s last start, July 29 at Cleveland, he did something he has done only twice this season (also May 3 at Houston) and nine times in his three-year career: issue a four-pitch unintentional walk (to Michael Brantley). Despite that lapse, Iwakuma is a master at avoiding such self-inflicted gouges. He issued two in 2012, five in 2013 and now two this season. He almost has as many intentional walks (8) in his career as unintentional ones.

Randy Johnson (1989-98) owns the Mariners career record for most four-pitch, unintentional walks with 387, hardly a surprise given the 1,838.1 innings he worked while wearing Seattle togs. Johnson also holds the single-season record, 41 in 1991, when he was more thrower than pitcher.

But the single-game record belongs to Chris Bosio, who had six such walks June 21, 1995 at Chicago among nine overall in five innings in a 5-4 loss.

Six in one game for Bosio (also five for Mark Langston Aug. 29, 1988 against the Yankees), and Iwakuma has a mere nine in his career.



  • RadioGuy

    And to think it took Eric Wedge until about halfway through the 2012 season when it dawned on him that this Iwakuma guy, who’d won 50 games the previous four years in Japan, might be worth giving then chance of starting a game in Seattle.

    I covered international baseball the year he went 21-4 and 1.87 for Rakuten and I can’t recall any pitcher anywhere having a better season than he did that year. I kept wondering when he was ever going to be brought out of the bullpen with the M’s because I knew his track record as a starter overseas: When he was healthy, he was very good, and that’s pretty good ball they play over there.

    Gotta give Zduriencik at least some credit for Iwakuma being in Seattle: This was Z’s signing and he outbid Minnesota, Oakland and at least one other team for him.

  • jafabian

    Carlos Silva had 9 BB’s in 2005????

  • Kirkland

    Iwakuma has conceded more HOME RUNS than walks this season! How often does that happen?

  • Michael Bragg

    It doesn’t seem to matter how good the pitching is…There’s no production in the lineup night in and night out…Looks pretty ugly losing 2-1 and 1-0!