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The other great Japanese rookie, and eight more MLB observations

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Starting Lineup is a biweekly collection of reporting, observations, and insights from the baseball beat, published every other Friday during the regular season.

Leading off …

Yoshinobu Yamamoto arrived from Japan with great fanfare this offseason - and a great payday from the Los Angeles Dodgers - but there's another first-year arm from the NPB making a big impact: Shota Imanaga.

Imanaga's best pitch is something of a ghost story: MLB hitters can't seem to touch or see the Chicago Cubs lefty's fastball.

In his first two major-league starts, Imanaga threw 56 total fastballs and batters are hitting .000 against the pitch. While it's very early, his fastball owns the second-best FanGraphs run value in the majors. Opponents are yet to score a run against him through his first 10 innings. He makes his third career start Saturday in Seattle against the Mariners.

The interesting thing is Imanaga doesn't throw particularly hard - he's averaging 92.4 mph according to Statcast, which is around the MLB average for a starting pitcher. So, what's his secret?

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For starters, he spins the ball exceptionally well at more than 2,400 RPM, which is well above average. And that spin helps Imanaga's fastball resist gravity - or fall less - to create a so-called rising effect through Magnus force or active spin.

His fastball ranks 11th in vertical movement, or rise (18.7 inches), among 106 left-handers to throw at least 50 pitches through Wednesday's games.

"It's at the top of the rise charts," Cubs manager Craig Counsell told theScore at spring training. "That forces hitters to make an adjustment to it. They have to have the feeling of getting on top of it, 'I gotta get on top, on top.' And that opens up other pitches for him."

Of course, a number of pitchers have above-average spin rates. What also makes Imanaga different is where he releases the pitch. He ranks 79th out of 106 lefties through Wednesday in vertical release point (5.55 feet), one of the lowest vertical releases in the game.

Why that matters: Deception.

It's unusual to produce that kind of vertical lift from such a low arm slot. Such pitchers usually throw balls that have more horizontal movement. There's only one other lefty who enjoys 18.7 inches or more carry from a vertical release point lower than the league average: Houston Astros closer Josh Hader.

For comparison, the MLB averages for a lefty fastball are 13.6 inches of vertical movement from a 5.82-foot release point.

How did Imanaga develop the unusual pitch?

He said through an interpreter his feel for the fastball dates back to his childhood in Japan, where youth baseball leagues use different types of baseballs.

"When I was younger, they had these baseballs - not necessarily Wiffle balls - but softer baseballs, so when you throw it, it accentuates the rising action. So in elementary (and) middle school, they'll use soft balls. Every time I'm throwing those softer balls, I envisioned that carry, I wanted that carry, that rise.

"Because I grew up using different kinds of balls - I am really good even throwing a tennis ball - I think my fingertips, the fine mechanics of them, I think that's developed really well. I think that's probably why my fastball has a good carry."

As a professional, Imanaga used high-speed cameras and spin-tracking tech with the Yokohama Bay Stars to refine the pitch's shape.

Imanaga said the pitch's rise gives him the confidence to pound the strike zone (65.7% first-pitch strikes) even without elite velocity.

As for the lower release, it's in part due to his modest 5-10 height, but Imanaga also said he tries to move quickly down the mound. Covering more ground lowers a pitcher's release point.

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Many evaluators pegged Imanaga as a mid-rotation starter when he signed a four-year, $53-million deal with the Cubs, which is one-seventh the guarantee Yamamoto ($350 million) got from the Dodgers. (Although Yamamoto is five years younger and throws 3 mph harder.)

Major-league hitters will make adjustments with additional looks, but Imanaga's demonstrating the market may have undervalued him.

Perhaps the Cubs didn't get a middle-rotation arm at a decent price, but a top-of-the-rotation arm at a bargain.

No. 2: Are Royals for real?

One of this season's great early surprise stories is the Kansas City Royals, who are second in the AL Central at 9-4 entering play Friday, and fresh off a sweep of the mighty - or once mighty - Astros.

The Royals are top five in the majors in home runs and steals. Bobby Witt Jr. is building off his second-half breakout from last season and looks like a franchise player. MJ Melendez appears to have made real contact gains to take advantage of his underlying power. Nelson Velázquez appears to be another power-hitting revelation. There's more promise in the Royals' lineup than at any time since they won the 2015 World Series.

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But one question looming over the club is pitching depth.

The club did upgrade the middle of its rotation with veterans Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, but beyond young and emerging arms Cole Ragans and Brady Singer, there's little depth or help in the minor leagues. The Royals must stay healthy. If they can, they can contend in a wide-open division.

No. 3: What about the Pirates?

The Pirates have the potential breakout arm of 2024 in Jared Jones, who leads the majors in some Stuff+ metrics, and they also have the No. 1 overall pick from last June, Paul Skenes, who appears ready to make the move from Triple-A. Skenes has allowed just one hit and no runs across six innings while racking up 11 strikeouts.

