The month spanning Christmas Day to Jan. 24 is going to be something unlike we have seen in recent baseball history. We could call it “The Month of Tanaka,” but I prefer to look it at as a 13th sign of the zodiac, one that will showcase all of the good, the bad and the ugly in the baseball business. The ultra-predictable United States sports calendar—which can basically be programmed a year in advance—is about to be given quite a jolt. The posting and eventual signing of Masahiro Tanaka has the potential to become the ultimate month-long sports reality show. You don’t think so? Consider this:
— He’s good. Potentially really good. He was good enough to strike out 196 batters in 186 innings in 2007 in the Japanese major leagues. At 18 years old. When Yu Darvish was 18, in 2005, he struck out 52 batters and walked 48 in his first major-league season. Tanaka went 99-35, 2.30, with a 1,235/275 K/BB ratio in 1,315 innings in seven years in Japan. Darvish went 93-38, 1.99, with a 1,250/333 K/BB in 1,268 innings in his seven years in Japan. Pretty darned comparable. Darvish’s K rate spiked in his final two years in Japan, while Tanaka’s raw numbers had less spectacular spikes throughout his tenure.
This past season, however, was the year of the rabbit ball in Japan, as Wladimir Balentien bested the all-time single-season Japanese home-run record. Tanaka, meanwhile, celebrated this change by managing contact better than he ever had, posting a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA in a season where the Japanese Pacific League’s overall ERA rose from 3.03 to 3.57. Tanaka allowed all of six homers in 212 innings. Of course, we know ERA is a very limited statistic, but this guy clearly dominated Japan much like Darvish did—and at a younger age—albeit with less raw stuff.
About the stuff…. Like most Japanese pitchers who have come to the U.S., Tanaka has a diverse pitch arsenal. He throws a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, cutter, slow curve, slider, changeup and splitter. Interestingly, he seems to be one of those guys who doesn’t have an overwhelming “out” pitch; he’s instead more of a control pitcher — a “performer” type who outpitches his raw stuff. He’s the type of guy who analysts tend to like more than scouts. The only pitch consistently rated as a plus offering is his splitter. His fastballs flash plus velocity, but generally fall just short of that level. He throws his slider often, but it isn’t his most consistent pitch. His curve is more of a slow, looping change-of-pace pitch. The potential difference-maker — for better or for worse — just might be his ability to get outs up in the zone with his fastball. More on that, and how that helps him measure up with his potentially his most comparable major league counterpart, later.
— He’s in his prime. Unlike the vast majority of major league free agents, Japanese or not, Masahiro Tanaka is going to, at least in theory, be paid not for what he’s already done, but for what he is going to do. He is all of 25 years old. The vast majority of large free-agent contracts going back over many years have proven to be poor investments. You simply pay top-dollar-market-value per win in the free-agent market. You have to go back to the first Alex Rodriguez mega-contract to even come close to getting so many of a player’s prime years available on the market. Oh, and this isn’t the only way that A-Rod figures prominently in the Tanaka Sweepstakes. More on that later, as well.
— He’s the first true star-level Japanese free agent. Darvish wasn’t a free agent. Daisuke Matsuzaka wasn’t a free agent. Ichiro Suzuki wasn’t a free agent. They negotiated with one U.S. club after multiple clubs bid against one another in the previous posting system, in which the Japanese club earned the dollars generated by the free market. Now, for the first time, teams have to commit a relatively low $20 million entry fee that doesn’t have to be paid unless they are the prevailing club, as their ticket into the proceedings. Then the free market kicks in, and the player, not the Japanese club, is the benefactor of any speculative bidding that ensues. All 30 teams could — and probably should, in this case — negotiate with the player, instead of one.
— Baseball is swimming in money. All teams are in the process of receiving a huge national-television-revenue bump. Many individual clubs have either just renegotiated or are about to renegotiate their local cable TV contracts, and some have bought or have heavily invested in their own regional cable networks. This could prove to be a short-term speculative bubble, at least in some markets, but it will not burst before Tanaka receives his many millions.
— Teams have planned their entire offseasons around Tanaka. There was a significant pre-Winter Meetings flurry of player movement, and the free-agent position player market in general has been fairly well picked over, with a couple of exceptions. On the other hand, most of the top free-agent starting pitchers are still on the board, sitting there for weeks and waiting with the rest of us for the Tanaka decision. On top of all of this, baseball’s richest club, the New York Yankees, may or may not have more than $25 million in 2014 payroll dollars freed up by the pending A-Rod suspension appeal decision. (This thing really has been pending for awhile, hasn’t it?) Not too many people are in the business of feeling sorry for the Yankees, but, despite some big-ticket acquisitions, they’ve had their offseason hijacked by the extended decision-making process, and could be readying their ultimate revenge.
The decision has finally been made to post Tanaka, and general manager after general manager has been quoted saying something to the effect of: “We like our club, we’ll only make another significant move if it’s for a special player.” Which roughly translates to: “We’re done, unless Tanaka’s posted, in which case we’ll bid the GDP of a growing third-world country for him.” “Special” is a tricky word, which doesn’t necessarily mean “outstanding,” but Tanaka clearly qualifies as special on many levels, so these recently quoted GMs and many others are ready to rock-and-roll.
How might teams value Tanaka? Analytics are of limited help, as the data available for Japanese players — while growing, thanks to the existence of organizations like ScoutDragon — is nowhere near as comprehensive as it is for Major League Baseball. Therefore, traditional scouting is relied upon much more heavily when evaluating Japanese players. As mentioned earlier, Tanaka has some limitations with regard to raw stuff, compared to a guy like Darvish. There are some clear takeaways from a cursory analysis of Japanese statistics, however: The caliber of play is much higher in the United States, so great dominance must be seen in the Japanese raw numbers. Batting average translates quite well for high-end hitters, but power must be dialed way down. For pitchers, K and walk rates have to be brought down a bit, but authority on batted balls allowed has to be dialed way up, even after the 2013 rabbit-ball effect.
