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‘Constant learning’ Shota Imanaga is off to an impressive start with the Chicago Cubs


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.

CHICAGO (AP) — Shota Imanaga’s path from Japan to the major leagues included at least one keen observation that has served him well during his transition to life with the Chicago Cubs.

“When I look at foreign players in Japan and see how they try to get support from the fans, I actually do the opposite: I come here,” Imanaga said through a translator. “It was something I thought about.”

From his entertaining pitching style to his trips to Dunkin’ Donuts — “I’ll 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 makes it look easy right now.

Relying on a deceptive four-seam fastball that he usually places 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 struggling Cubs. The left-hander also has 58 strikeouts and nine walks in 53 2/3 innings, thrusting himself into the early discussion for NL Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award.

Imanaga’s ERA is the lowest for a Major League player for his first nine career starts (excluding openers) since baseball began keeping track of earned runs in 1913. Fernando Valenzuela had the previous mark of 0.91 in his second year with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981.

It is the fourth-lowest ERA since 1920 for any pitcher in his first nine starts in a season, behind 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 is performing better than Chicago could ever have expected when they signed him to a four-year, $53 million contract in January.

“The way he thinks about himself as a pitcher, the way he talks in his first few starts here, he thinks about everything,” said Jed Hoyer, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs. “I think he knows he can keep getting better and keep refining things. It was a great start and I’m glad people are taking a liking to him.”

Have they ever.


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AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Chicago Cubs pitcher Shota Imanaga is greeted in the dugout as he heads to the tunnel after pitching in the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Chicago.

Imanaga, who takes the mound in throwback-style high socks, is already a fan favorite in sports-crazed Chicago. But his early success is just part of the growing bond 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 few lines from the song “Go Cubs Go” during his introductory press conference.

He warms up with The Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger,” the goal song for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. He has openly considered setting his alarm to the sound of fans cheering at Wrigley to get him going in the morning.

“What impresses me most is how much fun he’s having here,” San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish said through an interpreter. “Not just pitching…but how he’s adjusting to life in the US. 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 experiences. Imanaga and Darvish were teammates when Japan won the World Baseball Classic last year, beating the U.S. in the final. The 37-year-old Darvish, who played three seasons for Chicago, 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 at a place in his life where he’s very confident about who he is, and that’s been clear from the beginning,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “He has a lot of confidence in his choices, a lot of confidence in the people he places around him. … I think he’s looking for the experience of what I can enjoy in a new country, and I think you take that perspective and it really makes the experience good.

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 learning all the time,” Imanaga said of the book-writing process. “But I think the fact that I’m trying to spread all the information has helped me understand more about myself.”

The 6-foot-4 Imanaga averages 90 mph on his four-seater — not exactly remarkable in a sea of ​​high-90 fastballs — but he has a high spin rate and an unusual amount of vertical movement. Hitters will likely adapt over time, forcing Imanaga to take a closer look at his approach.

But Imanaga and the Cubs are confident he’s up for the challenge, especially with the way he’s embraced the advanced features of the sport.

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

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