A Tribute to Akinori Iwamura | The Process Report

A Tribute to Akinori Iwamura

Note: Reports have Akinori Iwamura returning to Japan and likely ending his North American baseball career.

The Rays winning the right to negotiate with Akinori Iwamura’s with a mere $4.5 million bid remains a victory in the Book of Friedman. Something I did not know then that I wish I did is that $4.5 million (essentially) was the cost of a win on the open market. The Rays paid that, then agreed to a three-year deal (worth $7.7 million) with the then 27-year-old. Something I did not know then that I wish I did is how great that contract was.

A lot was made of Iwamura’s flamboyant personality throughout the negotiating process. It was only natural that the man who hailed from a town known for its illustrious phallus monument went about his business in a cocky manner. The beautiful juxtaposition in personality between Iwamura and the other big Japanese free agent – pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka – became more evident by the day. Iwamura’s nickname in Japan was Top Gun 1. He dyed his hair weekly. He smoked cigarettes and named his dog Nuts. He arrived with sunglasses that featured a built-in MP3 player, wristbands with his image portrayed, and jokes about his pending delivery of gloves made from ray skin and multi-colored bats.

Those jokes were anything but. The bats would later be disposed of – even Iwamura found the contrasting gold, green, and black color scheme too much to bear – but the glove stuck around. Boy did it ever. His rookie season at third base was a culture shock. Not for Iwamura, who seemed to fit in just fine, but for the fan base. During the 2006 season, the Rays had run the gauntlet on defensively inept third basemen. Aubrey Huff lacked the reactions required to play the hot corner. Ty Wigginton and Russell Branyan lacked the laterality. The only laterality Tomas Perez had involved shaving cream pies. B.J. Upton had the tools and the highlights, just not the consistency in throwing accuracy. Even Toby Hall and Sean Burroughs got cracks at third base.

Iwamura had the quicks and the arm accuracy. He did lack in arm strength with his projected range enhanced by his stellar reaction time, but he certainly looked better than the priors did. He’d make diving stops, charging scoops, and flashy grabs on a routine basis. His reflexes very well might have roots dating back to a feline which were transfused to Iwamura as a child in some freakish accident. That’s how fast Iwamura’s feet were.

Flexibility really might have been Iwamura’s best asset. Not just in the physical sense. With Evan Longoria on the way and no legitimate second basemen on the roster, Iwamura began taking fielding practice at the position late in the 2007 season. He then started the season finale at the position and looked just fine. He’d man second base throughout the 2008 season and (of course) recorded the most famous out in franchise history. There was a time during the Iwamura’s early Rays’ career where he also boasted about being the team’s best defensive shortstop. Given the company, he was probably correct.

The Top Five Plays in Iwamura’s Rays Career
Blue indicatesthe play gave the Rays the lead

He hit too. Not right away, at least not in spring training. Once the season began, though, so too did Iwamua’s hitting; thus allowing Dewayne Staats to coin the term “Aki-knock” and later allow the Rays to give out thunderstix during a home game – similar to the ones given away at games in Iwamura’s native Japan. The comparisons never fit try as they might to compare his approach to countryman Ichiro Suzuki. Both featured fantastic bat control (although Suzuki’s is probably beyond fantastic), but Iwamura was never going to record 200 hits in a season. Iwamura’s game was more focused on getting on base through walking and grinding out at-bats. He even began his career by reaching base in 12 consecutive games.

That streak occurred while batting in the lower half of the lineup. Joe Maddon placed him at leadoff on June 2nd, 2007 with a line of .370/.483/.507. The rest of his 101 starts in 2007 came from the leadoff spot, with a .336 on-base percentage being the result. Iwamura would lead off in each of his 151 starts in 2008 too while reaching base 34.9% of the time. The 2009 season would begin with one more start at leadoff, running Iwamura’s streak to 253 consecutive starts while batting leadoff, before he moved to the ninth spot in game two. (At the time, Maddon was making due with a platoon at the top between Iwamura (against righties) and Jason Bartlett (against lefties) until Upton returned from the disabled list.)

That 2009 season was on pace to be his best offensively before Chris Coghlan slid aggressively into second base and took out Iwamura’s knee. At the time of the injury, Iwamura’s line sat at .310/.377/.406. He’d return in late August and struggle to a weak finish; hitting only .250/.310/.355 over 84 plate appearances while moving up and down the order. There’s that flexibility again.

The Rays would exercise Iwamura’s option before trading him to Pittsburgh for Jesse Chavez. The deal looked like a loss on paper (although the Rays then moving Chavez for Rafael Soriano helped to amend the original deal) but turned out to be a wash. Iwamura struggled in Pittsburgh and found himself playing for the Oakland Athletics before the season ended. Never showing the same ability that made him a fan favorite in Tampa Bay.

Iwamura’s Rays’ legacy is a fond one indeed. His .354 on-base percentage with the team ranks fifth all-time for players with more than 1,000 career plate appearances with the organization. He only trails Fred McGriff, Carlos Pena, Ben Grieve, and Evan Longoria; all players with slugging percentages higher than Iwamura (and with the exception of Grieve, all with substantial differences).

Iwamura has ostensibly played his final game in the majors. He turns 32 in February and seems unlikely to return after his Japanese contract expires. Was the signing a success? Undoubtedly. Iwamura made roughly $12 million with another $4.5 million required for negotiation purposes, pushing his total expenses to roughly $17 million. Even so, FanGraphs’ values his performances from 2007-2010 at a little more than $20 million; thus turning a surplus. Not too bad for someone who did not receive a grandiose amount of hype nor garner a bidding war of nuclear proportions.

Whether a return to his home continent will rekindle Iwamura’s bat is to be determined, but here’s hoping he gets a rockstar welcome.

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