Masahiro Tanaka: 25-year Japanese Starting Pitcher worth $90-100 million to any MLB club?

The business of baseball has evolved significantly over the past 35 years. As the free agent market grew more expensive, with ownerships setting aside first $3-5 million (the price of a smallish mansion) for entire player’s contract in 1978, to now, $200+ million (roughly the cost of 3 Gulfstream G550s plus its operating costs). The ownerships are now, pinching pennies, and hitting hard the international markets for lower cost talents in investing at the low end on those young and impoverished souls of the Caribbean region. Here, you still can buy potential top talent at the $3-10 million for those developing years. Or pay $25-45 million for a 5-8 year contract with a Cuban defector. Those markets are fairly deep in talent still untapped, but raw, and with the typical high flame out rates seen with any labeled “can’t miss” tags.

In between this range of options lays the Japanese professional leagues. For years, prior to 1990, the Nippon Professional Baseball (Puro Yakyū) was largely ignored for talent acquisition. Then, in 1995, Hideo Nomo made the successful jump to the majors. Since, approximately 50 Japanese-born players have played in at least 1 MLB game. Of those, Ichiro, Hideki, Hideo, and now, Yu Darvish, or Yu, are known by their singular name, so unusual they are.

Next up: Masahiro Tanaka. At 25 (November 1st), he has dominated the NPB in 2013, going undefeated (20-0). A 6’2″ righty, who throws in the low 90s and relies heavily on his slider (28-30%), Tanaka is not necessarily comparable to Yu Darvish (6’5″), who can consistently bring it at 94-96MPH, when he chooses. However, Yu does depend on that slider (32%) to get threw his pitch sequences (best by pitch value).

Masahiro Tanaka’s Velocity (Averages from NPB Tracker, akin to Brooks Baseball)

Season Fastball Curve Slider Changeup Cut Fastball 2-Seamer Forkball Sinker Special
2012 90.67 74.63 83.39 80.58 86.09 89.62 85.41
2011 90.99 75.72 83.28 80.11 88.86 89.75 86.66 83.26
2010 89.86 74.88 81.89 81.35 84.74 88.77 83.25
2009 90.99 75.20 83.42 80.46 84.38 90.10 83.29

This table does not do justice to what Tanaka’s pitching really is like. He adds and subtracts quite a bit from his Fastball and 2-seamer, showing an understanding of craft, if you will, at least from the information available through 2012. (The site above came under some sort of cyber attack.)

From a scouting report compiled in August 2013, the following were key observations (italics and underlines are mine):

1) While it has some moving parts, it really looks like a low effort delivery to me. For the most part, he has been a workhorse in Japan, throwing at least 150 innings every season since he first came into the NPB. So handling a full season in the Majors is no problem.
2) He has a small injury history, but obviously no major injuries (and we will see that his fastball velocity is actually going up).
3) The conundrum is that even at age 24, his arm already has a lot of miles on it.
a: He threw 186.1 innings as an 18 year old, and he has had a few 130 plus pitch outings this year and like many Japanese aces.
b: He is strong, every pitcher is different, and he could handle all the innings when he was younger and can handle above average pitch counts when needed
c: This [possibly] means that he will not age as well as most 24 year old pitchers would, and he is due for an injury as shoulder and elbow (or just general body) fatigue catches up.

4) Tanaka seems to be more of a high ball pitcher, especially above the strike zone, than a low ball pitcher. He is going for the strikeout, not the groundball. He also has a good balance of glove side and arm side pitches.
5) He doesn’t have a real sinker, but it can work like one. He can show the traditional 2-seam movement, coming back arm side, or he can throw what looks like a straight fastball down and away from lefties.
6) Though he uses the slider more, this is his best pitch in my opinion. The movement is both arm side and down, more aggressive than a traditional changeup, but not the straight down movement of a true forkball. Some of the worst swings I have ever seen in high level professional baseball have come off Tanaka’s splitter

Tanaka’s pitch usage:

Season Fastball Curve Slider Changeup Cut Fastball 2-Seamer Forkball Sinker Special
2012 36.7% 4% 28.8% 1.9% 0.4% 13.2% 15% 0% 0%
2011 39.3% 3.9% 29.6% 2.3% 0% 10% 14.9% 0% 0%
2010 38.7% 4% 29.2% 3.7% 0.3% 11.7% 12.5% 0% 0%
2009 41.9% 3.8% 30.6% 2.4% 0.3% 8% 12.9% 0% 0%

Another analysis has to be done on his metrics versus comparable players in the same league. We have very few data points, so I improvised based on the known quantities and qualities. Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka are the most comparable track records to use when determining whether Tanaka is a $90 million investment option of worth. (Both Yu’s and Daisuke contract’s within the Japanese posting system topped $95 million.)

