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Imanga Off To Historic Start

This Friday, Shōta Imanaga will take the mound for the 10th start of his MLB career. It’s a special one because it’s his first against the Cubs’ eternal rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, but otherwise, the 10th start of one’s career is usually a fairly nondescript occasion- just the start of something much bigger, if all is to go well. 

However, for Imanaga, this start carries just a little bit more weight. That’s because through nine outings, he’s achieved something nobody ever has- an ERA of 0.84, the lowest-ever through the first nine starts of a pitcher’s MLB career. That’s right, no “since 1901” stipulations or anything of a sort; the lowest ever.

Perhaps the most interesting part isn’t even that Imanaga is doing this in not only his first year in the MLB, but in the American baseball system as a whole, after tearing it up in Japan’s NPB for eight seasons. Rather, it’s the style with which he’s dominating; old-school precision pitching, no power to speak of. In today’s age of high velocity, it’s positively refreshing to see the league’s hottest arm throwing anything other than heat. 

Imanaga’s fastball velocity is in the 18th percentile, and at just around 92 miles per hour, it’s hard to believe it’s not even lower on the totem pole in this day and age. However, according to Baseball Savant, his fastball run value is a tidy 100th percentile- the best of the best. Imanaga throws four pitches with solid command, but 91% of his throws are either that four-seamer- used 58% of the time- and a split-finger that checks in at around 83 miles per hour on average.

It’s not like Imanaga is striking batters out at an outrageous rate. As of now, he’s punching out 9.7 batters per 9 innings, a strong but not remotely historic number. What he is doing extremely well is putting hitters in bad situations; with a 96th percentile chase rate and 86th percentile chase rate, he’s able to put hitters in 0-1 and two-strike situations routinely. He also isn’t giving anything up for free, with a 90th percentile walk rate, en route to a league-best 2.21 FIP, even without crazy strikeout or home run numbers. 

The question is just how sustainable all of this is. Imanaga’s dominance is about strategy and savvy much more than it’s about stuff- that inherently seems like something that can be adjusted to, with the proper preparation, especially when it’s a lefty arm. There also has been some luck- Imanaga’s FIP and xERA numbers are outstanding, but in the mid-2.00 range, they’re nowhere close to that 0.84 ERA figure he’s putting up.

The good news is that Imanaga’s old-school approach should protect him from the current wave of elbow injuries; he’s not putting the torque on his arm that some of these fireballers are. This is huge for the Cubs, as they’ve invested in him at the age of 30, near a point at which many of the best arms begin to taper off a bit. Since he doesn’t rely on arm talent, so to speak, operating as a master of control instead, Imanaga should be able to pitch at his current level for some time, if not even improve as he learns more about the MLB game. His knowledge should grow faster than his arm deteriorates, so it’s possible that the best is very much yet to come. 

So, Cubs fans can only hope that not only will Imanaga’s 10th start be special in and of itself, but also what it is for a less special pitcher- only the beginning, and a sign of even greater things to come.


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