Masahiro Tanaka Signs With Rakuten Eagles. Wait, What?

In perhaps the most surprising signing of the off-season, Masahiro Tanaka has agreed to terms with NPB’s Rakuten Eagles. NPB contract details are notoriously difficult to parse, but the anchor number of the hour is $8.6 million per year on a two-year deal, per the Kyodo News. Tanaka will wear No. 18, the number that usually belongs to the staff ace in Japan.

It’s a reunion of player and team, as Tanaka starred for the Eagles prior to signing with New York. In seven years and 176 games with Rakuten, he compiled a 99-35 record with a 2.29 ERA, and I’m comfortable using caveman statistics here because his performance was extraordinary across the board. In his final NPB season, he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, which led to a seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees.

Tanaka’s time in the Bronx was a clear success. He departs the States with a 3.74/3.91/3.52 pitcher slash, which was good for 19 WAR over seven seasons. In that time, he also made four Opening Day starts and two All-Star appearances. With his elegant delivery, dastardly split, and well-rounded pitch mix, he’s been a great pitcher (by WAR, the 19th best starter in baseball since his debut) and a joy for this neutral to watch. He also managed to avoid the Tommy John surgery that seemed inevitable back in 2015, when his elbow barked and he was diagnosed with a partial UCL tear.

At this point, it’s unclear what shaped Tanaka’s choice to leave the U.S. A return engagement with the Yankees clearly wasn’t in the cards anymore, after the acquisitions of Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber. But while New York is the only MLB home Tanaka ever knew — and a place he expressed tenderly sentimental feelings toward prior to his final regular season start — he made it clear earlier in the offseason that he was willing to field offers from other big league teams. Whether those wound up being compelling or even forthcoming at all, we can’t say. But it was only in recent days that the rumors surrounding negotiations with Rakuten surfaced; clearly those were very far along.

It’s not hard to imagine why a return to the Eagles enticed Tanaka. He’s maintained a close relationship with his former team over the last several years, even training at the club’s facility in the offseason. There are plenty of non-baseball reasons too. The pandemic is an obvious one, and it must be of some comfort to return to a country averaging roughly the same number of daily cases as the United States have daily deaths. On a more personal level, it’s notable that Tanaka returned to Japan soon after the outbreak in March, in part out of concern for his and his family’s safety.

Even with all that in mind, this is strange. There’s very little precedent for a player with Tanaka’s talent leaving MLB in recent history, particularly at his age. Big league-caliber players head for the Asian leagues every winter, of course, but most of them are roughly replacement level players opting for the certainty of a guaranteed contract in lieu of minor league roulette. It’s also not unusual for Japanese players to play out the twilight of their careers back in NPB, even if they’re still good enough to play in the majors; Hiroki Kuroda did just that after posting a three-win season in 2014.

Kuroda, though, was 39 when he left New York, and he only pitched two more seasons. Tanaka is 32. And while he’s not in the prime of his career, there’s little reason to think he couldn’t be a solid big league contributor for years to come. When we produced our Top 50 Free Agent rankings earlier this winter, Tanaka was listed as the second-best pitcher and seventh-best player overall on our list. In an aside that now looks wildly far of the mark, I wrote at the time that “by any measure, he earned every cent of the $155 million the Yankees paid him. In a fairer world, the 31-year-old would be up for a similar payday. My sense, however, is that he’ll be lucky to make half of that.”

To be sure, Tanaka is not the pitcher he was four or five years ago. He’s outpitched his peripherals in recent seasons, and his batted ball trends are going the wrong way. Hitters have increased their launch angle against him for three years running, while making more and more hard contact on balls in the air. That’s not a great recipe for a guy who lives down in the zone.

But those are reasons to give him three or four years at a modestly lower AAV than he’s accustomed to, not the ‘thanks, but no thanks’ treatment. They may not have even needed to offer him that much, either: Per Andy Martino’s report last week, Tanaka was looking for a one-year deal for around $15-20 million. And if you want to parse Tanaka’s statement today, about his intent to “play for the Rakuten Eagles for the 2021 season,” it doesn’t sound like he’s completly closed the book on his major league career yet.

In the coming days, we’ll presumably learn more about other offers on the table. For now, it’s remarkable that nobody valued Tanaka’s durability and track record enough to pony up. A model of consistency, Tanaka had posted 2.5 WAR or better in each of the past four full seasons, and if you prorate his 2020 numbers to a normal innings total, he’d have cleared that bar again last year as well. You can even dream a little bit on the velocity uptick he saw in 2020, and corresponding increase in swinging strike rate from 2019. Steamer had him as a three-win player in 2021, and while ZiPS is a little more pessimistic, we’re still talking about a good mid-rotation arm here. It boggles the mind that 30 MLB teams effectively passed on him.

Look, it’s no fun at all poking at MLB and its many problems these days. I don’t want to write about all of the ways the league is failing its customers any more than you want to read it. But we can’t take the Tanaka signing, or non-signing depending on your perspective, in a vacuum. Three of the last four free agent markets have been ice cold. For all intents and purposes, the league has a salary cap, and there aren’t many teams at risk of reaching it. A bitter collective bargaining dispute looms. Amidst that landscape, one of the world’s best pitchers is leaving the country in part because nobody in the world’s best league made it a priority to sign him.

That’s a choice, as much a collective one as a series of individual decisions. What that says about the state of the league, and MLB’s place in the broader sport and entertainment industry isn’t entirely clear just yet. But whatever it is, it can’t be anything good.

(Hat tip to Jim Allen and for information used in this article.)

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1 year ago

I certainly hope and it is certainly possible that he misses home, Covid sucks more over here, and he’s already a gazillionaire, and maybe he wants to have a better shot of playing in front of full stadiums? Who knows? But MLB should be at least a bit concerned that it’s the other thing.