A few graphs:

What one can surmise from these few data points for each player (I’d like 10-12, but 7/8 will do):

1) Tanaka’s K rate has not be influenced by his getting older, little correlative value (5%). This concerns because he does tend to go after strikeouts from the scouting report, pitching up in the zone. His K rate does not jibe with his success in 2013. However, he walks very few batters; and did escape the juiced ball effects in Japan that others fell victim to in 2013.
2) Tanaka’s control and command is his best tool, as he started out better than Yu, and has trended very well downward.
3) His ERA has trended well with age too. Experience has served him well, developing into a top arm in his league.
4) His Inning Pitched pattern is more Daisuke Matsuzaka’s than Yu Darvish’s. At this point, it could mean nothing; or, it does bode for a breakdown in effectiveness?

So, is Masahiro’s pitching worth the $90 million?

Well, a few things. The Japanese posting system is projected to change this year. It will open up the market, which will likely effect the pricing. Teams in New York and LA and even, Texas, might like to add Tanaka. Experience and successes with Asian-born players (Ryu in LA; Kuroda and Ichiro, both now in NY) makes it more likely to do more of the same.

The 2014 free agent class of pitching is rather dull in the MLB. No pitcher is under 26 hitting the market. Those with stock rising are #2 class pitchers (Garza, Santana, Shields); a couple once were the blue chippers – Lincecum and Halladay – but injuries and lost velocity pretty much makes them in-name-only pitchers. The rest are flawed in any number of ways.

With that, paying $13-16 million for 5-6 seasons (with a portion going to Japan, with currency implications having some potential impact, depending on how the posting is paid out and the value of the Yen/$), I will say this: it depends.

If a team like Chicago is willing to spend $80-95 million to land Tanaka, they best do a long hard look at the implications of his failure. Can that money be spread around to 2-4 position free agents for 3-4 years? Or a key offensive player or two with an MLB track record? Or could they target someone else?

Chicago, as a fan, has come off the worst 2-year offensive stretch in franchise history, and 5 years straight of a declining offense. The pitching, in 2013, was not their problem. (Though it never hurts to get better.) They play in a finicky ballpark. Wind blows out – look out. Wind in – nice if you could walk and steal a base. Pitchers that can’t get ground balls consistently, get burnt badly. (See below graph of Tanaka’s pitch location.)

Year  W Runs Allowed BatAge PitchAge Batters Pitchers
2013 66 600 672 27.9 28.7 56 31
2012 61 613 759 27.8 27.9 53 30
2011 71 654 756 29.3 29.4 42 22
2010 75 685 767 29.4 28.2 44 23
2009 83 707 672 29.9 28.4 45 24
2008 97 855 671 30.1 28.9 42 23
2007 85 752 690 29.3 28.4 47 22
2006 66 716 834 28.6 28 46 23
2005 79 703 714 29.7 28.2 46 22
2004 89 789 665 30.1 29.1 43 19
2003 88 724 683 31.3 28.2 42 17
2002 67 706 759 30.2 27.6 44 22
2001 88 777 701 30.7 29.8 43 20

Tanaka may be a TOR pitcher, or he could be Daisuke Matsuzaka. Good for 2 seasons, then a 2MPH velocity drop on his fastball turns him into just another bullpen guy; starting pitching fodder for vengeful hitters once made foolish by his Gyroball.

Tanaka is at his likely peak for velocity. He’s 25; able to do some good for 2, maybe, 3 seasons. Then, I’d expect a fall off due to those innings pitched starting to show their ugly head. Maybe not too. It again depends.

If he lands in Chicago, the team is still a ways from being a contender in a tough division where the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds are all still fairly young and talented. How will he personally adapt to Chicago? (The Cubs could have a reliever of Asian descent, Kyuji Fujikawa, that could also be on the team in 2014.)

If in Chicago, can Masahiro adjust his stuff to a Wrigley Field that eats up guys that pitch up? (Above % of Pitches). Does he stay in command, walk very few guys, adjust to a 5-man rotation (Japan is 6-man ), and can he move a bit away from his heavy slider dependence?

Would I spend $90 million on Tanaka? 
No. But someone will, if allowed.

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