He’s becoming a star for the Cubs. How did baseball not see this coming?

Jun 9, 2024; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Shota Imanaga (18) stands on the field during a stop in play in the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Shota Imanaga of the Chicago Cubs stood on the pitcher’s mound during a recent bullpen session. Even in that setting he did not look like an emerging star. He does not throw 100 mph. He does not tower over opponents.

No one expected Imanaga to be this good, this fast. Not even the Cubs, who believed in him more than most. The organization began compiling an Imanaga scouting database in 2018. But when the Japanese pitcher became available last winter, the Cubs did not jump out early and seize the negotiations. Even Imanaga understood his transition would be challenging.


Yet, he has become one of MLB’s most valuable players so far this season. Twelve starts into a four-year, $53 million contract, he has a 1.96 ERA. He is next scheduled to start Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals.

He has quickly established himself as a dynamic presence who pitches with passion and style. There are the high blue socks and the long black hair; the fist pumps and screams on the mound. There are the five shirtless dudes in the Wrigley Field bleachers who spell out “S-H-O-T-A” across their bare chests.

Surprised would be an understatement within the front offices that control the modern game with data-driven decisions and risk-averse strategies. The spectacular start to Imanaga’s career has served as yet another reminder of the unpredictability in the free-agent market.

It is still very early, as Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly cautioned, but he has seen enough of Imanaga to say what others are thinking: “It’s definitely looking like a steal.”

How did the baseball industry not see this coming?

Last winter, while waiting for the right offer, Imanaga and some of his associates were staying at an Embassy Suites hotel in Schaumburg, Illinois. His first trip to Chicago had come in the fall, before he entered the posting system. His second trip came in late December as he neared the end of a 45-day negotiating window. Deadlines force cautious executives to make decisions.

Imanaga created his own scouting report during those travels. He felt the energy of a Chicago Blackhawks home game and posed next to the Michael Jordan statue. He worked out at Bo Jackson’s indoor facility near O’Hare International Airport, anticipating his next opportunity. To unwind as the deadline pressure increased, his group shopped for groceries at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and cooked dinners at the hotel.

In a way, it was part of the Cubs’ home-field advantage. The organization had a good relationship with Imanaga’s agency, Octagon, which counted clients such as Joe Maddon and Ben Zobrist during the 2016 World Series run. Octagon has an office on Michigan Avenue and a network throughout the Chicago area, which made it a convenient base for Imanaga and agents Lou Jon Nero and Yoshi Hasegawa. Imanaga’s representatives focused on where he would feel comfortable and targeted teams that could unlock his potential.

Chicago, the biggest city in the middle of a foreign country, quickly felt like the right place. Imanaga now just needed to know that his interest in the Cubs would be reciprocal. Besides the Cubs, Imanaga fielded interest from a wide range of teams.

“Our pitch-grade models really liked him,” said the San Francisco Giants’ president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi. “They had plus grades on all three of his pitches — fastball, split and breaking ball. But our scouting reports weren’t as strong, and it’s understandable because what makes his pitches so effective doesn’t jump out to the naked eye. When you layer in the competition gap in scouting international professionals, it’s always easier to bank on louder tools than subtler skills like having pitches with unique movement patterns.”

For some teams, the lack of louder tools made Imanaga feel like a risk.

“The availability of pitch data from the Pacific Rim has theoretically made these valuations more sound, but there’s still a leap to take when you can’t hang your hat on high-end velocity,” Zaidi said. “I imagine there are scouts around the game that did see him as a high-end starter in the big leagues, but I suspect that the teams that were highest on him put the greatest stock in their pitch-model valuations.”

But as Cubs manager Craig Counsell likes to say, hitters do not like anything that they are not used to seeing, and Imanaga compensates for velocity with a four-seam fastball that drops far less than expected. The effect is often described as “rise.” The rise on Imanaga’s four-seamer is 2.9 inches better than average, per Statcast, so hitters find themselves under the pitch more often than not. That deception has turned his fastball into one of baseball’s best pitches.

Among scouts, there was some concern that Imanaga might not be able to consistently locate that pitch at the top of the zone. He was not accustomed to it because the high strike is not called as often in Japan. And if not located well, the pitch will be hit hard. Scouts also flagged workload capacity as a possible issue, given Imanaga’s 5-foot-10 frame and a career high of 170 innings.

