Fantasy baseball Pitching Report: Iwakuma's splitter is here to stay
Evaluating Japanese pitchers has always been a challenge for fantasy owners. The Japanese leagues feature a different style of play than the majors, so you can't take a player's stats at face value, or even discount them a bit. Other than Yu Darvish, who fits the profile of a traditional MLB power pitcher, many of the pitchers who came over from Japan succeeded with a brand of pitching that wouldn't necessarily translate to MLB. Moreover, most of them already spent a significant number of seasons in Japan, meaning they're already in their late-20s or early-30s by the time they cross the ocean. Still, a handful have had prolonged success in the majors, bringing us to Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma. The 32-year-old righty has been one of the most effective pitchers in the majors this season, going 2-1 with a 1.67 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 37.2 innings across six starts. Can he keep it up, or should his fantasy owners try to sell him high?
Iwakuma is not a power pitcher by any stretch of the imagination. His fastball sits around 89-90 mph and he instead succeeds by using all four pitches in his repertoire, relying heavily on his splitter and slider. According to Fangraphs' pitch values, Iwakuma had the second-best splitter in the majors last year, and so far in 2013, it again sits in second place. The fact he's commanding his out pitch equally as effectively this year as he did last is evidence he has staying power.
A splitter has serious diving action, which tends to induce a ton of ground balls. However, Iwakuma has gained control of that issue this year, and his ground-ball rate is just 39.4 percent this year, way down from 52.2 percent a year ago. His strikeout rate has spiked to 26.8 percent from 19.5 percent, and his swinging-strike rate is up two-and-a-half percentage points to 12.1 percent. There's a strong indication hitters are simply whiffing on a greater percentage of his splitters as opposed to beating them into the ground, and as further investigation of his pitch-by-pitch stats, we see that's the case. On splitters this year, Iwakuma has a ridiculous 22.3 percent swinging-strike rate and 58.8 percent ground-ball rate. Last year, those numbers were 18 percent and 74.3 percent, respectively.
While Iwakuma's ERA is a sparkling 1.67, his FIP is a solid-though-not-spectacular 3.23, which is good enough for 34th in the majors. His .178 BABIP and 90 percent strand rate largely explain the ERA-FIP gulf. On the plus side, he also has a walk rate of 3.6 percent, the ninth-best measure in the league. We can't expect him to strand 90 percent of runners he allows on base all season -- that would be foolhardy. But the fact he isn't walking anyone should give us some confidence that even if and when his BABIP increases some, he'll still keep the total number of base runners manageable.
So what does all this tell us? Well, while you should always listen to trade proposals with an open mind, Iwakuma's 2013 performance appears to be legit. Last year, he dominated with the splitter by getting opponents to roll over it time and time again. This year, he's getting them to miss it altogether. Either way, it portends well for his 2013 season.
• Doug Fister, Detroit Tigers -- Fister moved to 4-0 on the year Sunday, allowing three runs on six hits in seven innings, striking out eight and walking none in Detroit's win over Atlanta. He's once again succeeding with one of the game's best changeups, but he may be taking it to new heights this season. Fister's ground ball rate is up to 59.6 percent this year, a ratio so high that not even Detroit's subpar infield defense can totally undermine his efforts. He may not rack up the strikeouts, but he has fanned four batters for every non-intentional walk. Coupled with his extreme ground-ball tendencies, he has seized on a recipe that could keep him among the best pitchers in fantasy this season.
• Tony Cingrani, Cincinnati Reds -- Well Cingrani sure has given Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker something to think about when Johnny Cueto returns from the DL, hasn't he? In three starts covering 18 innings, Cingrani has allowed three runs on 12 hits and four walks while striking out 28 batters. His fastball has been sitting at 92 mph, and while none of his pitches grades as dominant in this very small sample, he's still getting a 10.3 percent swinging-strike rate. At this point, it's hard to see how the Reds could possibly justify sending him back to the minors when Cueto comes back. Assuming Cingrani remains in Cincinnati, Mike Leake would likely be the odd man out.
• Ryan Dempster, Boston Red Sox -- We discussed the dominance of Hisashi Iwakuma's splitter above, so I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Dempster is the one player with a superior splitter thus far this season. He has ridden that splitter (30.3 percent swinging-strike rate!) to 43 strikeouts in 30 innings. He's walking more than four batters per nine innings, but his 3.30 ERA is supported by a 3.26 FIP. Dempster remade himself into one of the game's better strikeout pitchers with the Cubs and he doesn't appear to be slowing down at all in Boston.
• Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals -- Garcia has flirted with trouble every start, yet somehow he's been able to wriggle off the hook time and time again. But how much longer can he post a sub-3.00 ERA with a WHIP that's up at 1.43? Three of his four pitches currently have negative values according to Fangraphs and he's on pace to post the worst walk rate of his career. The strikeout has saved him, but his current K-rate is a full percentage point higher than his previous career best. Now is the time to sell.
• Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox -- It's easy to look at Sale's game logs and conclude his one disastrous outing against the Indians, in which he surrendered eight runs in 4.1 innings, is wholly responsible for his pedestrian April. However, he has had a FIP north of 4.00 in three of his first five starts, and his 22.2 percent strikeout rate would be the worst of his career by a wide margin. His slider, which was one of the 20 best in the majors last year, currently has a negative value. You're not going to go around selling him for 80 cents on the dollar, but now might be a good time to put his name out there and see what you might be able to get in return.
• It was a relatively quiet week in bullpens from coast to coast. However, one performance of note this season has been the predictable regression of Fernando Rodney. After being utterly unhittable last season, which reversed a 10-year trend of erratic pitching, Rodney has returned to his pre-2012 ways. He has walked eight batters (one intentionally) and allowed seven hits in 8.1 innings. He gave up two homers all of last year, but has already surrendered one this season. It all adds up to a 4.92 FIP, the fourth-worst mark among current closers. His job security isn't threatened at all, but he's definitely worth shopping at this point. If you can pass him off as an elite closer, you'll certainly be able to get more value than he's worth in a trade.
• The same can be said of Huston Street. He's a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities, but he has allowed 12 hits, including three homers, and four walks in 10 innings with just just five strikeouts. Luke Gregerson could potentially step into the closer's role, but Street is going to have to falter in a big way for Bud Black to make such a move. If you own Street and can afford to lose a closer, now would be a great time to put his name out there. Otherwise, you could be stuck with a commodity that doesn't have a ton of value in the future.