Everyone knows that Felix Hernandez is the alpha-male of the Seattle Mariners starting rotation, but the team has also cashed in a fantastic season from an unlikely source. Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma has put up a huge year and has given Seattle an excellent 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation.
After Wednesday’s dominant, 8 inning 0 run performance against the Detroit Tigers (who boast one of the best line-ups in the league), Iwakuma is now 13-6 with an excellent 2.76 ERA and an even better 1.02 WHIP. He’s also struck out 176 batters in 211.2 innings. The 31-year-old righty now has a 1.16 WHIP and an All-Star appearance over the course of his two MLB seasons.
Iwakuma is a long-time veteran of the Japanese leagues, spending his most productive time with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles from 2005-2011. The Mariners signed him before the start of last season and originally had him coming out of the bullpen before plugging him into the rotation. Overall, he went 9-5 with 16 starts and 14 relief appearances in his rookie season.
This year, however, has been another story. Iwakuma has been good all year but with King Felix sidelined recently with a strained oblique, he has become the ace of the staff. And if you look at the numbers, Iwakuma has actually been better overall than Hernandez by pretty much any number you want to use to measure it. Felix is 12-9 this season with a 3.01 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 194.1 innings. He’s been solid as always, and not exponentially worse than Iwakuma. However, he definitely has not been noticeably superior either. In fact, according to ESPN’s rankings, Iwakuma is ranked 7th out of all MLB pitchers in terms of his overall numbers, with Felix coming in at 14th. Once again, when looking at these rankings we should all also take a moment to appreciate the dominance of Clayton Kershaw. The guy has a 0.93 WHIP and a 7.0 WAR! If he doesn’t win the Cy Young this year then all voters should be indicted.
This can only mean positive things for Seattle going forward if Iwakuma can continue to pitch at an elite level. Felix is about as reliable as it comes when talking about top-tier starting pitchers so the top of the staff will look really good if the Mariners can fill out the rest of their rotation more effectively and, more importantly, potentially get some players that can hit baseballs. Man, is this offense bad. The Mariners have the 23rd ranked offense in the league, ahead of juggernauts such as the Chicago Cubs and White Sox and the slugging Miami Marlins. Interestingly enough, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have been one of the best teams in the league all season, rank behind Seattle in terms of offensive production as well.
Mariners fans can also gain excitement from the recent infusion of stud rookie Taijuan Walker into the rotation. The 21-year-old has looked pretty good in limited work so far this season, but the potential is undeniably there for him to become a key part of this rotation as well. The Mariners need it because the rest of their pitchers aside from Iwakuma and Hernandez have drastically underwhelmed this season. Seattle ranks 28th in team pitching stats for the year and that’s with two of the best pitchers in the American League on their staff. After Felix and Iwakuma, Seattle is currently trotting out Joe Saunders (11-15, 5.16 ERA), Aaron Harang (5-11, 5.76 ERA) and Brandon Maurer (4-8, 6.95 ERA). That’s a recipe for a lot of losses. Mariners fans can only hope that Iwakuma is able to stay consistent and put up huge numbers in next few years. With King Felix hopefully rounding back into form, Iwakuma and Walker, it looks to be what resembles a formidable pitching staff.