The last few weeks I have turned my attention to the WBC and some interesting pitchers we normally don’t get to see. This week we look at Korea and Japan, the two teams who dominated play in this year’s WBC. Japan, the champion again after its 5-3 victory Monday night, was led by several players currently in the major leagues. Korea had only Shin-Soo Choo currently playing in the states and all but three of its pitchers came from the Korean league. While MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka dominated again in this WBC, we will focus on pitchers who haven’t pitched stateside before. Remember, all these pitchers are preparing for their leagues as well, so don’t be surprised if their fastball speeds are a tick below other scouting reports.
Hisashi Iwakuma, Team Japan
Hisashi Iwakuma, soon to be 28, is a right hander for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles who pitched effectively as the starter in the championship game. Iwakuma won the Sawamura Award (best starting pitcher) and the Pacific League MVP last year and is in the prime of his career. He had an eye-popping 159/36 K/BB ratio last year in 201.2 innings (remember the Japanese leagues tend to have reduced strikeouts) and an ERA under two. Iwakuma is the real deal, as his movement chart shows.
Iwakuma throws five pitches: fastball, sinker, splitter, slider and curveball. His fastball average speed is 91 mph, which is basically major league average, with some solid movement. This is about a league average, maybe a bit better, pitch. His sinker is around 90 mph with some nice horizontal movement in to a right-handed batter but not a lot of sink. Iwakuma has used this pitch exclusively to right-handed batters in the WBC, running it in under their hands and I expect it would be a useful pitch in the big leagues as well. What separates Iwakuma from other pitchers, though, is his exceptional off-speed pitches.
Iwakuma’s best pitch, in my opinion, is his splitter. He hides it well, with horizontal movement in between his sinker and fastball, with more than half a foot more sink than his fastball. Combine that with a decent 5 mph speed differential and you have an awesome weapon, especially against right-handed batters. While not a lot of pitchers throw change-ups to similarly handed batters, splitters that don’t move in, in comparison to the fastball, are a nice pitch against those hitters. Not only do hitters see few of these pitches during the year, but the downward movement can help keep the ball low. This pitch would play in the big leagues.
His slider is also a plus pitch, with okay horizontal movement and plus vertical drop. This too is an extremely effective pitch against right-handed batters and he threw his slider more than any other pitch against them in the WBC. His curve is rather slurvy and has a very large 20 mph speed differential, with more horizontal movement, than vertical movement. Ideally, he either would tighten his curve up or get a little more movement with it.
Iwakuma is an interesting pitcher in part because he threw his fastball and sinker only a combined 32 percent of the time during the WBC. It isn’t that his fastballs are bad, but they aren’t as superior as his off-speed pitches and he plays to his strength. The question: How would that do in the States? Some pitchers do pitch like that, but the average fastball percentage is closer to two-thirds rather than the one-third here. Also, Iwakuma’s stuff really seems to work well against right-handed hitters. I can’t find a platoon split for him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was rather large. It isn’t that he can’t be effective against lefties, but all of his off-speed pitches do better against right-handed batters.
Kyuji Fujikawa, Team Japan
Kyuji Fujikawa is a 29-year-old right-handed closer for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. Like Iwakuma, Fujikawa dominated last year to the tune of 38 saves, 0.67 ERA and 90/13 K/BB ratio in 67.2 innings. It was the fourth straight year Fujikawa had posted an ERA under two, so this isn’t a flash in the pan. So the numbers are great, but what about his stuff?
Fujikawa’s fastball averaged 92 mph during the WBC, which is lower than what he reportedly throws during the season. The interesting thing about his fastball is the huge vertical movement it possesses, more than a foot compared to a ball thrown without spin. Few major league pitchers get so much “rise” with their fastballs, though it is a bit uncertain how much benefit that actually provides. In any case, with a fastball with so much “rise” to it, it appears that Fujikawa works up in the zone with that pitch a lot and, unlike Iwakuma, relies heavily on his fastball to get hitters out. While he’s been dominant in Japan, there are serious questions how that would play in the states. I’d like the pitch a lot more at 94 mph than 92.
Fujikawa also throws a splitter, his out pitch. Fujikawa’s speed differential is almost 10 mph from his fastball and it doesn’t hide quite as well in his fastball as does Iwakuma’s, but it is a plus pitch. Like Iwakuma, he isn’t afraid to throw that pitch to right-handed batters and it likely is very effective against them.
