“No reason to get excited!” wailed from the lungs of Bob Dylan in All Along the Watchtower. However, when seeing some of the things on film that Masahiro Tanaka can do, it’s hard not to. Armed with a mid-90s fastball (FB), a slow big 12-6 curveball (12-6 CRV), a good, heavy sinking slider, and two other pitches that look to be forms of a 2-seam FB and splitter at the youthful age of 25, again, hard not to get excited. Numerous teams are making a charge at Tanaka and it’s no secret that the Toronto Blue Jays are one of them.
It is the belief of fans that Tanaka has been the main reason why the Blue Jays have been so inactive this offseason. I’m not on the inside, so I’m not going to speculate if that’s true. However, I am skeptical of breaking bank on Japanese pitchers. For every perceived Hideo Nomo (I use Nomo because he was the pioneer for Japanese baseball breaking into the MLB) or better coming out, there are many more Hideki Irabus. Do you remember George Steinbrenner’s “fat toad” that committed suicide 2.5 years ago? Maybe you do because he was a Yankee. What about Kei Igawa? Also a Yankee. Also a NPB Central League MVP in 2003. Also won the Sawamura Award, NPB’s Cy Young equivalent, in 2003. Guess who else won the award? Masahiro Tanaka in 2011. Tanaka will most likely win it again for 2013.
The point is there is a lot of unjustified excitement over Tanaka. There is a lot of money being thrown around with years handed out that could potentially handcuff franchises. Igawa started a whopping 13 games over his four-year contract with the Yankees. His MLB career ERA ended at 6.66. His ERA+ was a 68. WHIP of 1.758. Somehow, Igawa managed to only lose four games in his career (that number is important to remember, as W-L record is often scoffed at now). He only won two. A 5 yr/$20M deal doesn’t sound so bad for the former Hanshin lefty, until you include the $26M+ that the Yankees posted just to have the rights to negotiate with Igawa. Tanaka, thanks to the NPB bidding changes, will only cost MLB clubs $20M to negotiate. So those are the CONs of Igawa, but what about Tanaka.
1.) UNKNOWN: First and foremost, Tanaka is an unknown. People cite his success in Japan as if that’s going to translate into great success in The Show. The 24-0 record jumps out so much that it even makes sabermetric pundits say “Damn! That’s impressive!” Is it though? His NPB team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, scored the third most runs in the league (628) and were only two runs behind to tie for second in that category. In the entire 12 team league, there were only three teams that scored more than 600 runs. Rakuten was the last team. So to say Tanaka wasn’t aided by run support, would be a lie.
Let’s take W-L record further though (I told you to keep this in mind. Irabu, for Chiba Lotte, was 46-39 with an ERA that was lowering each season. With the exception of 1992, his K/9 from ’93-’96 was around 10. He had never had much success in Japan, yet the Yankees splurged on him and were stunned when he didn’t give results. Kazuhisa Ishii went from Yakult to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002. He found slight MLB success, but never measured up despite owning a 78-46 career record prior to coming over the pond. Then there’s Igawa again. He was 86-60 with a 3.14 ERA, 2.97 K/BB, and averaging over 8+ K/9 for each season while playing for Hanshin. As stated above, it never translated to MLB success. He’s not the worst offender however. Perhaps the most mind-blowing, concerning and best comparison to Tanaka would be that of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Matsuzaka deserves a paragraph all his own. Matsuzaka started for the Saibu Lions at the age of 18. Sound familiar? It should! Yu Darvish started at 18 for Nippon and Tanaka started at 18 for Rakuten. Oddly enough, Matsuzaka owned a 108-60 career record prior to coming to the Boston Red Sox (for a rather cheap amount: $51.11M posting fee + 6 yr/$52M). His ERA improved each season, getting down to 2.13 in his final season in Japan. Having a sweet K/BB of 5.88 only made teams salivate even more. He had the making of a Japanese legend, or at least there was a lot of lore about him already. Matsuzaka was known, like Tanaka and Darvish, to have an assortment of pitches in his arsenal, but none more intriguing than the “Gyroball.” It was part screwball, part knuckleball, hint of curve, looked like a change-up — it never existed, at least not during his time in Boston. The Red Sox however, were hooked, line, and sinker.
“Dice-K” had a decent first season for Boston and then followed it up with an overrated, but better second season. 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, league best 6.9 H/9, 0.6 HR/9, and 8.3 K/9 is a conventional statistician’s dream, until you add the dreadful other stats. A league worst 5.0 BB/9 offset his H/9 and drove up his WHIP to 1.324. Despite the impeccable record, Dice-K never threw a complete game that season. In fact, he only pitched 167.2 innings despite making 29 starts. (In Japan, he had 72 CGs over his career.) By 2009 at age 28, Matsuzaka started breaking down and has yet to return to anything close to the pitcher he was in 2008. This is the most concerning part for Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos.
