Ichiro Suzuki, of course, headlines that source, but the Mariners have also struck gold over the years with closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, middle reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, catcher Kenji Johjima and who could forget the dancing fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki.
Following a tentative start last year, Hisashi Iwakuma is well on his way to becoming a force with the Mariners alongside these previous four Japanese stars.
Admittedly, the Mariners have also had some poor results with other Japanese pitching experiments in Mac Suzuki and Masao Kida, but Iwakuma’s circumstances and qualities elevate him over these others when it comes to establishing his success in North America.
He came to MLB as an older pitcher who had already experienced success in the ichigun (Japanese major leagues) just like Hasegawa and Sasaki.
Hasegawa was 28 years old when he initially signed with the Anaheim Angels, Sasaki was 32 when he joined the Mariners and Iwakuma arrived at 31.
Mac Suzuki, in contrast, had a great deal of raw, physical ability but joined Seattle as a 21 year old who had already been sent away by his parents at 16 due to poor behavior in high school.
Maturity is key for integration in North America for the vast majority of foreign players and is especially true of Asian players whose upbringing is so different on all cultural levels, from simple issues such as meals to greater complications including training approaches and methods.
Iwakuma is a rare physical specimen in comparison with other Japanese imports. He is listed with the team at 6’3” and 210 lbs, which is well above typical Japanese size, and he can still hit the radar at the mid-90’s despite a change in his mechanics over time due to past shoulder issues.
He is also well conditioned, having grown up in a Japanese system focusing on great fundamentals day after day.
A Japanese boy will practice as many as 6 days a week, for up to 8 hours at a time building their skills.
Iwakuma also played for a smaller school that never made the Koshien — the semi-annual high school tournament where pitchers may throw as many as 600 to 700 pitches in a few short days.
The wear and tear of this tournament (which players are eligible for up to five times) has been cited as a major contribution to the breakdown of promising players such as the Yankees’ Kei Igawa and Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka in their later years.
Iwakuma did not suffer the strains on his body to a similar degree as a younger player, and he also pitched less in the Japanese major leagues than other imports.
These factors, coupled with Iwakuma’s strong mental approach to the game, have seen him blossom in his second year with the Mariners to the point where Felix Hernandez might just have some real competition as the team’s top pitcher at the end of year awards.