‘Constantly Learning’ Imanaga Off to Impressive Start With the Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs pitcher Shota Imanaga delivers during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)Chicago Cubs pitcher Shota Imanaga delivers during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO (AP) — The road for Shota Imanaga from Japan to the major leagues included at least one sharp observation that has served him well in his transition to life with the Chicago Cubs.

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“Watching foreign players in Japan and how they try to figure out how to get support from the fans, essentially I'm just doing the opposite of that, coming over here,” Imanaga said through a translator. “It was something I thought about.”

From his entertaining pitching style to his trips to Dunkin' Donuts — “Either I order a small iced latte or a medium,” he said — Imanaga has moved with a purpose in his acclimation to the big leagues. And he is making it look easy at the moment.

Relying on a deceptive four-seam fastball that he usually locates at the top of the strike zone, along with a splitter that plays at the bottom, Imanaga is 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA for the contending Cubs. The left-hander also has 58 strikeouts and nine walks in 53 2/3 innings — thrusting himself into the early conversation for NL Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award.

Imanaga's ERA is the lowest for a major leaguer for his first nine career starts — excluding openers — since baseball started tracking earned runs in 1913. Fernando Valenzuela had the previous mark at 0.91 in his second year with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981.

It's the fourth-lowest ERA since 1920 for any pitcher in his first nine starts in a season, trailing Jacob DeGrom (0.62 in 2021), Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (0.69 in 1966) and Zack Greinke (0.82 in 2009).

So far, Imanaga has been better than Chicago ever could have expected when it signed him to a $53 million, four-year contract in January.

“The way he thinks about himself as a pitcher, the way he talks through his first few starts here, he’s thoughtful about everything,” said Jed Hoyer, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs. "I think he knows he can continue to get better and continue to refine stuff. It’s been a great start, and I am glad people have sort of gravitated towards watching him.”

Have they ever.

Imanaga, who takes the mound in throwback-style high socks, is already a fan favorite in sports-crazy Chicago. But his early success is only part of the growing connection between the Japanese lefty and the passionate residents of Wrigley Field.

It started when Imanaga — wearing No. 18 in honor of Ben Zobrist, who was the World Series MVP when the Cubs won the title in 2016 — recited a couple of lines from the song “Go Cubs Go” during his introductory news conference.

He warms up to The Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger,” the goal-scoring song for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. He has openly mused about switching his alarm to the sound of cheering fans at Wrigley to help him get started in the morning.

“What impresses me the most is how (much) fun he’s having here,” San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish said through a translator. “Not just pitching ... but how he’s adjusting to life in the U.S. I think he’s really taking it in and enjoying it, so that part makes me happy, too.”

As Imanaga prepared for life in the majors, he spoke with Darvish about his experience. Imanaga and Darvish were teammates when Japan won last year's World Baseball Classic, beating the U.S. in the final. The 37-year-old Darvish, who played for Chicago for three seasons, made his big league debut with Texas in 2012.

Imanaga, 30, also did his homework on Chicago and the Cubs organization before signing with the team.

“He's in a place in life where he's very sure who he is, and that's been evident kind of from early on,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “He's very confident in his choices, very confident in the people he puts around him. ... I think he is looking for the experience of what can I enjoy from a new country, and I think you take that perspective and it makes the experience a really good one.”

Imanaga went 7-4 with a 2.80 ERA in 22 starts in his final season with the Yokohama BayStars of Japan’s Central League, finishing with 174 strikeouts and 24 walks in 148 innings. Nicknamed “The Throwing Philosopher,” he also wrote a book on pitching that was published last year.

“I'm always constantly learning,” Imanaga said about the book-writing process. “But the fact that I'm trying to put out all the information, I think that helped me understand more about myself.”

The 5-foot-10 Imanaga averages 92 mph on his four-seamer — not exactly noteworthy in a sea of high-90s fastballs — but it has a high spin rate and an unusual amount of vertical movement. Hitters likely will adjust over time, forcing Imanaga to take a closer look at his approach.

But Imanaga and the Cubs are confident he is up to the challenge, especially with how he embraces the advanced metrics of the sport.

“Compared to Japan, I mean they do hand out data, but here, they'll give us data and they'll have a plan going along with it,” Imanaga said. “I like that.”

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