How good will he be in the majors though? Time will tell, but teams have to take a crack at a valuation of him right now.
This post is my crack at figuring out what Tanaka is worth.
My methodology: While much of Tanaka's value is in his long-term potential, figuring out how he's likely to do in 2014 is enough of a chore. However, if we can devise a reasonable valuation for Tanaka in 2014, we have probably got the most salient piece of information in his valuation. Guys like Robinson Cano and Shin-Soo Choo got big contracts that make sense with how good they are right now, but probably won't look good down the road.
Furthermore, by limiting the question to how Tanaka does in only 2014, the question itself fundamentally changes: how have previous starting pitchers done as they transition from Japan to Major League Baseball? Few Japanese pitchers have been posted at such a young age, but if we consider pitchers at any age, the list more than doubles. That still means a small list, but at least a bigger small list - big enough to make a better case for some patterns that we can apply to Tanaka. It wouldn't be smart to ignore age when considering long-term value, but over the course of one season, fluctuations based on aging curves aren't very pronounced. The transition to a new league certainly looms as a larger factor.
My method is rough and far from perfect, but it provides a reasonable starting point to discuss Tanaka's value. I considered nine pitchers* who made the jump from starting in Japan to starting in the majors, and classified them in three groups based on their WAR** in their first year.
*I thought of these pitchers off the top of my head. There may very well be other relevant pitchers I could include. Leave them in the comments if you think of others!
**I'll be using Baseball-reference WAR totals in this article, and they tend to be higher than Fangraphs WAR totals in case you are used to those.
Here we go:
Cream of the Crop
- Hideo Nomo (4.7 WAR) - Nomo is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, so this is a blast from the past. He erupted on the scene when he debuted for the Dodgers in 1995, thanks to a quirky wind-up and devastating split finger. Quite frankly, Nomo wasn't all that good his last year in Japan, except for a high strikeout total. Somehow, his contact rate and walk rates went down in the Majors while his strikeout rate went even higher. I attribute his early success to his his funky wind-up, and as the league adjusted to him, he regressed into a decent starting pitcher. Hitters figured out how to make more contact and an elevated walk rate returned.
- Daisuke Matsuzaka (4.1 WAR) - "Dice-K" became an insufferable pitcher to watch after a few years, thanks to his laborious pace and constant nibbling around the corners. However, he was a ballyhooed talent when he came to the Majors and did not disappoint early on. His last season in Japan was phenomenal, punctuated by a sub-1.00 WHIP and more than a strikeout an inning. Matsuzaka's strikeout rate remained high in the Majors, though the walks, home runs, and hits all increased. Interestingly, his stat lines early in his Japanese career suggests he was quite the nibbler (lots of walks, not a lot of hits) and it seems that he eventually reverted back to this form as time wore on in the Majors.
- Yu Darvish (3.9 WAR) - Darvish was other-worldly in Japan before entering the Majors, with an ERA under 2.00 for 5 consecutive seasons suggesting his dominance in every phase of pitching. He maintained a high strikeout rate in his first year in the Majors, though his walks, home runs, and hits all increased. Still, he was very good, and for what it's worth his game went a new level in 2013, his second season in the Majors.
- Hiroki Kuroda (2.7 WAR) - Kuroda never struck guys out in Japan, and never issued walks. His last season in Japan wasn't particularly good by his standards (perhaps bad luck on balls in play?), and maybe as a result some better luck resulted in no drop-off as he went to the Dodgers. He is also one of the few Japanese pitchers that didn't suffer an elevated home run rate. This might have been helped some by a bad year in Japan before he came, and also settling into the friendly confines of Chavez Ravine.
- Masato Yoshii (2.5 WAR) - Yoshii pitched to contact in Japan with a K/9 of only 5.8! However, he also never walked batters and didn't give up home runs (or many hits for that matter). The wily veteran got hit a bit harder in the Majors, but also got a few more strikeouts, and maintained a stingy walk rate (just 2.8 in 9 innings, up from 2.5 per 9 his last season in Japan). Frankly, Yoshii was an underrated pitcher because he churned out good-but-not-great numbers in all pitching categories. That's valuable over 150-180 innings.
- Wei-Yin Chen (2.1 WAR) - Chen also got by in Japan as an elite pitch-to-contact guy (7.5 H/9, 1.7 BB/9, 5.1 K/9). He adapted to the majors much like Yoshii - more hits, a home run rate that tripled, but still great control with more strikeouts.
- Hisashi Iwakuma (2.0 WAR) - Iwakuma's best asset in Japan was his pinpoint control (just 1 walk per 9 innings his last season in Japan). His walk rate in the majors skyrocketed to 3.1 per 9 innings, but his strikeouts also went up (along with hits and home runs). Add it all up and he was pretty good before his phenomenal 2013
- Kei Igawa (-0.4 WAR) - The Yankees signed Igawa the same year the Red Sox grabbed Matsuzaka, and with a fair amount of buzz. However, Igawa never produced in the majors. He got hammered in the majors, simply put. His only redeeming quality was a decent strikeout rate, but it wasn't nearly enough to offset all the hits, home runs, and walks. Interestingly, Igawa was also homer-prone in Japan, and only had a few seasons in Japan with fewer than 8 hits per 9 innings. He also had control issues early in his career that seemed to come back when the competition got tougher.