Even those numbers can be deceiving. An evaluator who tracked Imanaga said he pitched in a dead-ball era in Japan, where pitchers routinely put up sub-3.00 ERAs while facing contact-oriented hitters. Those hitters have good approaches and fewer holes in their swings, but they rarely step into the batter’s box with overwhelming power. That style is essentially the opposite of the modern hitting philosophy at the major league level.

Of course, money is always a factor, too. Rumblings within industry circles pegged the pitcher as seeking a five-year, $100 million contract, which Imanaga’s camp adamantly denied. It would have been a huge commitment for a player who is 30 and had never thrown a major league pitch.

“It’s really hard to say we saw a historically good start to a major league career,” said the Boston Red Sox’s chief baseball officer, Craig Breslow. “We obviously saw a really talented pitcher who had a ton of success and had some unique pitch profiles we felt would translate over here really well.

“We made the offer we were comfortable with. I don’t know that it makes a ton of sense to go beyond that. We saw him as a very attractive starting pitcher. We ultimately didn’t land him.”

Imanaga has made himself comfortable. Consider the nameplate that hangs over his locker: “Mike Imanaga.” That is the backup given name he uses when he thinks Shota will be mispronounced or misunderstood. When asked for a part of American culture that he has come to enjoy, he said he has been impressed with the five-star amenities, such as pools and saunas, at hotels on the road.

Ultimately, the Cubs anchored their evaluation with the idea that Imanaga improved between his 2022 and 2023 seasons with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars — and that he had done so by developing a nastier slider.

Imanaga demonstrated his poise during last year’s World Baseball Classic, starting the championship game in which Japan beat the United States. For the Cubs, it was yet another data point.

“Had we scouted Shota heavily? Yes,” said the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, Jed Hoyer. “Did we really stay on top of it? And did we do a lot of internal deep dives on how his stuff was going to play over here? Absolutely. But with this one, I also think we had some good fortune.”

Once the Cubs had a deal, the pitching coach, Tommy Hottovy, contacted Yu Darvish, asking the Japanese pitcher for advice on how to handle the transition. Darvish, who recently notched his 200th win in the majors and Nippon Professional Baseball combined, relayed a simple message: “Just trust the player.”

When Imanaga started the posting process, he asked Darvish generally about what he should look for while picking a team. Darvish told him to “sign with an organization who shows love to you.” It could not just be about “how much” because you will need support at difficult moments.

Imanaga’s travels to Chicago put the Cubs top of mind as he neared a Jan. 11 deadline to sign a major league contract. When the deal was done, Imanaga showed that his way of bonding with teammates and interacting with the news media would be intentional. Ahead of his introductory news conference, Imanaga, the son of two teachers, studied the lyrics and practiced his delivery before reciting, “Go Cubs Go.”

“Shota’s not young,” Counsell said. “I don’t mean to say that he’s old, but I think he is in a place in life where he is very sure of who he is. That’s been evident from early on. He’s very confident in his choices, very confident in the people he puts around him. It all shows in how he handles the situation. If you come here to play, you’re looking for an experience.”

That experience will include more learning. Imanaga’s stamina will be tested in the second half of the season. There are lingering questions about how hotter weather will affect his fastball. Different environments can decrease the rise, which could be problematic if he leans too heavily on the four-seamer as it loses effectiveness. It could lead to more hard contact — and concerns that some harbor about his vulnerability to home runs could become a reality.

For the Cubs, this deal could still wind up in the ballpark of a nine-figure investment between the club options to extend the contract to a fifth year and $80 million guaranteed, the salary escalators around the Cy Young Award and the posting fee to Imanaga’s Japanese club.

“From the beginning, we decided to prioritize an MLB team that we felt would make Shota the best pitcher he could be,” said Nero. “There is a lot that goes into finding the right fit, and we felt that with the Cubs.”

Imanaga does not believe he has proved anything yet. He is quick to deflect credit to his coaches, the Japanese staff members in the organization and the teammates who give him so much positive reinforcement. Maybe Shotamania does not happen in another city on a different team. After all, this is not a computer program. Perhaps the entertaining pitcher is exactly where he is supposed to be.

“The Cubs organization is amazing,” Imanaga said through his interpreter. “It’s been so easy to acclimate over here.”

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