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Entries in Hisashi Iwakuma (3)


Can Tanaka's Splitter Top These Guys?

Masahiro Tanaka will likely become the first Japanese star to earn a $100 million contract in the states, thanks to a confluence of factors including unprecedented TV money permeating the game, a new posting system that shifts more cash from Nippon Professional Baseball teams to players, and the 25-year-old's youth, power and precision on the mound. Statistically, Tanaka compares favorably to other top Japanese starting pitchers who have made the jump to Major League Baseball. He's got the stuff to match up, too. While the Rakuten Golden Eagles ace and reigning Sawamura Award winner can best hitters many different ways, his splitter garners the most international acclaim.

Tanaka throws his upper-80s splitter around 15 percent of the time, according to the NPB Tracker website. Baseball America's Ben Badler calls the offering "arguably the best in the world," noting that overmatched NPB batters routinely swing over the pitch as it plummets toward the dirt. Tanaka's out pitch will make him an outlier in the majors. Just 1.4 percent of the total MLB pitches thrown over the past three seasons have been splitters, and only 17 hurlers have thrown the pitch at least 10 percent of the time over that period.

If Tanaka truly wants to lay claim to having the world's best splitter, he must top a collection of pitchers including Japanese standouts like Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara. Here's a look at Tanaka's competition for the title of splitter king, with top 10 rankings over the 2011-13 seasons in swings and misses, chases on pitches tossed out of the strike zone, strikes thrown, ground balls induced, and opponent slugging percentage.

Splitter Whiff Rate


Percentage of Splitters Chased out of the Strike Zone


Splitter Strike Rate


Splitter Ground Ball Rate


Opponent Slugging Percentage vs. the Splitter


Hisashi Iwakuma's Logic-Defying Fastball

Who would have thought that arguably the leading candidate for the 2013 AL Cy Young Award would be a Seattle Mariner not named Felix Hernandez? As good as King Felix has been, rotation mate Hisashi Iwakuma has been even better. In his second season stateside, Iwakuma ranks second among qualified major league starters in ERA+ (204) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.21).

The 32-year-old righty has emerged as an ace in part due to dramatic improvement with his fastball. Hitters are slugging just .362 against the pitch this season, compared to .595 in 2012. Iwakuma's success with his fastball flies in the face of baseball logic -- he's throwing it slower and putting it over the plate more often, yet he's getting swings and misses like a flame-thrower

Iwakuma didn't throw hard during his rookie season, with an average fastball velocity (90.3 MPH) that was one tick below the MLB average for right-handed starters (91.3 MPH). This year, he's lost some of his already modest zip, averaging 89.5 MPH on the radar gun. At the same time, Iwakuma has increased his percentage of fastballs thrown within the strike zone from about 58% to 62%. No starter outside of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has pumped more fastballs over the plate this season.

As you might imagine, slow fastballs get fewer swings and misses (11.8% for sub-90 MPH gas) than higher-velocity heaters (15.6% for 90+ MPH fastballs). And fastballs thrown over the plate get dramatically fewer whiffs (12.1%) than out-of-zone fastballs (22.1%). Iwakuma was already a soft-tosser who filled up the strike zone in 2012, and those tendencies only became more pronounced in 2013. Therefore, his fastball miss rate should drop, right? Wrong.

Iwakuma's fastball contact rate, 2012


Iwakuma's fastball contact rate, 2013

In 2012, Iwakuma got swings and misses with his fastball 14.5% of the time. This year, while throwing more soft strikes, he's getting whiffs at a 22.5% clip. To put that into context, Yu Darvish (27% fastball miss rate), Shelby Miller (25.5%) and Matt Harvey (24.2%) are the only starters to miss lumber at a higher rate. Darvish (92.9 MPH average fastball velocity) Miller (93.4 MPH) and Harvey (95 MPH) all bring the heat. One of these things is not like the other. Iwakuma's fastball remains a mystery, to hitters and analysts alike.


Liriano Thriving Low in the Zone

You could forgive Pirates fans if, upon hearing their club signed Francisco Liriano over the winter, they had bad flashbacks to Oliver Perez. The comparison wasn't hard to make: A tantalizing lefty with low 90s gas, a wipeout slider...and the aim of a blind-folded dart-thrower. Liriano issued five free passes per nine innings during the 2011-12 seasons, racking up a five-plus ERA and even getting banished to the bullpen for a time last May. Add in a broken non-throwing arm that wiped out the first month of his season, and expectations were low that Liriano would show the form that earned him All-Star status in 2006 and AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2010.

But Liriano is doing just that. He has punched out 39 batters and walked just nine through 29 innings pitched, and he has yet to surrender a single home run. The 29-year-old is keeping the ball in the park by pounding hitters at the knees: He has thrown 62% of his pitches to the lower-third of the strike zone, the highest clip among starting pitchers throwing at least 400 pitches this season and well above his 52% mark from 2012. Here's more on Liriano's prowess low in the zone:

  • Liriano is inducing whiffs 50% of the time that hitters swing at his low stuff, narrowly beating out baseball's strikeout king, Yu Darvish, for the best mark among starting pitchers.

Liriano's contact rate by pitch location, 2013

  • Liriano is also getting plenty of swings on low pitches thrown off the plate, as his 36% chase rate attests. The only starters with a higher chase rate on low stuff are Shaun Marcum, Johnny Cueto, Hisashi Iwakuma, Ervin Santana and Felix Hernandez.
  • With all of those whiffs and chases, Liriano is limiting batters to a .191 slugging percentage on low pitches. That's 12th-lowest among starters and over 120 points below the big league average (.314), though A.J. Burnett (.153 opponent slugging percentage on low pitches) still has bragging rights in the Pirates clubhouse.