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Through six starts, new Cubs ace Shota Imanaga has been the best pitcher in MLB

Through six starts, new Cubs ace Shota Imanaga has been the best pitcher in MLB

NEW YORK — Ask a Chicago Cub about Shota Imanaga, and their eyes get wide.

It’s a look of awe, appreciation, affection, reverence, confusion, surprise. And also gratitude, gratitude that Imanaga pitches for their ballclub and not another. That’s because just a month into this new season, the 30-year-old Japanese rookie has established himself as one of the most unique and dominant pitchers in the sport.

On Wednesday in Queens, Imanaga showed the best of himself once again, carving apart the New York Mets across seven scoreless innings. He struck out seven and walked one on only 87 pitches. At no point did the Cubs left-hander look the slightest bit perturbed. No Met reached third base against him.

And the visitors needed every last out from their starter. Chicago escaped with a 1-0 victory after Pete Alonso was thrown out at home to end the game while trying to score on a sacrifice fly.

Imanaga’s performance Wednesday was the continuation of a scintillating start to his big-league career. After eight seasons as one of the best pitchers in the NPB, Japan’s top league, the former Yokohama Baystars ace decided to make the trans-Pacific leap this past winter, and the Cubs doled out a four-year, $53 million dollar contract, plus a $9.825 million fee to the Baystars, to secure his services.

So far that looks like a phenomenal investment.

In his first six starts as a major leaguer, the Japanese hurler has allowed only three earned runs across 34 2/3 innings. His ERA sits at a crisp 0.78, the lowest in MLB. He has tallied a strikeout per inning. And he has made it all look disconcertingly easy. The Cubs, currently without injured ace Justin Steele, have won all six of Imanaga’s starts.

Imanaga’s electric outing against the Mets was all the more impressive considering that his fastball velocity was a mile per hour softer than his season average. That the stocky southpaw was able to cruise without his usual zip speaks to his magnificent command, his dastardly splitter and his steady poise. Above all, it further confirms that it is the shape — not the speed — of Imanaga’s heater that makes the pitch, and Imanaga himself, a total unicorn.

Cubs catcher Yan Gomes compared it to a pitching machine.

“You know, the first couple times when you try to hit off an Iron Mike?” he said. “And you can’t quite get to it? You keep getting under it, fouling it back? [Imanaga’s fastball] is the same thing. It just gets there faster than you think.”

Gravity pushes everything toward the earth, fastballs included. As a sphere hurdles toward home plate, gravity is pushing it downward over the course of its journey. However, the speed and axis of a fastball’s spin can fight against gravity’s wrath, causing a phenomenon known as “ride” or “carry.” A heater with carry is effective, particularly at the top of the strike zone, because it stays on plane and drops much less than a hitter expects. And when an “on plane” fastball comes from a lower release point, it amplifies that rising effect.

Imanaga’s fastball, which he throws about 58% of the time, is a pristine example of this. The average velocity on his heater is 92.3 mph, which is in the 23rd percentile league-wide. Yet Imanaga’s four-seam fastball has graded out as the single most valuable pitch in the sport, according to Baseball Savant’s run value metric. As a group, MLB hitters have a .245 batting average and a .410 slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs; opponents are hitting .137 and slugging .233 against Imanaga’s special heater.

“We really liked his fastball shape,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer told the media before Wednesday's game. “I think he's done a great job of playing the high/low game, with fastballs up and splitters down.”

While Imanaga’s fastball shape has been fundamental to his early success, there’s much more to it. He commands the pitch superbly, locating it at the top of the zone for called strikes and just above it for whiffs. Meanwhile, his split-fingered fastball has stymied both lefty and righty bats, tumbling under barrels at 84 mph. He has thrown either the four-seam or the splitter 87% of the time.

His poise, too, is unmistakably impressive.

When Alonso nubbed a dribbler into no-man's-land between first base and the pitcher's mound to lead off the seventh, Imanaga took control. As he rushed toward the ball, the left-hander waved Michael Busch, an inexperienced first baseman with only 17 career pro starts there before this season, back toward the base. In one motion, he scooped up the rock and flipped it to Busch for the out.

The moment stuck with skipper Craig Counsell after the game, as he mentioned the play unprompted in his postgame scrum.

“That's just, like, awareness, court awareness — if you can say that in baseball,” he said. “But it was just a really smart play. And he's shown that multiple times on top of some great pitching.”

Multiple Cubs spoke to Yahoo Sports about Imanaga’s obvious comfort on the ballfield. His experience pitching in Japan, in enormous moments for the better part of a decade, prepared him for the shift stateside. The game does not rush on him. He’s comfortable in big moments. Not once this season has he appeared frazzled.

When asked what it was like to pitch in New York for the first time, Imanaga, through an interpreter, casually mentioned that he thought it was cool that his hotel room view reminded him of Spiderman. The environment of pitching in the Big Apple clearly had no impact on him. He has climbed bigger mountains and swum in deeper waters.

“He’s been a big leaguer for, like, 10 years, basically,” Gomes said.

Physically, Imanaga is not built like the traditional ace. He is listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds but is likely a touch smaller and certainly a touch heavier. His uniform doesn’t really fit his body; it settles well on his shoulders, but the sleeves dangle loose down to his elbows like a three-quarter raglan shirt. One scout endearingly referred to his frame as “dumpy.” He does not light up a radar gun, nor does he lean on a deep arsenal of secondary offerings.

It all appears unimposing — that is, until that fastball leaps out of his hand, past you, into the catcher’s mitt.

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