Hideki Irabu

Hideki Irabu: a strikeout king in Japan, underrated in US

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Hideki Irabu, who passed away this week at age 42, was best known for his failures in the United States.  He forced his way to the Yankees after the Padres originally purchased his rights, only to be dubbed a “fat toad” by George Steinbrenner after a series of disappointing performances.

Irabu, though, was hardly a horrible pitcher for the Yankees.  His career got off to a disastrous start in 1997, as he amassed a 7.09 ERA in nine starts and four relief appearances, and his reputation never really recovered.

However, Irabu was a perfectly adequate starter in his two subsequent years in New York, going 24-16 with a 4.44 ERA.  Now, a 4.44 ERA doesn’t sound like much right now, but back then, it was an above average mark.  He had a 103 ERA+ between 1998-99.  (For comparison’s sake, Michael Pineda, Edwin Jackson and Madison Bumgarner are all sporting ERA+s right around 103 this season).

Unfortunately, that was the end of Irabu’s U.S. contribution.  After being traded to the Expos in Dec. 1999, he went 5-15 with a 6.31 ERA in 118 1/3 innings over three injury-plagued seasons, though he actually did manage to record 16 saves for the Rangers in 2002.

Irabu returned to Japan after that and had a nice 2003 campaign, going 13-8 with a 3.85 ERA before knee pain shut him down early in the 2004 season, causing him to retire.  He attempted comebacks afterwards, and as a 40-year-old in 2009, he went 5-3 with a 3.58 ERA for Long Beach of the Golden Baseball League before again calling it a career.

Irabu ended up 72-69 with a 3.55 ERA in Japan.  He led his league in wins in 1994, in ERA in 1995 and ’96 and in strikeouts in 1994 and ’95.

In MLB, he went 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA.  His strong strikeout rate couldn’t overcome his penchant for giving up homers, as he surrendered 91 longballs in just 514 major league innings.

Irabu did collect two World Series rings with the Yankees.  Still, one can’t help but wonder how much better things would have went for him if he OK’d pitching in San Diego.  Pitching in the NL and Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium would helped him out a bunch, given his flyball tendencies, and Irabu never seemed equipped to deal with the pressures of New York.  He probably wouldn’t have duplicated his Japan League success in San Diego, but he likely would have had some 15-win seasons before injuries struck.

Marlins acquire starter Dan Straily from the Reds

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 3: Dan Straily #58 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch during the first inning of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on September 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
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The Miami Marlins have acquired starting pitcher Dan Straily from the Cincinnati Reds. In exchange, the Reds will receive right-handed pitching prospects Luis Castillo and Austin Brice and outfield prospect Isaiah White.

For the Marlins, they get a solid starter who logged 191.1 innings of 113 ERA+ ball last year. Straily has moved around a lot in his five big league seasons — the Marlins will be his fifth club in six years — but it was something of a breakout year for him in Cincinnati. The only troubling thing: he tied for the league lead in homers allowed. Of course, pitching half of his games in Great American Ballpark didn’t help that, and Miami will be a better place for him.

Castillo is 24. He split last season between high-A and Double-A — far more of it in A-ball — posting a 2.26 ERA over 24 starts. Austin Brice is also 24. He pitched 15 games in relief for the Marlins last year at the big league level with poor results. He seemed to blossom at Triple-A, however, after the Marlins shifted him to the pen. White was a third round pick in the 2015 draft. He played low-A ball as a minor leaguer last year, hitting .214/.306/.301.

A mixed bag of young talent for the Reds, but stockpiling kids and seeing what shakes out is what a team like the Reds should be doing at the moment. For the Marlins: a solid mid-to-back end starter who may just be coming into his own.

Have Hall of Fame Voters actually made the PED thing More complicated?

Sammy Sosa
Associated Press
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The story coming out of this year’s Hall of Fame balloting is that the BBWAA voters are finally easing their antipathy toward players with performance enhancing drug associations.

Jeff Bagwell — the subject of unconfirmed PED rumors — made the Hall! Pudge Rodriguez, who was named in Jose Canseco’s book and who had a . . . curious physical transformation around the time PED testing came online, made it on the first ballot! Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose PED use was well-documented, saw their vote totals advance above the 50% mark, making their future elections look more likely!

It’s an interesting development, and one I’m obviously pleased with, but I wonder if the BBWAA’s new approach to PED guys, while far more forgiving than it used to be, has actually become more complicated in practice.

I ask this because I look way, way down the ballot and I still see Sammy Sosa scraping by with around 8% of the vote. I ask this because I still see Gary Sheffield at 13%. I ask this because when Mark McGwire was on the Today’s Game ballot in December, no one really stumped for him at all. I ask this because, even though Bagwell and Mike Piazza got in eventually, they still had to go through a lot of hazing first and I suspect, if they hit the ballot for the first time again tomorrow, the same arguments and delay would occur with respect to their cases.

In light of that, what I suspect has happened has not been a wholesale surrender of the anti-PED voters. Rather, I think it has been a transformation. One in which a moral test — did he use PEDs or not? — has been discarded as a threshold question and a scientific/physiological test — would he have been great even without the PEDs? — has replaced it. In essence, voters are becoming “PED discounters” in the aggregate. Making calculations as to whether a guy was, in their mind, a creation of PEDs or not.

Such an approach explains these new voting patterns as well as those in recent years.

  • Ivan Rodriguez may have been called out by Canseco and may have noticeably shrunk over an offseason, but his calling card was his defense behind the plate and voters, I suspect, have told themselves that such a thing is not PED-aided.
  • Bonds and Clemens may have been PED users, but each of them was undeniably talented and, if you discount for the PED use, hey, they’re still all-time greats.
  • Sammy Sosa’s case rests disproportionately on homers and, as everyone knows, PEDs = instant dingers, so no, he’s not gonna cut it.

And so on.

As I said, I’m glad that the strict moral test — did he use or not? — is losing its hold on Hall voters. But I do not think the “did PEDs make him who he was test?” is a good approach either. Baseball writers are in no better a position to assess the physiological and performance enhancements caused by pharmaceuticals than they are to be judges of character and morality. Given the identities of players confirmed to be PED users, the old eye test implicit in these cases is famously faulty (Neifi Perez, anyone?). The idea that PEDs only affect home run totals — and not, say, the ability for a player to take the abuse of the catcher position for 21 seasons — is crude and ignorant.

I suppose it’s naive to expect voters to completely disregard PEDs in their assessment of players. It’s a bell that cannot be unrung. But while we may, thankfully, be moving away from a moral test with respect to drugs, it’s been displaced by a scientific test that is no more reasonable in practice.