"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Bwana Igawa?

It’s just been announced that the Yankees have won the right to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa, who was posted by the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Central League. The winning bid, alternately reported as $25 and $26 million, was actually $26,000,194 (the 194 being Igawa’s 2006 strikeout total). The losing bids are not announced, though word has leaked out that the Mets had bid $15 or $16 million and the Padres had also placed an eight-figure bid. The Mariners, Orioles, Giants, and World Champion Cardinals were among the other teams believed to have been interested in Igawa. The Yankees will have until midnight on December 28 to sign Igawa. Should they fail to do so, they will not have to pay the bid amount.

So who the hell is Kei Igawa? He’s a 27-year-old left-handed starting pitcher. His best pitch is said to be his curve ball, though some reports say that the pitch is actually a change-up that drops like a curve. He also has a slider in the low 80s and a 90-mile-per-hour fastball. With that repertoire he has lead the Central League in strikeouts in three of the last five years, won the Central League MVP award in 2003 (20-5, 2.80 ERA), and lead the Tigers to two Central League pennants (though Hanshin lost in the Japan Series both times). As is often the case with curveballers, however, he’s quite susceptible to the longball, surrendering a whopping 52 over the 2004 and 2005 seasons combined–this in the Central League’s short 146-game season.

According to this scouting report, however, Igawa made a major adjustment in 2006 that helped to reduce his susceptibility to the home run. Here’s the relevant passage:

He’s finally figured out that the [straight, 88-90 MPH] fastball is a gopher pitch when centered and overexposed so he’ll go to it less often (will throw it down the middle when he’s confident the hitter is unbalanced) and try to spot on the corners or miss out of the zone with it when he isn’t sure if the hitter is sitting on it. This adjustment is HUGE, as he has finally learned to pitch backwards and mix his pitches better (which he MUST do in America) in 2006 and its making him a far better bet to succeed in the transition to MLB. If Igawa were to pitch the way he pitched pre-2006 in the big leagues (aggressively with his straight 89 mph fastball), he wouldn’t have been very successful despite the great K/BB ratios. Preseason Igawa wasn’t as attractive of an option, but 2006 answered a lot of questions.

Indeed, his 2006 statistics support that analysis. In 2004 and 2005 combined, Igawa surrendered 1.26 homers per nine innings. In 2006, he allowed just 0.73 homers per nine innings. He also walked a career low 2.11 men per nine innings in 2006, which is an important sign as another knock on Igawa is that he has the sort of controlled wildness that could lead to a spike in his walk rate stateside. As for that “great K/BB ratio,” his career mark is 2.97 K/BB, which is excellent, but not quite “great” (Mike Mussina’s 3.58 career K/BB is a better example of “great”).

With those caveats, Igawa compares quite favorably to his infinitely more celebrated countryman, Daisuke Matsuzaka, as this quick tale of the tape shows:

Name Kei Igawa Daisuke Matsusaka
Winning Bidder Yankees Red Sox
Winning Bid $26,000,194 $51,111,111.11
Throws L R
Height 6’2″ 6’1″
Weight 200 187
Age 27 26
Seasons 7 7
IP 1244 1402
ERA 3.15 2.95
K/9 8.49 8.70
BB/9 2.86 3.23
K/BB 2.97 2.70
HR/9 0.84 0.72
H/9 8.31 7.07
WHIP 1.24 1.14
Sawamura Award 2003 (tie) 2001
Pennants 2 2
Championships 0 1

According to those numbers, Matsuzaka is the better pitcher, but not by much. His advantage in home run rate suggests that he induces weaker contact, but absent Japanese batting averages on balls in play, one wonders if the reduced hit rate which gives Matsuzaka his biggest advantage over Igawa isn’t in part attributable to the Seibu Lions’ defense. If so, it would make the gap between the two even smaller. Of course, just because Igawa compares favorably to Matsuzaka doesn’t mean either will succeed in the AL East, but it seems that the Yankees have done a solid job of keeping up with the Joneses here, and for a fraction of the price.

Speaking of which, Igawa–who is represented by Arm Tellum, who recently negotiated new contracts with the Yankees for his clients Mike Mussina and Hideki Matsui, and also represents Jason Giambi–is said to be looking for a three-year deal worth $6 to $7 million per year. That’s tremendously reasonable given his age and track record and the current marketplace. Of course, when you throw in the bid amount the Yankees could wind up spending nearly $48 million for three years of Igawa. Still, if you consider Igawa a potential number two or three in the rotation (a big if, but stay with me here) it’s a discount over the other top pitchers in the market. You can throw out Matsuzaka right away as the Red Sox’s bid alone is greater than that $48 million estimate for Igawa’s bid and contract. Instead let’s consider Jason Schmidt and Barry Zito. The Cubs have reportedly offered Jason Schmidt a three-year contract worth $44 million, a contract which, after the luxury tax, would cost a multiple offender such as the Yankees $61.6 million. In contrast, the Yankees don’t have to pay tax on the bid for the right to negotiate with Igawa, only on his resultant contract. The luxury tax penalty on a $21 million contract for Igawa is $8.4 million. Adding the contract and tax to the untaxed bid results in a total of $55.4 million, a $6.2 million savings for a younger, healthier pitcher, and that doesn’t even take into account the fact that some reports have the Cubs offer to Schmidt including a vesting option for a fourth year, and that Schmidt may yet turn it down in search of more. Barry Zito, a younger, healthier pitcher than Schmidt, will likely demand an even longer deal for even more money.

Of course, that math is based on a lot of speculation, both about the three pitchers’ contract demands and about Igawa’s ability to succeed in the major leagues, but it’s certainly possible that the Yankees are not overspending wildly here, especially as they have the ability to step away without losing a dime should Igawa’s contract demands become unreasonable. That said, I expect the Yankees will reach an agreement with Igawa, and that this move will allow them to avoid dipping into the domestic free agent market for another starting pitcher.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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