Monday, February 19, 2007

How Good is Kei Igawa?

Kei Igawa is our biggest wildcard for the 2007 season. The Yankees invested almost 50 million dollars in him, and expect him to perform. He's no Daisuke Matsuzaka, but what can we expect from Kei Igawa?

This is a lot harder to predict than Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, or Chris Britton. Igawa throws an 89-92 mph fastball, a plus changeup, an above average curvebal and an average sliderl. He has average command, maybe a little better. If he didn't throw with his left hand, no one would give him a second look.

However, the Yankees thought that Igawa was worth a posting fee twice the size of Ichiro Suzuki's prior to the 2001 season. Why were they so confident? Igawa posted some very good looking numbers in Japan. In 1,244 NPB innings, he struck out 1,174 batters and posted a 3.15 ERA. However, that ERA is skewed by two bad years in 2004 and 2005, where he posted ERAs over 3.73 and saw his strikeouts dip. His ERA held under 3.00 for every other year in his career, and Igawa led his league in strikeouts three times. Afte the two poor seasons, he rebounded to post a 2.97 ERA, and 194 strikeouts in 204 innings. He consistently posted K/BB ratios above 3.50.

Let's put these numbers in perspective here. First off, strikeouts are a little harder to come by in Japan. Japanese hitters tend to make contact much more than major league hitters. As a result, they don't hit a lot of extra base hits, and pitchers overall find it easier to prevent runs than in the MLB. If the level of competition in Japan is equal to somewhere between AA and AAA, Igawa's 2006 would be about equal to posting a mid-3s ERA in the International League, while his bad seasons would be about equal to a high-4s ERA.

I don't know what to think about Igawa. Although he looks absolutely badass, there isn't a whole lot very special about him. But he's a lefty, and has four major league average or better pitches with average command and no makeup problems. Coupled with his impressive statistical record, I think that Igawa will overcome his lack of velocity or incredible command and be an above average to average pitcher.

But didn't Hideki Irabu look like that too? Irabu had major control problems, even in Japan. He would walk 30-40% more batters than Igawa currently does. In addition, Irabu wasn't all that bad when he was healthy. He was a valued member of the 1998 squad. Being a lefty doesn't hurt Igawa either. In the end, I think that we have to trust the Yankee front office staff a little bit. They spent 26 million dollars on a player who has never played in American, so I think Cashman has to have some confidence in him. Considering the luxery tax, Igawa's contract could be a real value. Igawa costs the Yankees 10.8 million per season including the 40% tax, equal to a 5 year, 32.4 million dollar contract signed by a normal free agent. Considering that Ted Lilly cost a decent amount more than that, this is a good deal.

I'm not going to bother with the projection systems on this one. Igawa is a wild card in every sense of the word, and regression analysis won't get us far. I predict:

31 starts, 186 innings, 172 strikeouts, 72 walks, 4.34 ERA.

I'm a little more optimistic than most, but in the end I expect to be right.