Without throwing a single MLB pitch, Masahiro Tanaka received the fifth biggest contract for a pitcher in baseball history. Needless to say, the expectations for the right-handed are high. The $155 million contract plus the $20 million posting fee make it look like Tanaka could be the next great ace, but in reality, the pitcher simply found himself in the perfect storm of a market to overpay him.
The new CBA has severely limited the amount of money that teams can spend internationally, and very few markets now remain so open. The Japanese market is unrestricted, but the old posting system forced teams to blindly bid against each other to eventually offer a Japanese player a contract with no competitive offers. The new system allows any team to negotiate with any Japanese player, but the price to sign that player is determined by the Japanese team, who could ask for as much as $20 million. At 25 years old, with ace-like upside, Tanaka found himself as one of the youngest and talented free agents in MLB history during this offseason. For $175 million, the Yankees landed him, but how he’ll react to the MLB is a total mystery.
There’s no doubt that Tanaka was an outstanding success in Japan. Over the last three seasons, the right-hander put up ERA’s of 1.27 in 2011, 1.87 in 2012, and 1.27 in 2013. He’ll undoubtedly draw comparisons to the most recent big name pitcher from the NPB, Yu Darvish, who had a 1.73, 1.78, and 1.44 ERA in his final 3 seasons in Japan. Both players came to the MLB at the same age, and with similar rates of success, but Tanaka is also fundamentally different from Darvish in his style of pitching. The 25 year old pitches more to contact, though he’s fully capable of striking out a batter, and owns impeccable command. Darvish’s success in the MLB comes from his sheer stuff, a mid-90′s fastball, and a handful of strikeout pitches with wicked movement.
This difference between the two pitchers has been so thoroughly nailed in to the minds of fans for the last few months that I think we’re at a point where it’s a little unfair to Tanaka. The Yankees’ new Japanese pitcher is no slouch in the strikeout department, and although we’ve seen some decline in his overall strikeouts in the NPB to just 7.8 K/9 in 2013, he owns some of the nastiest out pitches in the world. In early January, I took a look at the PITCHf/x data for Tanaka from his 2009 World Baseball Classic outings and compared that to what we’ve seen from other MLB pitchers. There was undoubtedly small sample size and issues with the relevance of four year old data, but Tanaka’s fastball rise best compared with Clayton Kershaw‘s, his slider to Zack Greinke‘s, and his splitter to Darvish’s. I also put together some GIF’s of that data individually to see how well it translated against MLB hitters Brian Roberts, Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, and David Wright.
Tanaka’s numbers could be a lot more Darvish than we expect. His fastball typically sits in the low-90′s, but in most games he’ll finish the later innings with velocities in the upper-90′s to get that final strike out. As we’ve seen from pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda and Darvish, strikeouts can actually increase for Japanese pitchers heading to the MLB because of the style of play. Hitters in the NPB tend to play more like Ichiro Suzuki, with a contact and slap style of hitting. Hitters in the MLB take a more patient and power-minded approach, often taking pitches on the corners of the strike zone or swinging for the fences on others. While Tanaka will obviously have more trouble with home runs in the upcoming season, he’ll also see more strikeouts.
In his first MLB season, I expect the right-hander to also struggle a bit more with his walk rates. Over the last three seasons, Tanaka’s BB/9 was in the low 1′s, but with a more patient driven lineup in the MLB, that number will probably rise to at least the 2′s, if not the 3′s.
I fully expect him to struggle to adapt to certain things in his first season, but having Hiroki Kuroda in the clubhouse should also help the pitcher adapt to the different baseball culture. The current projection systems have wildly diverging opinions on him, with Steamer giving him a 3.71 ERA, Oliver a 2.59 ERA, and PECOTA a 3.42 ERA. I’m more optimistic than these systems about his strikeout rates, feel about the same about a 2ish BB/9 rate, but more pessimistic about his hittability. His tendency to throw a high rising fastball up in the zone should lead to a number of strikeouts, but it’ll also lead to batters hitting the ball hard and in the air, and in Yankee Stadium, that could be a big problem. His command remands impeccable though, and locating that four-seamer down in the zone should correct those problems. Number-wise, I’ll give him a 3.90 ERA with a tremendous amount of upside on top of that.