- Hideki Irabu (-0.9 WAR) - Much like Igawa, Irabu got tattooed his first year in the Majors. However, he rebounded to post a few somewhat productive seasons as a back-of-the-rotation starter. In Japan, Irabu posted low hit totals and high strikeout totals with middling home run and walk rates. Honestly, his numbers suggest bad luck as a Yankee rookie; his second season makes more sense than his first one. Still an elevated home run rate, but walks and hits under control at the expense seemingly at the expense of strikeouts.
Tanaka's Track Record
- Strikeouts: Tanaka's strikeout rate has sat around 8.0 per 9 innings, which for the purposes of this study is interesting. That puts Tanaka comfortably ahead of the pitch-to-contact guys in the "solid additions" category, but behind the likes of Nomo, Matsuzaka, and Darvish. Scouts suggest that Tanaka's stuff is good, but not like Darvish's, so it seems unlikely he will be known for high strikeout totals.
- Walks: Tanaka has never walked many batters, even at an extremely young age. That sets him apart from virtually everyone that has made the jumped to the majors. It certainly makes him distinct from busts like Igawa and Irabu. His walk totals are most similar to the "solid additions." All of them saw their walk rates elevate, but stay average to above-average by MLB standards.
- Home runs: Basically every Japanese pitcher gives up more home runs in MLB. This is likely due to the way baseball is played in MLB. There are more home runs in general at the expense of contact. Japan is much more into "small ball" than MLB. Tanaka, for his Japan career, gave up a home run every 18 innings, which is an astoundingly low rate. That will certainly jump in MLB, but it's hard to see him giving up a ton of taters.
- Hits: Tanaka have average 8.0 hits per 9 innings in Japan, though he has dipped closer to 7.0 per 9 the past 3 seasons. That makes him somewhat hard to hit, but not as hard as would be expected from his strikeout and home run totals. Japanese hitters seemed to square him up more than other pitchers who jumped to the majors. Virtually all Japanese pitchers, with the exception of Nomo, saw increases in their hit totals. Tanaka will likely follow suit, which means he will be rather hittable as a rookie.
Overall, Tanaka is scary to project because he doesn't fit into any of the three categories I identified. This might be partly due to the small sample size (maybe there aren't categories at all; it just looks that way with so few players to consider) but I think it's something more. Somehow, Tanaka gives up quite a few hits with a fair amount of strikeouts, no walks, and no home runs. It's a quixotic combination.
There's also Tanaka's ERA to consider - under 2.00 in 3 consecutive seasons. Is there some sort of pitching to the situation that Tanaka does? It's one thing to get lucky for one season, but three seasons in a row suggests a skill or strategy somewhere in there. Basically, Tanaka allowed as few runs as Yu Darvish with inferior hit and strikeout totals, which is interesting. It's hard to say that he had better defense behind him because that better D would limit the hits.
As I stated earlier, Japan carries much more about situational baseball than America at this point. Did Tanaka have ways of exploiting that mentality? I don't know, but those are the kinds of questions that scouts could answer by watching his starts.
The most comparable player to Tanaka is probably Iwakuma, and not just because they both played for the same Japanese team. Iwakuma also had about 8.0 hits per 9 innings but limited walks and home runs. His home run rate went up, but his hit rate went up only a little and his strikeout rate also improved.
My best guess is that Tanaka's home run and walk rates similarly "skyrocket" but his home run rate stays above average and he has an average walk rate. I could easily see the hits and strikeouts staying about the same, or perhaps both elevating just a bit. Chicks dig the long ball in America, they really do, but with those hard hits come strikeouts. Add it all up and I've got Masahiro Tanaka being roughly a 3 WAR player, which puts him in line with Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez's overall production last season, and a step above Matt Garza, the three other top targets left among starting pitchers in free agency. Add in that Tanaka is several years younger than any other pitcher on the market and I think it is justifiable to give Tanaka the longest deal for any starting pitcher in this market, along with the highest average annual value.
There is plenty of debate about the cost of WAR on the open market, but for the sake of this post let's say it is $5.5 million per 1.0 WAR. That's a number somewhere in the middle of estimates, particularly when the friendlier Baseball-reference WAR is figured in. That means I value Tanaka at roughly $16.5 million next season. Multiply that over 7 years (a common length that pops up Tanaka rumors), and that comes to a total of $115.5 million. Take out the $20 million posting fee, and Tanaka sees $95.5 million in his contract.
Long story short, I'd be willing to go 7 years, $100 million for Masahiro Tanaka even after forking over the $20 million posting fee. However, given the new TV revenue flooding into baseball, different WAR valuations, and perhaps the context of the team (how bad do you need a starter?) I could probably be stretched to a figure as high as $120 million, or maybe even $130 million. Tanaka doesn't fit the profile of Japanese pitchers that have busted, so I am pretty confident he will be a legitimate contributor next season. He's also got some real upside, based on his youth, scouting reports on his stuff, and the way that other Japanese pitchers have taken steps forward as they figured out how to handle MLB hitters.
It will be interesting to see how much Tanaka actually gets on the open market. My guess is that he signs in the $120 million range. A team signing him at that value probably won't be getting a good deal, but they may very well get a fair one.