PITTSBURGH – Dustin Ackley wasn’t trying to be profound. In fact, he was pretty matter of fact in the statement. Then again, it takes a lot to get Ackley emotional about anything.
Still, it just seemed so casual when he said started talking about the early season success of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma as if everybody in baseball was thinking the same way.
“They’re arguably the best 1-2 starters in all of baseball,” Ackley said, and then moved on to the next topic.
The best No. 1 and No. 2 starters in all of baseball? That’s a pretty bold statement considering the competition.
Yet, upon closer inspection, Ackley may be right.
Just over a month into the season, there has not been a more dominant pair of starters in a pitching rotation than the King and Kuma.
So what does Hernandez think of such talk.
“I don’t know,” he said with a sly grin. “That’s tough. We just go out there and do what we do and get people out. That’s all we do.”
They get people out better than most pitchers. The numbers don’t lie.
In seven starts this season, Hernandez (4-2) has given up nine earned runs in 502/3 innings for a 1.60 earned run average. He has struck out 51 batters and walked seven. His walks plus hits over innings pitched (WHIP) is 0.908.
Beyond the numbers, he has assumed a leadership role in the clubhouse and embraced the idea of being the face of the Mariners franchise after signing a $175 million contract before the season. If anyone thought Hernandez would suddenly lose motivation because of the gargantuan payday, they would be very wrong.
“I love the fact that he doesn’t assume anything,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He knows he has to go out there and do the work in between his starts. That’s one of the many reasons why he is who he is.”
Iwakuma (3-1) has been almost as good in his seven starts this season. He has pitched 422/3 innings, a number held down because he had a painful blister on the inside of the middle finger of his pitching hand. He has allowed eight earned runs for an ERA of 1.61. He has struck out 42 hitters and walked eight. His WHIP is a minuscule 0.761.
“He’s aggressive,” Hernandez said of Iwakuma. “He’s attacking the hitters. He has a great fastball and a nasty split-finger. That pitch is unbelievable.”
In contemporary baseball, the next comparable duo is Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Doug Fister. Verlander (4-2) has a 1.55 ERA in seven starts with 50 strikeouts and 13 walks in 46 innings. Fister (4-0) has a 2.48 ERA in 40 innings with 29 strikeouts and seven walks in six starts.
That’s were comparisons with the Mariners end — the Tigers have Anabel Sanchez (3-2, 1.83 ERA) and Max Scherzer (4-0, 3.43) in the back of the rotation.
Meanwhile, Hernandez and Iwakuma are doing more with less because they have to.
This performance was expected from Hernandez. That’s why the Mariners signed him to what at the time was the most lucrative contract in history for a pitcher.
When he joined the Mariners before last season from Japan, the team was hoping he would be a solid middle of the rotation guy. The 32-year-old right-hander showed some promise in the second half of the 2012 season, going 8-4 in 16 starts with a 2.65 ERA. That was good enough to earn him a 2-year, $14 million contract offer in the offseason.
“Just gaining the experience helped,” Wedge said. “He’s a smart pitcher and he just executes his pitches better than almost everyone we have.”
Everyone but Hernandez, who has been impressed with Iwakuma.
“He’s got great command of all his pitches,” Hernandez said. “He’s attacking hitters with the fastball.”
Admittedly, the scenario of pitching behind a former Cy Young Award winner like Hernandez is ideal for Iwakuma, who is still learning the differences between top-level North American baseball and the Japanese leagues.
“Everything in general, I try to imitate,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “You get to see (Hernandez) pitch the day before I pitch and you try to imitate that. You see how he pitches his game and you analyze it and take advantage of it.”
The Mariners haven’t completely taken advantage of the duo’s outstanding performances. Seattle is 9-5 in their respective starts, but it could be better. The team is providing just an average of 3.28 runs for Hernandez in his starts and 3.65 runs for Iwakuma.
Still, Seattle has only once lost back-to-back starts from Hernandez and Iwakuma this season.
For Wedge the situation is slightly reminiscent of his time in Cleveland when he had CC Sabathia as his No. 1 followed by Cliff Lee as No. 2.
“It takes some time to get to that point,” Wedge said. “And it took us a little bit of time in Cleveland, and it has here, too. But when you have people at the top of your rotation that you can count on, it’s going to keep coming around.
“What I mean by that is, from a position player’s standpoint or the other pitchers or the bullpen, you know that every three or four days that those guys are going to be out there and that’s going to go a long way.”
PAIR OF ACES
The season statistics for Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma:
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