The club hasn't had potential top-rotation arms like this since Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and A.J. Burnett led Pittsburgh to playoff berths nearly a decade ago.

Speaking of Skenes: Given injury rates among pitchers - especially hard-throwing, young pitchers - it makes little sense for him to be spending more time (if any) in Triple-A. He's ready now.

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And if the Pirates plan to hold him to an innings cap, they shouldn't have ramped him up until later in the season, so as to avoid a scenario like Washington in 2010, when the Nationals shut down rookie Stephen Strasburg during their postseason chase.

The Pirates need Skenes to throw his innings at the MLB level this year if they want to contend.

No. 4: Repeat business

One of the most meaningful developments for MLB's business last season was the reversal of a nearly two-decade trend of declining attendance, in part because of the pitch clock and other new rules.

Attendance increased by 6.1 million fans last year, or 9.6%, after attendance declined by 18% - about 15 million fans - from 2007 to 2022.

How does this season compare? Through the first 184 games, attendance sits at 28,035 per game compared to 28,398 through the first 180 games last year. That's a 1.3% decline when the weather in the north and east is at its most undesirable.

Attendance trends stabilize relatively early in recent seasons, so it appears MLB may be consolidating most of last year's gains - and that's with the Athletics averaging fewer than 7,000 fans per game during their final fraught year in Oakland.

No. 5: Vintage Trout

Mike Trout appears to be as healthy as he's been in recent years early this season, slamming 470-foot home runs and even stealing bags. Trout's already stolen two bases this season, which matches his best total since 2019.

Unfortunately, if he remains with the Los Angeles Angels, the baseball world is unlikely to see Trout play in the postseason. Trout's played in three career playoff games, all in the 2014 ALDS. Better health would make a midseason trade more likely. Here's hoping.

No. 6: Slowing down … a bit

New rules created a much more aggressive stolen base environment through the first 340 games of last season. There were 0.69 steals per team game and base stealers were successful at an 81% rate, well above any levels of recent history.

This year? Through Wednesday (342 team games), rates have slowed down a bit: 0.67 steals per team game and a 78% success rate. It appears pitchers and catchers have made some gains in combating steals, though the running environment remains elevated.

Steals actually increased in the second year after similar rules were introduced in the minors. That may not be the case in the majors.

No. 7: If Rays call, politely hang up

The Rays may have pulled another trade heist by acquiring shortstop José Caballero from the Seattle Mariners for OF/1B Luke Raley this past winter.

In need of a shortstop given Wander Franco's continued administrative leave and an injury to Taylor Walls, the Rays acquired speedy Caballero, whose ascent was slowed by a number of injuries. Always in possession of strong plate skills, elite speed, and a shortstop's glove, Caballero nearly single-handedly won Wednesday's game in Los Angeles with two excellent defensive plays and his first home run of the season.

While Caballero doesn't hit the ball hard - his exit velocities are among the lowest in baseball - he's an extreme fly-ball hitter. And if he can better direct the ball to his pull side, as the Rays did with another low exit-velocity hitter in Isaac Paredes, they can unlock his power. Caballero owns the 47th-highest pull rate in the league early this season.

No. 8: Pitch clock is necessary

No one wants to see pitchers get hurt. While there are claims the pitch clock is playing a role in injuries this spring, it's also nearly impossible to isolate it as a variable. Plus, data shows this season isn't an outlier.

What does seem clear is that baseball had to do something about pace of play. The pitch clock is a necessary evil. The game needed to be quicker or it was on a path to becoming a niche sport.

Nine-inning games this year are averaging 2 hours and 39 minutes, the same as last season, down from 3 hours and three minutes in 2022.

No. 9: Rare loss for Boras

Scott Boras usually beats contract projections for his clients. But this offseason he didn't, and it cost him Jordan Montgomery, who switched agencies Thursday, moving to the Wasserman firm.

FanGraphs' crowdsourcing efforts before the offseason forecasted Boras clients Montgomery, Blake Snell, Matt Chapman, and Cody Bellinger to sign deals combining for 20 guaranteed years and $454 million ($22.7 million per year).

The quartet ended up signing for a guarantee of nine years and $221 million combined ($24.6 million per year). Three of the deals include short-term opt-outs.

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It'll be interesting to see if others follow Montgomery, whose decision seems to indicate Boras overplayed his hand with at least one of his clients. Boras is known for waiting out general managers, a strategy that often worked in the past.

How much blame to place on Boras is difficult to assess after MLB teams combined to spend $1 billion less on free agents this past offseason, which includes the Dodgers' massive expenditures on Shohei Ohtani ($700 million) and Yamamoto ($325 million). The uncertainty of cable TV dollars weighed on several clubs.

Maybe others will follow Montgomery, but we need more data to determine if Boras is truly losing his fastball.

Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.

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