I am lukewarm on Fujikawa’s curve. The five he threw were all over the map with movement. The three that are clustered near zero horizontal movement were rather 12 to 6, but without a lot of actual vertical movement. The pitch was 20 mph slower than his fastball, so I would describe it as more looping than a harder hammer you see from most 12 to 6 guys. The other two had almost no vertical drop; I would describe them as sweeping. I don’t think the sweeping curve would be very effective in the States. The looping curve might be okay, but what I would like to see from Fujikawa is a nice hard hammer.
Because he is throwing up in the zone a lot with his fastball, a hard 12 to 6 curve would be hidden well. With a pitch like that, I think Fujikawa could be very effective in the States, but without it I don’t think he would be a top-flight closer.
Jung Keun Bong, Team Korea
Bong is a name you may recognize. He pitched for the Braves and Reds until he injured his arm and was released by the Reds in 2005. In 2006, he signed a contract to pitch back in Korea and put together a nice season in 2008. Bong is now 29, so time isn’t exactly on his side. That said, it appears that his stuff has mostly returned. He started for Korea Monday.
Bong is averaging 92 mph with his fastball, which has some nice horizontal movement away from right-handed batters. His best off-speed pitch is his change-up (he might call it a splitter; it is right on the edge), which appears to have a rather wide band in vertical movement. Whenever you see something like this, it is hard to determine if the pitcher is doing it on purpose. If you see it with someone like Greg Maddux, then he likely has good control over how much spin he is putting on the ball, but Bong’s problem in the big leagues was control, so maybe not so much with him.
In any case, his change-up is about 14 mph slower than his fastball, and that would grade out rather well in the big leagues. Interestingly, Bong is very willing to throw that change-up to left handed hitters, something almost no lefty in the big leagues does with the notable exception of Tom Glavine. Bong’s curve is 11 to 5, but with some solid movement. That could be an okay pitch in the big leagues.
I’d like to see some more fastballs from Bong, who does have a good one and his change-up could be a nice pitch as well. It is unlikely he will get a chance to pitch in the States again, but I think he could be an okay long reliever if he ever got that chance.
Hyun-jin Ryu, Team Korea
Ryu is a 21-year-old left-handed starter for Korea whose history reads like a 31-year-old’s. In high school, he had Tommy John surgery and after basically dominating the Korean Baseball Organization, he again had some arm issues in 2008. He has been worked hard in his few years in the KBO. He has been a mainstay for Korea in international competitions, helping his team win the gold medal in the last Olympics. Ryu’s stuff is also quite impressive.
Ryu’s fastball is basically as close to MLB average as a pitch can get: 91.7 mph with about five inches of horizontal movement and 11 inches vertically. Ryu hasn’t thrown that fastball much, however, just about 50 percent of the time in the WBC. Ryu throws a nice circle change-up, which you can see because it moves down and away from right-handed hitters compared to his fastball. Ryu gets about a league average speed differential with that pitch and he correctly uses it extensively against right-handed hitters.
Ryu’s slider and curveball are also nice pitches. His slider doesn’t have a lot of horizontal movement, but good downward vertical movement, helping him keep it low and away to left-handed hitters. His curve features some nice vertical drop and is about 15 mph slower than his fastball, which is much more in line with the kind of curves you see in the big leagues.
Ryu has about average big league stuff. With the right guidance, he certainly has the tools to be a solid major league pitcher. Sadly, I don’t think he is likely to be given that opportunity because of his injuries and previous overwork. I would have my doubts investing in a 21-year-old who already has needed surgery. It is clear that he already has mastered the KBO, so if he is going to progress more as a pitcher, tougher competition would help. Japan seems like a reasonable option and, if he can stay healthy, maybe in a few years he might to make his way stateside.
References & Resources
And with that we wrap up the WBC and I wrap up my time as a Hardball Times writer. It has been a great year and a half, and I’d like to thank everyone at THT for their help and encouragement, but a few in particular. Jeff Sackmann encouraged my early baseball analysis when I began posting on his blog. Dave Studeman gave me an opportunity to contribute to a first-class outfit when I had only a few months of blogging under my belt. Joe Distelheim, who edited the majority of my articles here. I know it was tough in the beginning for Joe, but he really helped me improve as a writer. And lastly, you the reader. Many of my articles came from suggestions from you, and your comments both at ballhype and over e-mail were a tremendous help.