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Will Masahiro Tanaka be worth the hype?

With Masahiro Tanaka expected to make up his mind about where he wants to play in 2014, and with a number of very interested teams and fanbases holding their breath, just what can we expect from Tanaka this next season?

Koji Watanabe

Masahiro Tanaka has been dominating the baseball news cycle for the greater part of three months, every non-Alex Rodriguez piece of sportswriting being devoted the question of "Where will Masahiro Tanaka go? How much will he make? What will happen to the free agents who are waiting for Tanaka to sign? Where are my car keys, does Masahiro Tanaka have them?"

With an answer expected sometime in the next day or two, the deadline for reaching an agreement this Friday, all answers will be given soon. And, joyfully in the case of Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, and Ervin Santana, the free agent market will be open for shopping once again.

But just what will Tanaka's 2014 look like? That's the real burning question here. This is what we know:

  • He will be 25 years old next season.
  • He was an absurd 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season.
  • Like many Japanese hurlers, he throws a full and beautiful bouquet of pitches, including a fastball, splitter, slider, curveball, and an occasional cutter. According to Ben Badler at Baseball America, the fastball, splitter, and slider all grade out as 60+ on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale. In layman's terms, they're wicked good pitches.
  • He is a phenomenal dancer.

You can even watch all 200 of his strikeouts from last season here. Go ahead, I'm sure you have nothing more important to be doing with your time. It's a silent clip, too, so you can only hear your heart begin to race as you watch batter after batter flail at that splitter dropping at the plate.

But as the Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, White Sox, and maybe even Astros wait to hear if they'll be playing host to Tanaka next season, will he be worth all the hype?

So we have a place to start from, here were Tanaka's numbers in Japan last season:

Year Age Tm Lg Lev W L ERA IP WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2013 24 Rakuten JPPL Fgn 24 0 1.27 212.0 0.943 7.1 0.3 1.4 7.8 5.72

Wow, those are pretty. Those are very, very pretty. That's the type of pitching line that causes people to get flush in the face and close their laptop screens when someone else walks in the room.

Given the outcry for Tanaka, most people may think that his best comp is to Yu Darvish. Here is Darvish's last season in Japan and his first in the States:

Year Age Tm Lg W L ERA IP WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
2011 24 NPN-JP Fgn 18 6 1.44 232.0 0.828 6.1 0.2 1.4 10.7 7.67
2012 25 TEX AL 16 9 3.90 191.1 1.280 7.3 0.7 4.2 10.4 2.48 AS,CYA-9,RoY-3

It's almost universal that pitchers who come over from Japan immediately see a sharp increase in their walks. Even though Darvish has overpowering stuff, against the less accomplished hitters in Japan, he didn't need to be perfect with his pitches, he could simply use any of his roughly 18 pitches to watch them flail helplessly. But in the major leagues, Darvish has had to be finer with his pitches, working more towards the corners, at times seeming to nibble at the corners, not wanting to attack batters.

And that's while he has a better, more lively fastball. Darvish regularly sits in the mid-to-upper 90s with his heater, while Tanaka's hovers in the low-90s and can get flat at times.

Thanks to Tanaka's splitter, he may actually be more similar to Hisashi Iwakuma, the woefully underrated Mariners starter.

Year Age Tm Lg W L ERA IP WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2011 30 TOH-JP Fgn 6 7 2.42 119.0 1.050 8.0 0.5 1.4 6.8 4.74
2012 31 SEA AL 9 5 3.16 125.1 1.277 8.4 1.2 3.1 7.3 2.35

Again, as we noted before, Iwakuma's walks spiked along with home runs when he joined the Mariners, though, oddly enough, so did his strikeouts.

And finally, from six years ago, almost a lifetime, we have Hiroki Kuroda, another lover of the splitter:

Year Age Tm Lg W L ERA IP WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2007 32 HIR-JP Fgn 12 8 3.56 179.2 1.213 8.8 1.0 2.1 6.2 2.93
2008 33 LAD NL 9 10 3.73 183.1 1.216 8.9 0.6 2.1 5.7 2.76

Okay, this one's all over the place. Sure, we get the drop in strikeouts, but no changes in walks, home runs, or hits? That's, man, it's almost as if each one of these pitchers is completely unique and there are too many variables to boil this all down. I mean, how the hell are we supposed to make informed opinions if everything is random and chaotic?

One of the knocks against Tanaka is that his strikeout rate is not only much lower than Darvish's, but that it's been falling for three straight years, going from 9.6 to 8.8 to 7.8 last season. Perhaps that's a sign of Tanaka's maturation, finding success without striking everybody out.

Perhaps it's a sign of overuse, of wear and tear on his young arm.

Perhaps it's meaningless, just a bizarre aberration that says nothing more. But it is something to be noted.

Because Tanaka strikes out fewer batters and relies on contact, the difference in ballpark and infield defense could be a big deal for him -- Dodger Stadium potentially treating him kinder than would Wrigley or US Cellular. Iwakuma, in part, has kept his ERA down thanks to Seattle's spacious outfield, a strong ground ball rate, and a high percentage of batters left on base (81.9% over the last two years, highest in baseball).

So what can we expect from Tanaka? First, we can cut down on some of Tanaka's innings, the team that signs him probably wanting to start out conservatively with his pitch counts.

And go ahead and tick those walks per nine up a little. Even with his great command, he's going to be adapting to a new baseball and more advanced hitters that will routinely work the count.

And then go ahead and nudge down his strikeouts a tad while bumping up the ERA some to reflect the larger number of home runs he'll invariably surrender. (This is fun. Like using Photoshop to give people one tiny hand.)

Using the awesome computing power of the human brain, this gives us:


3.20 ERA, 185 IP, 1.0 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 6.9 K/9

I like those numbers. That looks like a good, fairly conservative estimate based on his abilities and prior performance history.

And do you know who that is?

Jordan Zimmermann, the highly valuable Nationals pitcher:

Year Age Tm ERA IP HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2013 27 WSN 3.25 213.1 0.8 1.7 6.8

And Ervin Santana, one of those patiently waiting for Tanaka to sign so that he can get his money.

Year Age Tm ERA IP HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2013 30 KCR 3.24 211.0 1.1 2.2 6.9

With the understanding that a win is worth $7 million, each of these players was worth $20 million plus, or, roughly in the neighborhood of the six years, $120 million we've been hearing that's been tossed around for Tanaka.

Of course, Tanaka could be much worse. He could be a complete flameout, a total bust. His arm could disintegrate in July, like a meteor burning up upon entering the atmosphere, our conservative, back-of-the-envelope estimate looking more like the lucid dreams of a crazed man.

Or Tanaka could outperform those numbers. Given his youth and his good "pitchabiity," Tanaka could come to the States and dominate, moving the ball back and forth, up and down with Madduxian ease.

Factor in the extra exposure in Japan, increased revenue from ticket sales and the "MasaHERO" action figures (god, I want one right now), and the money won't mean much to teams.

And if he can perform like a Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation, than he's a top-25 starter in the major leagues, either helping push a team like the Diamondbacks into the playoffs or kickstarting a rebuilding effort in Chicago. Add in his age, and all of that comes complete with the hope that he can continue to improve as he adapts to the league and its beefy sluggers.

The media attention on Tanaka has been intense, and the money shelled out will be huge, but will Tanaka be worth it? The answer is yes.