Welcome to this new series, in which we anticipate one excellent matchup per week and diarize it to learn something about the art of pitching. In the process, we also discover meaningful things about ourselves and our lives through the lens of baseball. There is always a lesson at the end. Each pitchers' duel receives an official 1-10 rating on the Marichal-Spahn Scale, named after the greatest pitchers' duel ever.
This Week's Pitchers' Duel
Why I Picked This Game
Iwakuma is one of five qualified pitchers in Major League Baseball with a sub-2.00 ERA, and I wanted to witness his genius. Also, with the collective offensive "prowess" between both teams, a low-scoring game seems like a good bet.
Bio: Age 25, lefty, 6-foot-3, 202 pounds, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attended Arkansas
2013 Stats: 3-2, 4.70 ERA, 4.65 FIP, 5.53 K/9, 0.0 WAR (only six starts; began in pen)
Pitches: Relies heavily on a sinking fastball (43.92 percent usage) that actually has better horizontal movement — top six in the game, tailing in on lefties — than vertical. His sinker and his four-seam fastball both average 90 mph, and he splits the rest of his pitches between a change, slider, curve, and cutter (the last of which gets great movement — great visualization here — in on righties and is becoming more prominent, per the monthly charts).
Fun Fact: His name is Dallas, and he plays in Houston. (I know, it's not even that funny. But pray that this game isn't a dud, or I'll be going back to the well pretty often.)
Bio: Age 32, righty, 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, born in Tokyo, no college, came to U.S. in 2012
2013 Stats: 6-1, 1.94 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 8.05 K/9, 1.8 WAR
Pitches: Last year, Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs wrote about Iwakuma's splitter, noting that it produced ground balls at an extremely high rate. That has remained true in 2013; the pitch yields a grounder on 79 percent of balls in play, the best of any splitter in the game. It's no surprise when you consider the excellent movement; the pitch tails in on righties at the fourth-best rate among all splitters and sinks at the second-best rate. Throw in a velocity of 86 mph — not far off from his fastball — and you can see why it's so epic. Lefties flail, righties get handcuffed.
Iwakuma goes to the splitter 20 percent of the time and rounds out his repertoire with a fastball (averaging 90.43 mph), curve, slider, and, per FanGraphs, the most valuable sinker in the game. That last pitch is a doozy; it's practically the same velocity as the four-seamer, but ends up five inches lower and three inches to the right.
Fun Fact: He was so good in the 2009 World Baseball Classic that the Japanese manager chose him over Yu Darvish to start the championship game. He made it into the eighth, holding South Korea to two runs, and left with the lead. Japan later won in extra innings.
First Inning: The first thing Root Sports out of Seattle tells me? Ted "The Motor City Madman" Nugent will be in Tacoma for two nights this month! THIS MONTH! I just booked eight flights. The second thing is more interesting; in his first 29 starts, Iwakuma has been better than fellow Japanese imports Yu Darvish and Hideo Nomo. And remember the crazy hype for Nomo? How many of us have even heard of Iwakuma?
As I-Wak takes the mound (I'll be trying out nicknames all night), let me clue you in to one of my favorite tools — the Brooks Baseball player cards. Among a thousand other cool features, you can see the tendencies of what each pitcher throws on certain counts. Check out Iwakuma's profile; note that while he throws a splitter about 20 percent of the time, that goes up to 55 percent when he has two strikes and a lefty is batting. I love knowing stuff like that. Against Brandon Barnes, Houston's lead-off man, he tries two splitters with two strikes, and finally succeeds with a high fastball for the swinging K. Jose Altuve's up next, and this time Iwakuma goes to the slider, which breaks to the left at about 81 mph, to fool him into another flailing strikeout. After a Jason Castro single ruins the perfect game, a sick slider and a high fastball to J.D. Martinez ends the first with a third strikeout. His stuff looks really, really electric so far. The rare 27-strikeout game is in play.
In the bottom half, I learn a new fact: Dallas Keuchel's last name is pronounced "KAI-kel." I've been saying "koo-SHELL" this whole time. I'll be writing less about Keuchel tonight since ... well, he's not that great. But let me note that Seattle's offense has produced 229 runs, second to last in the AL, trailing only the White Sox. So it should be no surprise that he just went 1-2-3.
Second Inning: Iwakuma's strength — one of them, anyway — is that three of his pitches (fastball, sinker, splitter) look agonizingly similar in spin and velocity, and vary only in terms of how much they tail and how far they sink. By throwing them each at least 20 percent of the time, he makes it very difficult for hitters to keep their balance. Carlos Pena becomes the latest victim, flailing at a two-strike splitter and grounding out weakly to short. Also, Iwakuma doesn't walk anyone; at this point, he's thrown 18 strikes to just five balls, and on the year he has the fifth-lowest walk rate — 1.32 every nine innings — among all qualified starters. With two outs, he corners Jimmy Paredes, a lefty, into a 1-2 count. Now tell me: What does he throw, and what does Paredes do? If you answered "splitter" and "weak groundout," you've either been paying attention, or you are Jimmy Paredes.
Keuchel, on the other hand, has a pretty poor walk rate of 3.19/9, and he doesn't strike anyone out. But I should give him more credit; in his last two starts, he's gone 13 innings and given up just three runs. If he manages a third straight quality outing, well ... we'll have to start talking about him. Here, he gets a strikeout against Raul Ibanez, who is batting .171 against lefties and is prone to that kind of thing. Kelly Shoppach breaks the ice with a double, giving the Mariners a chance to score. But Endy Chavez is up, and he's worse than a replacement player, so that doesn't work out.
