Who is Masahiro Tanaka?
By Ben Ozur
As is it wasn’t enough for the Yankees to sign All-Stars Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, they had to go out and get Masahiro Tanaka, a Japanese-born pitcher who was widely considered the best starting pitcher on the free agent pitcher. But, considering he has yet to pitch in the MLB yet, what should they expect out of him? The answer: there’s no real way of knowing.
There’s no denying the dominance that Tanaka presented in the Japanese league. Many people have compared him to Yu Darvish, the runner-up in the AL Cy Young award voting in 2013, in their numbers in the Japanese league and say that this is a good way to prove that he will have similar success in the MLB. What people neglect to acknowledge is that those numbers were also similar to those of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Though he had good numbers in his first few years in the US, he burned out quickly. Many people consider that hefty contract a failure for the Red Sox, but who’s to say that Tanaka won’t be the same for the Yankees?
In fact, if you were to rank the greatest Japanese-born pitchers in MLB history, once you get past Hideo Nomo, the list is really thin. The next few guys are most likely Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma (third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2013), Hiroki Kuroda, and Koji Uehara. The first two of those only have two years of experience, so there’s no way to call them successes quite yet. For the most part, there have been more failures from Japanese-born pitchers coming stateside, namely Matsuzaka, Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa, Hisanori Takahashi, Ryota Igarashi, and Yoshinori Tateyama. All of these guys were seen as high-ceiling guys, so teams paid them big bucks. None of them really panned out at all.
What about his workload? He pitched in the Japanese league for seven years, collecting an astounding 1315 IP before the age of 25. That’s eerily similar to the beginning of Frank Tanana’s career. In his first six seasons (all of which were before the age of 25), he had 1321 IP. To that point, no one could deny the success Tanana had up to that point, considering his three All-Star appearances and three top-10 Cy Young award finishes. However, he really burned out. From 1979-1993, he had a 100 ERA+ (ERA adjusted for ballparks and league-average offense that year), which is considered league-average. In fact, from 1978-1993, he only had 6 seasons with an ERA+ over 100 (which means he was only above league-average 6 of those 16 seasons). With these two pitchers having very similar early-career successes and heavy workloads, could Tanaka burn out in a similar way that Tanana did?
It’s not a guarantee that Tanaka will be a failure (at least the Yankees hope not). With his dominant split-finger fastball, many people compare him to the early years of Iwakuma and Dan Haren. Those are two very favorable comps. But again, there’s no way of knowing.
Did the Yankees take a risk in signing this guy? Absolutely. The Yankees signed a guy that has not thrown a pitch against MLB hitters. Adding the $20M posting fee, they spent $175M to acquire his services for seven years. This is the exact same contract that the Mariners gave as an extension to Felix Hernandez. At the time of the extension, Hernandez was clearly a proven elite starting pitcher. The same cannot be said for Tanaka.
No one in recent history has dominated the Japanese league the way that Tanaka did (except for Darvish, perhaps). But that doesn’t guarantee success for him here in the United States. We won’t know exactly what to make out of this guy until he debuts with the Yankees.
Ben Ozur is an absolute baseball guru. He is a huge Mets, Jets, Knicks and Islanders fan whose life revolves around fantasy sports.