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It’s time to reevaluate Hideki Irabu’s Yankees career

Hideki Irabu never became a dominant ace, but he was a solid contributor on two World Series winners.

Hideki Irabu salutes his fans at his debut as a New York Yan Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Hideki Irabu’s tenure as a Yankee was generally regarded as a big disappointment, and frankly, many fans and people around the organization would likely use harsher terminology. As always is the case, hindsight is clearer than real-time evaluations, which often lead to trees blocking the view of the forest. To that end, it’s worth taking two decades of hindsight to reevaluate Irabu’s career with the Yankees and perhaps finish with a different perspective.

Irabu’s contract was purchased in January of 1997 by San Diego from the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Pacific League in Japan. He had been electric for the Marines, leading the Pacific League in strikeouts in the previous two seasons with a combined 406 in 360.1 innings while recording a 2.47 ERA. The Yankees acquired Irabu that May to complete an earlier trade that sent former top Yankees prospect Rubén Rivera to the West Coast. After toying with hitters at different levels of the minors, striking out 49 batters to only 5 walks over 46 IP, Irabu made his first start for New York on July 10, 1997.

Facing Detroit, Irabu threw 6.2 innings, striking out nine and allowing two runs in a 10-3 Yankee win:

Despite the solid effort, Detroit’s Brian Hunter wasn’t impressed, saying after the game “I don’t think he’s ready for the Major Leagues.” To further his point, Hunter asked “Who does he start against next?” and when informed it would be Cleveland*, said, “Yeah, check that out.”

*An interesting side note is that at the time, Cleveland was third in the AL in runs scored, while Detroit was fourth. Hunter likely didn’t earn himself many friends with his not-so-subtle jab at his own team.

Regardless of Hunter’s verbal jab at Irabu and his own teammates, Irabu did struggle against Cleveland in his next start, allowing five runs on nine hits over five innings (although the Yankees did win the game 12-6). After the game, Cleveland’s David Justice called Irabu “average,” and added, “There are some bad dudes in this league, and he ain’t one.”

More importantly — and unfortunately for the Yankees and Irabu — is that his start in Cleveland was more or less how the rest of 1997 went for the pitcher. He’d finish the season in a manner that can’t be sugarcoated, allowing 89 baserunners in 53.1 innings and was used mostly out of the ‘pen in September.

Entering the 1998 season, the Yankees had a top-heavy rotation with David Cone, David Wells, and Andy Pettitte, who was coming off arguably the best season of his career, but depth was an issue. Likely due to that and wanting to give Irabu a fresh start, Hideki got the ball for 28 starts in 1998 for a team that had every expectation of winning the World Series – and he responded.

Among 46 AL pitchers who threw a minimum of 150 innings in 1998, Irabu finished third in opponents’ batting average (only trailing Roger Clemens and Pedro Martínez), 16th in opponents’ OPS+, and 17th in K%. His 109 ERA+ and 2.6 WAR on the season certainly weren’t going to win any Cy Young Awards, but that’s very good for a back end of the rotation starter, and he was named AL Pitcher of the Month in May. Yet for a combination of reasons, such as numerous teammates having stellar individual seasons, and overall team dominance, Irabu’s performance was still generally viewed as a disappointment — probably unfairly.

Similarly, Irabu’s 1999 season was unspectacular but solid. In 169.1 innings over 27 starts, he posted 2.0 WAR and an almost exactly league average ERA, earning another AL Pitcher of the Month honor in July. Among 43 AL pitchers with a minimum of 150 innings in 1999, Irabu was 12th in both K% and opponents’ batting average, 15th in opponents’ OPS+, and 19th in FIP. That of course, won’t earn a pitcher a postseason start over David Cone or El Duque — indeed, one relief outing in a 1999 ALCS blowout comprised his entire playoff career — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a strong contribution to a great team.

The ALCS cameo turned out to be Irabu’s last appearance as a Yankee, as he was traded to Montreal that December in a deal for prospects Ted Lilly and Christian Parker. Irabu’s Yankees career, thus, was generally viewed as a big disappointment to both the organization and its fans. Yet in hindsight, perhaps that says more about our expectations as fans than his performance. No, he wasn’t the Japanese version of Nolan Ryan, and maybe by MLB standards he wasn’t a “bad dude,” but is falling short of those standards really worthy of harsh criticism? Let’s not forget that in addition to contemporaries’ public skepticism, Irabu’s owner publicly called him a rather derogatory name, and an MSG announcer opined that Irabu using “karate” during a bench-clearing incident might be more interesting than his pitching.

To be fair, Irabu didn’t do himself any favors by spitting into the air while walking off the mound once with the intended direction of the spit in question (it was either the fans or the sky, depending upon who you asked). Walking past your teammates as they extend hands for handshakes certainly wasn’t going to help matters either, though both Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada always vouched for him as a good guy in the clubhouse. That said, over 1998-99, Hideki Irabu was every bit as good as Andy Pettitte — even better in some regards. Irabu posted better ERA, WHIP, K, and BB rates than Pettitte over the two-season stretch while almost equaling his WAR (4.8 to 4.6), despite fewer starts and innings.

Also with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Irabu’s life ended in tragedy, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that in addition to pressure, he was also dealing with difficult emotional situations when he played. It should certainly serve as a reminder that when we as fans are harshly critical, it shouldn’t be forgotten that players are human and sometimes struggle with things no one else can see — just as we all do.. (And before you start typing angry comments in the comments section about me being overly officious from my high horse, I’m including myself as someone who could use a reminder of that every now and then too.)

Hideki Irabu may not have become an ace for the Yankees, but he was a solid contributor to two championship teams and played in the show for six years – that’s a career most players would be proud of, and one we all can look at differently in hindsight.