Hisashi Iwakuma Struggles In Return From DL

After spending two-and-a-half months on the DL, Hisashi Iwakuma made his long awaited return for the Seattle Mariners, Monday at home versus Detroit. It was not a start to remember as the Japanese right-hander had issues with control especially with his offspeed pitches.

Iwakuma cruised through the first inning on just nine pitches and it looked as if he would keep that same command throughout the rest of his outing. That quickly changed in the second, as Nick Castellanos crushed a hanging splitter at 77 MPH into the left field bullpen for the first of four solo home runs given up by Iwakuma.

In the fourth, Victor Martiniez hit another offspeed pitch at 85 MPH for a solo home run which was directly followed by a J.D. Martinez solo shot off of another hanging breaking ball that J.D. didn’t miss. Just to top it off in the sixth, Yoenis Cespedes hit a hanger for Iwakuma’s fourth solo shot given up on the night.

Iwakuma located very well in the first inning, but after that, he struggled to place his pitches effectively in the zone, in total, he gave up five runs on eight hits while striking out three and walking none. Iwakuma did not walk a batter, but throwing strikes is only valuable when they do not catch the fat part of the plate, especially against a potent Tigers’ lineup. With that, he only threw 68 pitches, not testing his stamina.

In his last rehab start in AAA Tacoma, Iwakuma was very efficient with his pitches, drawing just one three-ball count, and Monday he continued to be efficient, but as mentioned earlier, sometimes being too efficient or too precise can come back to bite you especially with the likes of V-Mart, Cespedes, and J.D. Martinez in the opposing lineup.

One thing Detroit showed Monday is that they are very capable of getting the bats going without Miguel Cabrera in the lineup while he is on the DL for the next six weeks or so. The Tigers pounded out 19 hits while scoring 12 runs off of Mariners pitching and every single hit seemed to be hit hard.

The home run hit by J.D. Martinez traveled 435 feet with an exit velocity of 110 MPH according to MLB’s new Statcast. The Tigers were absolutely mashing the ball all around Safeco on Monday night to say the least.

If Iwakuma wants to return to where he was before his injury, he has to be able to locate his off-speed pitches more effectively. As shown tonight, they aren’t pitches that he can reliably get contact outs off of, especially when they are in the strike zone. He has to locate well with the fastball first, and then come back with his breaking stuff in the dirt or off the plate where it isn’t as easy to barrel the ball up and get good contact swings.

The Japanese right-hander has never been overpowering with his fastball as it averages at 90 MPH, which makes location even that much more vital. Bench coach Trent Jewett, who is stepping in for Lloyd McClendon while he is away from the team, even mentioned in his post game presser that locating pitches and getting ahead in counts was one of the most important things to do against this Tigers team.

Iwakuma pitch speed

According to fangraphs.com PITCHf/x, the pitch velocity of Iwakuma has decreased significantly since 2014. Even though Kuma has missed significant time in 2015, it is evident that he has a diminishing fastball velocity which is another reason why his splitter and curveball are that much more important to his success. Plenty of pitchers have dealt with diminishing velocity on their fastballs and have had fairly good success, but they don’t have success if they don’t locate.

This probably isn’t too much of an issue for Iwakuma as he is just coming back from the DL, but if these type of performances continue, Iwakuma could be in a bit of a pinch come 2016 as he is in his final year of his contract in Seattle. He is 34 years old and hasn’t pitched in America for too long as he came over from Japan in 2012.

It’s not as if this is anything new with him in 2015 as coming into the start he had a 6.61 ERA in three starts with just 11 total strikeouts in 16.1 innings on the year before his injury. In 2014, people were saying that he could be an ace on a lot of other clubs around the league, but it looks as if that talk has subsided.

It might be too late at this point, but if the Mariners want to get back in the playoff race, Iwakuma has to step up his game and can’t give up the long ball like he did tonight. They were all solo shots which, if you are going to give up home runs, those are the ones to give up, but you have to count your blessings at some point if you are giving up four home runs in a five-plus inning outing.

Like anything though, it always comes down to the same thing: location, location, location.

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