How Shota Imanaga went from under the radar to early Cy Young favorite


The puzzled looks on the faces of hitters as they return to the dugout tell the story of Shota Imanaga’s first two months in the majors. The 30-year-old Chicago Cubs left-hander has taken the mound nine times against nine different opponents — and none have been able to figure him out.

After signing a four-year, $53 million contract this offseason, Imanaga has stymied baseball’s top sluggers on his way to an MLB-best 0.84 ERA. But the most frustrating part for batters is that Imanaga’s stuff looks very hittable — until it isn’t.

“Man, I don’t know,” San Diego Padres infielder Xander Bogaerts said after his team lost to the Cubs with Imanaga on the mound. “I thought we were going to square him up.”

Standing just 5-foot-10, Imanaga is not particularly intimidating on the mound, and he doesn’t throw very hard — a fastball that comes in around 92 mph — but there’s something about his delivery and release point that is making the opposition look silly.

While that fastball is pedestrian in an era of high-velocity aces, the pitch’s movement coming from his deceptive delivery is giving the opposition fits, to the tune of a .164 batting average. Braves bench coach Walt Weiss called it an “optical illusion,” and Atlanta’s hitters agreed after being held scoreless for five innings by Imanaga earlier this month.

“His fastball plays up so whenever you try to get on him, you foul it off,” Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies said. “Most player’s swing is to lift the ball and if it has that little ride, you foul it off or swing-and-miss. That’s what plays great for him.”

Atlanta first baseman Matt Olson added: “He hides the ball really well. It plays harder than what the radar gun is saying. And he has really good ride on his fastball. It comes from behind his head.”

What has made Imanaga even more difficult to figure out is the pitch he pairs with that rising four-seamer: an 83 mph splitter that drops in the opposite direction.

“This guy is going to give hitting coaches nightmares,” Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton said after his team lost 1-0 to Imanaga. “The fastball is not 94-95, but it’s effective. The separator is the splitter looks like a strike. Even the splits he throws in the zone that are strikes have so much action. And there is a lot of deception in the delivery.”

The scariest part for opposing teams might be that Imanaga hasn’t even used his full arsenal yet. He possesses a slider and curveball that he’ll likely break out once he has to face a team for a second time. Before taking the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday — his 10th different opponent — he was asked if he was surprised by his early season success.

“I’m more surprised than anyone in Japan,” he said through the team interpreter. “I’m very surprised.”

There was reason to believe that Imanaga’s magic could work against the best MLB lineups — he did something similar for Team Japan during the 2023 World Baseball Classic.

Pitching on the same staff as Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Roki Sasaki, it was Imanaga who got the start against the United States in the championship game.

As he navigated the top of a lineup featuring Mookie Betts, Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt, one Team USA star said something in the dugout that is sure to resonate with any hitter who has stepped in ready to tee off against Imanaga only to walk back wondering what went wrong after the at-bat:

“That guy is not very good, but he is unhittable.”


The Cubs can thank Imanaga’s agents at Octagon for MLB’s best free agent addition so far this season ultimately choosing Chicago — both for their negotiating and some simple geography.

When Imanaga arrived from Japan last October, he decided to spend the offseason near his agents, who are based in Chicago.

Imanaga stayed far from the city, in a suburb west of Wrigley Field, for several months as he waited for his free agency to heat up, as it finally did after his WBC teammate Yamamoto signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in late December.

The Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros were among the suitors for Imanaga. The San Francisco Giants also showed interest, but Imanaga’s preference evolved as he listened to teams via Zoom calls throughout his negotiating window which opened in late November.

“He came in with one goal, to match with the team that could make him better,” one of his agents, Lou Jon Nero said. “At the end of the day, it all kind of started to sound the same.”

When contract offers started coming in, it became clear that the biggest factor would be where Imanaga would feel most comfortable. The Cubs showed they could be that team, in part because they put in work early on: President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer flew to Japan in September to see Imanaga pitch in person. He calls Imanaga a ‘data’ success story with his in-person view matching what the team hoped to see on the mound.

“You’re not going over there blind,” Hoyer said. “All of our pitch data on his fastball was really good.”

Those months spent exploring the Chicagoland area also played a role. Imanaga found a Japanese marketplace he liked and took Ubers to a local mall. He acted more like a tourist then someone waiting to become a millionaire in major league baseball.

“I came here and they were playing football,” he said of a Northwestern/Iowa college game held at Wrigley Field in November. “I saw that home plate was covered. And they said the scoreboard was really old. I liked it.”

Once Imanaga’s agents expressed serious interest to the Cubs, Chicago’s front office offered him a four-year deal that included a team option for a fifth year, which would bring the total package to $80 million. If Imanaga can keep baffling hitters like he has in his first two months, picking up that fifth year becomes a no-brainer.

“I had other choices, but I like the Cubs,” Imanaga said of his new home. “I love it here. The fans have been super supportive. I’m grateful to be a Cub.”



Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top