Baseball Prospectus Needs Your Help! Check out our call for contributors!

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Reportedly signed RHP Hisashi Iwakuma to a three-year deal worth $45 million. [12/6]

This isn’t the signing that Dodgers fans were hoping for when the off-season started. This isn’t Zack Greinke being brought back in Dodgers blue, cost be damned, which was pretty much the only thing that would satisfy a significant portion of the fan base. This isn’t even Plan B: David Price. This isn’t an elite starter who would act as a de facto No. 2 to Clayton Kershaw, the setup that has won the Dodgers three consecutive division championships, but also zero World Series. This is not a great many things. The question is: What is it?

It’s not impossible to analyze the signing of Iwakuma in a vacuum, but doing so would serve little purpose, so let’s talk, briefly, about Zack Greinke, Hisashi Iwakuma, and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It’s difficult to reconcile the actions of the Dodgers front office over the past year-plus, and their willingness to absorb money for the sake of talent, with the fact that they were unwilling to pony up for Greinke—the type of elite-level talent that propels teams to championships. It’s equally difficult to reconcile that the three-year term for Iwakuma means he’ll be exactly as old (38) as Greinke when each deal expires, though they’ve said in the past they’re uncomfortable signing players past age 36. If the fulcrum of their decisionmaking on Greinke was indeed the risk involved in how starting pitchers age, this deal for Iwakuma smacks of hypocrisy. If the fulcrum was money, then the picture comes into focus. Of course, the Dodgers aren’t supposed to care about money the way other teams do. But perhaps they do. Since the Friedman/Zaidi braintrust was established, they haven't gone beyond four years and $48 million on any contract. This means, as unsatisfying as it may be for fans who were used to the status quo, their decisions to let Greinke go to Arizona and to sign Iwakuma are two individual decisions. The equation that each of those decisions came down to is a familiar one: how much money for how much risk for how much production. There’s clearly more health risk and less production with Iwakuma. The question is: Does a $161 million difference make up for it?

Iwakuma logged a career-high 219 â…” innings in 2013, but failed to top 180 innings in 2014 or 2015. His workload evokes concern (a seeming calling card of the free agents signed by the current administration) as Iwakuma dealt with shoulder tenderness, back troubles, and an oblique strain from 2005-2007 in Japan, followed by neck stiffness, a strained tendon in his middle finger, and a Grade 1 lat strain since arriving stateside. What he’s lacked in quantity, he made up for in quality, routinely whiffing over 21 percent of batters faced while walking under 5 percent, providing more than one marquee moment as a member of the Mariners, including a no-hitter in 2015 and a career-high 13-strikeout effort in July of 2012, a mere one day after saying his final goodbyes to his ailing father and returning to America.

How does he do it? His fastball tops out at 93 mph, but averages closer to 89. In fact, four of his five pitches average between 80-90 mph, with his curveball being the lone holdout. When healthy, he keeps batters off-balance by mixing in his splitter around a quarter of the time, and relying on his slider as a second off-speed weapon. Ultimately though, his success is predicated on command and movement. He works the corners masterfully, and when it’s on, the late tumble on his splitter makes it a difficult pitch to take. If you aren’t paying close attention, you can watch an entire Iwakuma start and wonder why he isn’t getting pounded; scrutinize every pitch, and you may leave wondering how hitters square anything up.

He burns worms at around a 50 percent clip, and while he’s good at avoiding fly balls, there tends to be a healthy amount of damage done when a batter does lift the ball, as he’s never allowed fewer than a homer per nine innings, and has had the benefit of pitching in Safeco field his entire career. Altogether, it’s an interesting fit for a Dodgers team that could be weak up the middle with an aging Chase Utley and rookie Corey Seager, who many expect to slide to third base down the line, currently atop the depth chart.

Iwakuma was 36th among starting pitchers in WARP based on DRA in 2015, despite logging only 20 starts, thanks in part to an 18th-ranked DRA (3.39) among pitchers with over 100 innings pitched. He checked in at 54th (3.88) and ninth (3.08), in 2014 and 2013, respectively. At $15 million per year (plus the loss of the 25th-overall pick) Iwakuma offers plenty of upside if he can only stay healthy, especially given the going rate for starting pitching. He’ll likely slot into the No. 2 spot in the rotation, ahead of Hyun-jin Ryu (if healthy), Brett Anderson (when healthy), and Alex Wood, with Brandon McCarthy hopefully returning from the disabled list mid-year. There’s also Mike Bolsinger, Zach Lee, and Joe Wieland as depth options, and the opportunity to use Julio Urias for a partial season, should he declare himself ready.

In general terms, rich teams are often able to pay for security that the less fortunate are not. Sure, elite production costs a pretty penny, but so too does knowing what you’re getting (in a relative sense). It would make sense, then, if the richest of the rich paid for not only premium output in the form of Greinke but also the luxury of banking that premium output. Instead, the current Dodgers administration has repeatedly taken chances on the likes of Iwakuma, Anderson, and McCarthy, at prices that can’t quite be referred to as bargains, all while paring down their long-term obligations. This is a great way to maintain flexibility and make the team more efficient from a dollars-per-win perspective, which could easily be read as “a great way to make ownership more money.” This is, of course, the chief goal along with “winning” for most any front office.

Still, it’s a marked departure from the actions of the Ned Colletti/Guggenheim tandem that demanded wins, whether they were gluten-free, efficient, or not. A transition from the win-at-any-cost diet might not be palatable for a fanbase that has grown accustomed to the face-of-the-franchise players they’ve employed in recent years. But that was never a sustainable course of action for ownership, and this new leaner, more agile organization could be the model that dovetails continued on-field success with furthered off-field profitability. So while Iwakuma over Greinke isn't what anyone in Los Angeles expected or wanted from the Dodgers based on their past, it might be a glimpse into their future. – Craig Goldstein

Special thanks to Brendan Gawlowski, R.J. Anderson, and Eric Stephen for contributing to this article.

Fantasy Impact:

Hisashi Iwakuma

Overlooking the 34-year-old’s legitimate durability concerns and lengthy injury history, dating back to his final years in Japan, is mistake. However, when he’s been healthy, Iwakuma’s performance has been nothing short of spectacular since his conversion to a full-time starter midway through the 2012 campaign.

































A three-year decline in both games started and innings pitched due to an assortment of injuries casts a palpable shadow over his long-term outlook, especially in keeper and dynasty leagues. The forecast is much sunnier in redraft formats, where the veteran right-hander possesses a higher floor than nearly every starting pitcher likely to be selected in the mid-to-late rounds of 2016 drafts.

By updated park factors, the transition from the spacious confines of Safeco Field to a slightly less favorable home ballpark in Dodger Stadium is unlikely to produce an adverse impact on his surface stats, and he should benefit tremendously from facing weaker NL lineups every five days. The considerable challenge when it comes to determining Iwakuma’s fantasy value is striking the perfect balance between remaining risk averse, cognizant of the serious injury risk, while also appreciating just how consistently good he’s been for the better part of four seasons. Despite making just 20 starts, Iwakuma finished as the 19th-best starter in AL-only formats, earning $14 last season.

If Los Angeles can keep Iwakuma healthy, like they managed to with injury-plagued Brett Anderson a year ago, he’s a serious contender to finish as a top-15 fantasy starter in NL-only formats and a top-40 arm in mixed leagues. – George Bissell

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
I think counting on Iwakuma as a 2, is very risky.
Based on prior production, it's not unreasonable. In terms of workload, sure. But that's why he costs $15M/year and not $22M+.

And it's more about him slotting into that spot in the rotation than it is about him fulfilling the "No. 2 starter" mantle.