The Next Yu Darvish

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2012

Now that Darvish is officially a Texas Ranger, the next Japanese pitcher likely to stir up endless speculation regarding if and when he’ll come to the U.S. is the Rakuten Golden Eagle’s Masahiro Tanaka.  While there is only one Yu Darvish, Tanaka is the only other pitcher in Japan who can really be compared to Darvish.

Darvish and Tanaka were far and away the top two starters in Japan last season and Tanaka is two years younger than Darvish.  Here are their 2011 pitching lines for comparison purposes:

Darvish:  18-6 W/L, 232 IP, 156 hits, 5 HRs and 36 BBs allowed, 276 Ks and 1.44 ERA.

Tanaka:  19-5 W/L, 226.1 IP, 171 hits, 8 HRs and 27 BBs allowed, 241 Ks and 1.27 ERA.

ERAs were ridiculously low in NPB last year with six pitchers posting ERAs below 2.00 out of only 33 starters who threw enough innings to qualify.  Still, Tanaka and Darvish were 1st and 2nd, respectively.

No other pitcher in Japan struck out more than 192 or threw more than 216 innings.

Obviously, Tanaka is no Yu Darvish.  2011 was Darvish’s fifth consecutive season with an ERA below 2.00 and in four of the last five years, Darvish struck out more than 200 and pitched more than 200 innings (Darvish missed three to five starts at the end of 2009 with back and shoulder soreness).

Still, Tanaka is no slouch, having recorded ERA’s of 2.50 and 2.33 the previous two seasons and striking out 196 in 186.1 IP in 2007, his rookie season, and 171 in 189.2 IP in 2009.  Tanaka suffered a right pectoral injury in 2010 that limited him to 150 IP, but he came back strong in 2011 with his best season to date at the tender age of 22.

Like Darvish, Tanaka was pitching in NPB’s major leagues at age 18, which is an incredible accomplishment in and of itself.  Because NPB teams have only one minor league team each, young players can reach the top league much more quickly than in the U.S — you simply don’t see 18 year old starters in the U.S., now or ever, with Mel Ott in 1927 probably coming the closest.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that NPB seems to have a lot more late bloomers (players who have strong careers although not establishing themselves as regulars until age 25 or later) than MLB does.  This may be because their are fewer NPB teams, which means that good minor league players can get stuck if there is a strong player holding their position at the top level.

Like Darvish, Tanaka has thrown an awful lot of innings at a tender age, but has handled it pretty well so far.  NPB’s website lists Tanaka at 6’2″ and 205 lbs, which for a player who only recently turned 23, is certainly big enough to make MLB teams stand up and take notice.

The Golden Eagles had the worst attendance in NPB over the last two seasons, just barely nipping the Yokohama Bay Stars for last place.  One has to think that if Tanaka has a 2012 season anywhere close to his 2011, Yokohama won’t be able to afford him and will be looking to cash in on a likely $40-50 million posting fee (depending on how well Darvish pitches this coming season).

Here is another Japanese pitcher to keep an eye on:

Kenta Maeda:  His 2.46 ERA was 7th best in the Central League last season, and his 216 IP and 192 Ks were third best in all of NPB after, of course, Darvish and Tanaka.  Somehow, pitching that well only resulted in a 10-12 record (there was really no offense in NPB last year at all).

In fact, Maeda was even better in 2010, going 15-8 with a 2.21 ERA and 174 Ks in 215.2 IP.  Maeda is also only seven months older than Tanaka, which means MLB teams are well aware of him.

The biggest knock on Maeda is that he does not have the body MLB teams want to see in their right-handed pitchers.  NPB’s website lists him as only 6’0″ and 161 lbs.

Tim Lincecum has proven a pitcher can be successful with that body type, but it isn’t for nothing they call him “The Freak.”

Maeda’s team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, are another of NPB’s perennial bottom feeders (sorry about the pun — I couldn’t resist), so you have to think they’ll look for a posting payday if Maeda continues to pitch the way he has the last two seasons.

While I’m at it:

Toshiya Sugiuchi:  Sugiuchi is a veteran lefty with terrific stuff.  He won’t be posted, but he’s about to enter his 11th NPB season, which makes you think he’s going to be a true free agent at the end of 2012 or, at the latest 2013  [He was a free agent this off-season -- See below].

Sugiuchi is a hell of pitcher, and he could easily be the next Hiroki Kuroda if he comes to the states.  In fact, he should be better than Kuroda if his NPB numbers mean anything.

Sugiuchi’s 1.94 ERA and 177 Ks were “only” good enough for sixth and fifth, respectively, in all of NPB last season.  However, he has had four other seasons with ERA’s between 2.11 and 2.66 and four seasons with between 204 and 218 Ks, even without ever having pitched 200 innings in a season (he’s fallen a few innings short several times).

Sugiuchi is a small left-hander listed as 5’9″ and 187 lbs.  MLB teams don’t have the same grudge against small LHPs as they do against small RHPs, so I don’t think Suguichi’s small stature will hurt him if MLB teams come calling.

The MLB pitcher Sugiuchi most reminds me of, in terms of size and numbers, is Wandy Rodriguez, another compact lefty with great strikeout stuff.  If Sugiuchi comes to the U.S. as a starter in 2013 at age 32, I would expect his numbers to look a lot like Wandy’s 2011 season.

[Actually, Sugiuchi will probably never come to the U.S.  Further research for this post reveals that Sugiuchi recently signed a four-year free agent contract with the Yomiuri Giants for two billion yen, which is hair less than $26 million at current exchange rates.]

Two other veteran lefties worth mentioning here are Tetsuya Utsumi and Tsuyoshi Wada.  Wada was signed back in December by the Orioles for two years at $8.15 million.

Utsumi pitches for the Yomiuri Giants, along with the Hanshin Tigers, one of the two teams in Japan with the resources to compete with MLB teams in terms of the salaries they can offer, as Suguichi’s new contract suggests.  Thus, Yomiuri may well hold on to Utsumi when he becomes a free agent a couple of years from now.

The Wada signing makes a lot of sense for the Orioles, given their budget limitations.  He’s well worth the risk on $8.15 million over two years.  However, neither Wada nor Utsumi is as good as Sugiuchi.