Third Inning: New nickname idea: ’Uma Blur-man. Cuz when he pitches, it's a blur, plus the Uma Thurman pun. (You don't have to decide on that one right away; let it simmer.) Anyway, 'Uma makes a mistake trying to sneak a straight 2-2 fastball by Matt Dominguez, but gets lucky when the line drive finds Jason Bay in right. A nice battle develops with Marwin Gonzalez, who sends a single into left when Iwakuma's 3-2 splitter fails to drop. Things get adventurous when Barnes lays down a terrible bunt and Brandon Ryan misses a fine throw by Iwakuma. Then Altuve hits a sac fly, a run scores, and suddenly I get the panicky sense that Iwakuma will pitch a gem and still lose 1-0. That's what we in the business call a "Mariner Loss." For more information, ask Doug Fister.
The tricky thing for me with Keuchel is trying to determine where he succeeds and where he benefits from the Mariners' total incompetence. It's not an exact science. For example, Brendan Ryan leads off with a strikeout looking. But Brendan Ryan is objectively awful, to the point that I'm ashamed to share his last name. Still, it was a nice sinking fastball from Keuchel on the inside corner to punch him out, so I don't know whom to credit. Keuchel gets in a jam, but a great slider to Kyle Seager produces a strikeout, and Kendrys Morales grounds out to the mound. Mariner Loss still in play.
Fourth Inning: Watching Seattle's offense is depressing, but Iwakuma is wonderful and I'm glad I picked this game. He sets up Martinez with fastballs and sinkers for a glorious slider strikeout, which is a favorite against righties in two-strike counts. Then he drops in a rare curve (slow as hell at 71 mph) that Pena can only watch in befuddlement, leading to an incredibly weak grounder on a 1-1 splitter. Next he throws Chris Carter a 1-2 slider over the middle before striking him out on a slider diving out of the zone. I'm dropping an m-bomb: masterful.
I just trolled my pal Spike (About Last Night guru and long-suffering Mariners fan) on Gchat by congratulating him on Dustin Ackley's 11-game hitting streak in AAA Tacoma. His response: "Thanks man. Feels good." Lesson: It sucks to be a Mariners fan. Except when ... RAUL IBANEZ HITS A HOME RUN!!! There's hope for Iwakuma yet. Speaking of Mariners home runs, check out this incredible psychic moment from M's color commentator Mike Blowers.
Fifth Inning: After Iwakuma drops a delicious curve on Paredes, he's now thrown a first-pitch strike to 12 of 15 batters. Then he throws a 91-mph fastball up and in, another on the outside corner, and then ... yes, another splitter for a swinging strikeout. I love every minute of this. I suppose this is a good time to note that Iwakuma has a hesitation double-kick move in his delivery, which seems to be pretty standard for Japanese pitchers and is catching on here, too, as we saw last week with Alex Cobb. Along with everything else, it works; he works another perfect inning, and he's through five, allowing just two hits in 70 pitches.
Carlos Triunfel leads off the Mariners half with a single, his first hit of the year after an 0-for-14 start. This seems to indicate the farm system is maintaining the big club's standards. Seager hangs Triunfel out to dry in a rundown, but gets to second himself, and after an error on a Morales groundball, SEATTLE SCORES! Could Iwakuma — GASP — win?
Sixth Inning: Nothing this man throws is easy to hit. Everything is breaking out of the zone, or too high, or (more often) too low. And the crazy thing is, sometimes he just grooves a slider or curve right over the plate, but he seems to know exactly when the hitter isn't expecting it and will just watch it drop. The intelligence doesn't stop there. Against Barnes, he throws a very high fastball on 0-2 to screw with his eye level, and then gets a grounder to short on a low slider.
Just as I say that, Altuve drills a fastball to dead center for a ground-rule double. And it's a Safeco double; could've been gonezo at a different park (Iwakuma's home ERA is 0.96). But he comes back from a 2-0 deficit to get Castro to ground out ON A SPLITTER (in 12 previous full counts against lefties, he used a splitter five times), and then dials it up to 94 mph to strike out Martinez for the third time (fastball, slider, fastball). No sweat.
But this Keuchel fella is resilient, dropping slow curves everywhere against a team that looks like a group of 11-year-olds seeing curves for the first time. (And to be honest, I'm not sure how many fastballs they've seen either.) It's another scoreless inning, Keuchel's last, as it turns out, and it’s still 2-1. You're not getting any breaks, ’Uma Blur-man.
Seventh Inning: I feel like Iwakuma, with 88 pitches, has a max of two innings left (he's exceeded 100 pitches just twice this year, perhaps a product of the Mariners’ caution due to previous shoulder injuries). It certainly doesn't help that Carlos Pena lifts a double to left-center to start things off, guaranteeing that this will be a stressful inning. It's time for 'Kuma to show his true grit. And after a walk to Carter, it's on. Paredes can't lay down a bunt and gets K'ed hard with a nasty splitter. Iwakuma could really use a double-play ball against Dominguez, and damned if Ole Tacoma doesn't fish his wish on a grounder to second. GRITTY, GUTTY, CRAFTY! Trouble over.
With 105 pitches thrown, Iwakuma is done. His ERA is now 1.79, second only to Clay Buchholz among starters in the whole crazy sport. All that remains is to see whether his 'pen can hold the lead.
THUS ENDS THE DUEL. IWAKUMA WINS. (And Seattle holds on!)
We're calling it a 7.6. Great pitching from Iwakuma, decent from Keuchel, but in the end the offenses devalue it just a bit.
This Week's Lesson
Nothing is easy when you're a Mariner.