PEORIA, Ariz. — Even with spring training starting earlier and running longer this season because of the World Baseball Classic, Hisashi Iwakuma arrived to the Mariners complex on Feb. 8 — a week ahead of the first official workout.
The veteran right-hander went to work the next day, continuing his meticulous preparation, which started early in the offseason, to prepare for the 2017 campaign.
It’s not typical for an established experienced starter like Iwakuma to report so early. But Iwakuma’s preparation isn’t exactly typical for most pitchers. He has a thought-out and planned-out routine to get himself ready for each season. It has been honed and perfected during his time pitching in Japan and in his five-year tenure with the Mariners. And if getting to the complex a week earlier than the rest of the starting rotation was necessary, then so be it.
“I’m very excited,” he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “I’m very motivated. I have a lot of hope for this year. I’m looking forward to this season.”
The motivation and hope are fueled by a 2016 season that saw him lead the Mariners in wins (16), games started (33), innings pitched (199) and strikeouts (147). After injury issues in seasons past, Iwakuma avoided the disabled list.
“First and foremost, last year I was able to pitch 33 games — a full season,” he said. “And I’m happy for that. That’s what you want to do as a starter. Being able to do that, you help your team a lot. I look forward to doing that again.”
It’s why he spent much of the offseason in Los Angeles training and then came to Arizona early this year. It’s all part of his preparation.
“Kuma takes his offseason as serious as anybody and he has been here earlier than he was last year,” manager Scott Servais said. “I think he wants to show people he can carry that workload. It’s hard for him especially where he was in his career. We got probably more out of him than we expected, which is great. We certainly needed it. He wants to back it up again this year. It doesn’t surprise me.”
With Felix Hernandez missing almost seven weeks on the disabled list with a calf injury and dealing with command issues, Iwakuma was the Mariners best starting pitcher. But his season wasn’t perfect.
He got off to a bit of shaky start, going 1-4 with a 4.38 ERA in his first eight starts. But a week before Hernandez strained his calf, Iwakuma started a 2 1/2 month stretch where he made 16 starts and posted a 13-3 record with a 3.58 ERA. In 100 2/3 innings pitched, he struck out 75 and walked just 19.
“He really carried us, especially when Felix went down and we were struggling to get consistent innings out of our starters,” Servais said. “He was our most consistent guy. I know Mel (Stottlemyre) appreciated it, I did and our bullpen did on the nights he was out there.”
However, Iwakuma started to show signs of fatigue as the season started to grind down at the end. He dropped four straight decisions, starting with an outing on Aug. 18. Over his final nine starts, he posted a 2-5 record with a 4.96 ERA, including three starts where he never made it past the fourth inning. At age 35 with plenty of innings logged in his career, it wasn’t completely unexpected. He’d thrown just 129 innings the season before.
“I know he was disappointed in his last outing of the year,” Servais said of the loss to the A’s in game No. 161 that eliminated Seattle from the postseason. “It wasn’t what we’d seen before. I think he did get a little fatigued at the end.”
Ideally, Servais would like to get Iwakuma an extra day of rest between starts every so often during the season. That extra day can be beneficial. He wouldn’t go as far as to say he’d planned for times to skip Iwakuma in the rotation for added rest.
“It certainly helps,” Servais said of the extra days. “I know Kuma appreciates it. Coming from Japan, I know his outings were spread out a little bit more. But he’s been here long enough playing that he understands the five-day rotation and how it works. It’s just how the schedule falls. I don’t want to get ahead of it and say we are going to do this (skip a start) or going to do that. We have to wait and see how it plays out. You can control it.”
Iwakuma didn’t spend too much time dwelling on the late struggles and wasn’t certain if he was fatigued. But it’s something that he’s thinking about now in his preparation.
“I’ve had good Septembers,” he said. “I’ve had bad Septembers. But overall just going forward, that’s another thing I need to work on — having a good September and finishing strong. That’s what I hope for this year.”
Part of that focus on the upcoming season was eschewing an invitation to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. Iwakuma pitched on Japan’s WBC winning team in 2009. But opted not to pitch in 2012.
“It’s always an honor to pitch for your country, and I’ve done that before,” he said. “But this year, my priority was to pitch here and get ready here for a long season and pitch 33 games again. That’s what I chose.”
Iwakuma turns 36 in April. He’s shown the ability to adapt to the MLB schedule of pitching, decreased velocity over time and hitter’s having a scouting report on him.
“You have to be flexible in your mind and you have to be able make adjustments every year,” he said. “Having that confidence in making adjustments has helped me each season.”
It would lead to more success for him and ultimately the Mariners.
“Sixteen wins was great, but I look forward to more than that this year,” he said. “I don’t have a goal yet, but just staying healthy for an entire season and helping the team, contributing is all I think about.”