Prior to coming to Boston, Matsuzaka did throw 72 CGs and logged 1402.2 IPs without including the WBC innings. Tanaka has thrown 53 CGs and logged 1315 IPs with one less year of playing time than Dice-K. Tanaka, like Dice-K, is leaving his Japanese team after his perceived best year of his career (his K/9 have been in decline since 2011 — 9.6 ['11], 8.8 ['12], 7.8 ['13]) with a very Roy Halladay-like K/BB of 5.88 (though his previous two seasons were almost 9). If Tanaka pitched another year in Japan, he most certainly would have logged more innings than Dice-K. He already has more innings than Darvish (6 seasons, 55 CGs, 1268.1 IPs) in his six seasons as Rakuten ace. There is no sure bet here. Toronto as well as other teams are taking a big risk with an unknown and it might do AA well to stand his ground on his five-year contract policy.
2.) Lesser Competition: If you haven’t heard by now, the reigning NPB HR record holder, Waldimir Balentien, has been arrested on domestic violence charges in the US. What’s the big deal — in terms of baseball that is? In a MLB career that spanned just over one full season, over three years, Balentien had a slashline of .221/.281/.374 with 15 HR and 52 RBIs to his credit. His WAR was just over 0. That’s not a typo. Japanese HR record holder has a MLB WAR of just over 0. Possible MVP of NPB is barely a major league player.
Balentien isn’t the only player however. Texas Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis found success for a few years while in Japan. Lewis’ two year numbers are actually right up there with Tanaka, which should instantly red flag every MLB team. Prior to going to Japan, Lewis owned a career record of 12-15 with a 5.88 ERA, 1.81 WHIP, 1.25 K/BB, and a negative career WAR. Lewis dominated Japan.
There are a whole list of players that have gone from MLB and became legends in Japan. There are only a handful of players from Japan that have found their intended success in MLB, but for a very limited amount of time. Only Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Hideo Nomo had lengthy careers and even they struggled at points (well, Ichiro never really struggled. I don’t consider aging as him struggling either.) For every Suzuki or Matsui, there’s a Japanese MVP like Kosuke Fukudome (who earned a “pity” All Star selection for the Cubs his rookie season, so I don’t want to hear it) that can’t hack it in Major League Baseball. 34 HRs in his best season in Japan. 42 HRs in his career for the Cubs/Indians/White Sox.
Another thing to keep in mind is that these former MLB players like Balentien are hitting the ball in a pitcher friendly league. By pitcher friendly, I don’t mean ballpark size either. Pitchers have a wider strike zone in Japan. Why is it a guy like Dice-K can throw 13 CGs in one season, but only one CG his entire MLB career? Aside from MLB pitch counts, it helps when a pitcher is not walking hitters. Dice-K walks hitter a high frequency here in the states but walks hitters by about two-thirds less in Japan. That trend is consistent with most Japanese pitchers when transitioning to Major League Baseball. I’ve heard commentators say ::INSERT JAPANESE PITCHER HERE:: is “being too cute” with his pitches. The reality is, when they throw outside, they’re use to getting the call. It’s a hard adjustment to make and many pitchers cannot do it. It is another unknown about Tanaka and whether or not he can adjust to this tighter strike zone.
3.) Tanaka Deal Changes the Pitching Market: It’s bad enough that Scott Feldman got 3 years at $30M from the Houston Astros. No team was offering him more than $6M prior to that deal. Feldman’s deal changed the game, but so will Tanaka’s. Do you think that Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, or Ubaldo Jimenez think they’re not as good as a pitcher that has never seen MLB hitters? Absolutely not! If you think it is only the baseball teams waiting out the Tanaka deal, think again! The remaining free agent arms are waiting it out as well. Some team is going to offer Tanaka a 5-7 year contract. Some team is going to give him between $12M and $20M annually. That will happen. When it does, you’re going to see slightly older but proven MLB arms wanting nearly as much or more on an annual basis.
So even if Toronto misses out Tanaka, are you willing to see the Jays throw $13M-$17M four year deals at Garza, Santana, and Jimenez? That’s most likely what it will take to bring any of those players in. Maybe Tanaka does turn out to be better, but as Jays fan, how much are you willing to risk? “It’s just money! Rogers has it.” Yes, they do, but that won’t stop them from possibly raising ticket prices to help fund it. The question of “how much” will depend on hype and fan belief. Many web blogs, like this one, have discussed and explored numerous other options, like trades, at great length, but the conclusions always comes down to having to give up Aaron Sanchez and/or Marcus Stroman for a #3, unproven in the AL East, starter.
So what do you think Jays fans? Do you still think Tanaka’s worth taking the gamble? Is he worth breaking the five-year limit AA has in place? If AA doesn’t sign Tanaka, is this off-season considered a failure even if AA signs Garza, Jimenez, or Santana instead?