Before 2013, Tanaka didn’t fare particularly well in regards to authority of contact allowed. In fact, he allowed a higher batting average on balls put in play than that of fellow ERA qualifiers in each year from 2009 to 2012. In 2013, though, he made major BABIP improvements, and was much better than his starting-pitcher peers. At this point, we don’t have enough evidence to declare Tanaka’s improvements in this regard in 2013 were any more than a typical one-year outlier. Tanaka’s success to date has had much more to do with his superior K and BB rates than with the relative authority of contact he generates.
So what will he ultimately be? As stated earlier, the separator could be his ability — or inability — to get outs with his fastball up in the zone. This skill has been Jered Weaver’s separator throughout his career. Like Tanaka, Weaver’s raw stuff grades out just fine, but is a cut below that of other elite hurlers. Weaver has ridden high popup rates and very low walk rates to earn his place among the game’s best, though he has begun to slip from his perch a bit. The best-case scenario for Tanaka would appear to be a combination of better-than-league-average K and BB rates, a solid popup rate and a higher-than-average groundball rate, thanks to his splitter.
This is likely a less-than-1%-probability scenario, as it is exceedingly hard to pull off the popups and the groundballs. More than likely, one will have to be sacrificed for the other, and we are left either with a Jered Weaver-type, low-BB, high-popup guy with a tendency to allow homers, or a Hiroki Kuroda/Adam Wainwright-type groundball guy with a low walk rate. And that’s if all goes well.
This extremely highly compensated free agent is going to roll into spring training — and have his entire preparation process adjusted, in all likelihood. The workload for a Japanese starting pitcher isn’t necessarily heavier, but it certainly is different. Instead of working every fifth day over a 162-game season, they work every seventh day over a 144-game season. They also throw more innings and more pitches per start. It’s basically a very long U.S. college baseball season for a Japanese starting pitcher, with the total number of innings for top U.S. and Japanese starters actually being quite similar.
When Hisashi Iwakuma joined the Seattle Mariners in the spring of 2012, major training adjustments needed to be made to prepare him for the grind of a season in the United States. Iwakuma’s spring training was almost totally devoted to conditioning, and he worked out of the bullpen for most of the first half of the season to fine-tune his pitch precision. Tanaka is physically stronger and much younger than Iwakuma, but it is quite likely that Tanaka will have his own unique set of physical hurdles to encounter in his first major league season, and there are no guarantees the transition will be seamless.
— What’s going to happen? Well, it’s already happening. Has there ever been real baseball news on Christmas Day before? There was this year. Tanaka was posted. He has an agent, and in Casey Close, it’s one of the best. Not only is Tanaka a baseball star of the highest order, he is also married to a Japanese pop star, Mai Satoda. (Close is also married to a media star himself, Fox News’ anchor Gretchen Carlson.) This is not going to just be a U.S. baseball story, this is going to be an international multimedia sensation, taking place during one of the slowest periods in the U.S. sports year. There will be NFL playoffs on the weekends, but Tanaka-fest is going to take root for the next month. Stand down, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana — we’ll get back to you during Super Bowl-hype week. Every team should absolutely commit to the $20 million entry fee. It’s terrible public relations for any club that doesn’t.
There will be some teams that, dubiously, don’t post the fee. There will be some that do, and are never considered contenders, either in their minds or Tanaka’s or Close’s. There will, however, be a critical mass of true contenders sprinkled across the country and in both leagues, and we are likely to be treated to a month-long reality show as Tanaka barnstorms from city to city. We don’t know much about Masahiro Tanaka, the person, but we’re about to find out. Will he be motivated almost solely by the financial component, as most current major league free agents are? Or will quality of life play a larger role? One has to assume he’s about to run a geographical gauntlet that includes multiple stops in the Boston-to-Washington metroplex, a stop or two in the Heartland, maybe one in Texas, possibly three in California, plus the Pacific Northwest. On each stop, the home city will attempt to put its best foot forward, and Tanaka will meet with dignitaries, tour neighborhoods, and potentially be cheered by thousands of people who have never seen him pitch.
Which brings us back to a significant point:
— Until very recently, clubs have been reticent to bestow contracts of more than four or five years upon even the best starting pitchers. And that’s with good reason. Pitchers get hurt. All the time. The ones who have broken through and got the big, longer-term deals — the Sabathias, the Felixes, the Verlanders — compiled massive major league track records at relatively young ages before securing big paydays. On the other hand, relatively little is known about Tanaka’s ability to perform on baseball’s biggest stage. And he is going to get PAID. Big time. As we’ve discussed, there is a pretty solid amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest he’ll be a very good major league pitcher, but there’s absolutely nowhere near the level of certainty that there was for the aforementioned starting pitchers who would appear on a Mount Rushmore of their peers in the past decade.
Is Tanaka’s stuff going to play? What about the workload? Remember, this guy threw 160 pitches as a starter one day in the recent Japan Series, and he came in to close out the clincher the following day. When you get down to it, there is arguably as much chance that he’s the next Matsuzaka as he is the next Darvish. And he’s going to be paid way more than either of those two. He’s going to be paid more than even the most optimistic of analysts has speculated to date. His talent, his timing, plus the real and perceived economics of the game and a good, old-fashioned gold-rush mentality, are all coming together in a perfect storm that will be televised for our enjoyment. This truly is going to be insane.