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Is Masahiro Tanaka Worth the New York Yankees' 'Bold' Interest?

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Is Masahiro Tanaka Worth the New York Yankees' 'Bold' Interest?
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

After keeping it holstered last winter, the word is that the New York Yankees are ready to get their checkbook out again this winter, and that they're not going to be messing around when they do.

That will be the case as far as their pursuit of Japanese right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is concerned anyway, and yours truly is inclined to say "Rightfully so!" to the idea.

Tanaka has been mentioned as a top target of the Yankees before, but it's Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports who has the latest:

Sources with knowledge of the Yankees’ plans said they are 'going to be bold' in bidding on the 25-year-old right-hander when the Rakuten Golden Eagles post him, likely later this month. Just how high the Yankees plan on going is unclear, but executives believe the winning bid for the rights to negotiate a contract with Tanaka will top $75 million, nearly a 50 percent premium over the posting fees for Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Exactly when the Yankees will be able to be bold in their pursuit of Tanaka is the tricky part. Major League Baseball and Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league are between agreements on the posting process, and it may still be some time before a new agreement is struck.

In the meantime, though, we can talk about this. Specifically, we can talk about whether Tanaka is worth so much fuss. I'm of the mind that he is, partially because "so much fuss" is a relative term.

Now, $75 million is a lot of money. But posting fees don't count toward the luxury tax and the Yankees are an extraordinarily rich team, so a $75 million fee just for the rights to negotiate with Tanaka is money they can afford to part with a shrug and a "Meh."

As for what kind of pitcher the Yankees would be negotiating with if they win the bidding, don't ask Tanaka's NPB statistics unless you like the sound of "Squee!" in your ear. 

Via Baseball-Reference.com, they look like this:

Masahiro Tanaka NPB Stats
Year GS ERA WHIP BB/9 K/9 K/BB
2007 28 3.82 1.35 3.3 9.5 2.88
2008 24 3.49 1.30 2.8 8.3 2.94
2009 24 2.33 1.12 2.0 8.1 3.98
2010 20 2.50 1.23 1.9 6.9 3.72
2011 27 1.27 0.88 1.1 9.6 8.93
2012 22 1.87 1.04 1.0 8.8 8.89
2013 27 1.27 0.94 1.4 7.8 5.72
Total 172 2.30 1.11 1.9 8.5 4.50

Baseball-Reference.com

Tanaka's career numbers are outstanding across the board, and "outstanding" doesn't come close to describing his 2011 and 2013 seasons. And while I didn't picture it out of my sympathy for the #KilltheWin movement, it should be noted that Tanaka went 24-0 in 2013.

But of course, we can only put so much stock in these statistics. The competition level of NPB is generally considered to be minor league-ish in nature. Just as dominant minor league numbers only tell you so much, dominant NPB numbers only tell you so much.

The bigger questions are what sort of pitcher Tanaka is, and whether or not his stuff will play against the armed and dangerous hitters of Major League Baseball.

The answers to these questions are about as encouraging as his statistics. Maybe even more so, if you're the sort who goes for nod-and-a-wink teases.

Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

The one number in that table up there that's the least misleading is Tanaka's career BB/9 of 1.9. That says he throws strikes, and that's supposedly as true as the truth gets.

“He is better than [Yu] Darvish because he is a strike thrower,’’ one scout told George A. King III of the New York Post. “Overall, Darvish’s stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch."

An ability to throw strikes and general pitching know-how are things that must not be underrated, for these things can make even a pitcher with pedestrian stuff successful. Numerous pitchers can vouch, including Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma (more on him in a moment) and South Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu.

As for Tanaka's stuff, here's the take of Ben Badler of Baseball America:

At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. Even though Tanaka can reach the mid-90s, his fastball is the pitch that gives some scouts pause because it comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable than the velocity might suggest. Tanaka has two secondary pitches that have earned grades of 60 or better on the 20-80 scouting scale, including a 70 splitter with late downward action to keep hitters off his fastball. His low- to mid-80s slider is another plus weapon, while he’ll mix in a curveball as well.

It's discouraging that Tanaka's fastball is flat. Phil Hughes has a flat fastball. Joe Blanton has a flat fastball. Tim Lincecum's fastball has become pretty flat. They're examples of how flat fastballs are bad.

But two secondary pitches that are plus? That's good. And if you listen to other voices, a 70 grade for Tanaka's splitter might be conservative. Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com recently noted that some scouts think Tanaka's splitter might be the best in the world.

Bold talk. Maybe too bold. But Tanaka's splitter is definitely a good one. You'll notice as much if you skip to around the 0:15 mark in this World Baseball Classic highlight:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The mark of a good splitter is late downward movement, preferably with some horizontal run for maximum bafflingnessness* (*trademark pending).

The splitter Tanaka threw at the 0:15 mark had both these things, as it started to dive here:

...Ended up here:

...And moved like so:

That's tons of late movement going both downward and horizontally, giving Tanaka's splitter the look of the world-class splitter that it's supposed to be. Top marks, indeed.

What's just as encouraging, however, is that he supposedly trusts it completely.

"He throws four pitches but when it gets to [stone]-cutting time, it’s fastball and splitter," said the scout who spoke to King.

I'm a fellow who readily admits to being easily intrigued by such things, but the notion of Tanaka as a fastball-splitter pitcher definitely intrigues me. In part because of something Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote back in May:

The emphasis on velocity and breaking balls in international scouting may very well be causing teams to underestimate the success that pitchers with average fastballs but great splitter/change-ups will have on this side of the ocean.

...these pitches [the splitters and changeups] are often the most effective at neutralizing opposite-handed hitters. By also commanding an average fastball and taking advantage of natural platoon advantages against same-handed hitters, the combination of skills has proven to be quite successful.

For example, take Hiroki Kuroda, Iwakuma and Koji Uehara. They did a fine job of demonstrating Cameron's point in 2013.

According to Brooks Baseball by way of Baseball Prospectus, Kuroda and Iwakuma both ranked in the top five among starting pitchers in splitters thrown. Among relievers, only Edward Mujica threw more splitters than Uehara. All three Japanese imports were hugely splitter-dependent.

Better yet is what Kuroda, Iwakuma and Uehara did against left-handed batters with their splitters.

The Splitters of Kuroda, Iwakuma and Uehara
Pitcher Usage Whiff/Swing GB/BIP AVG ISO
Kuroda 30.66 35.13 65.93 .178 .052
Iwakuma 29.91 30.67 75.41 .207 .078
Uehara 53.70 44.14 49.18 .078 .088

Brooks Baseball

Pictured above is absolute splitter filth. Kuroda and Iwakuma used their splitters to get lefty hitters to whiff, but mainly to put the ball on the ground. Uehara got fewer grounders off the bats of lefty hitters with his splitter, but it's hard to hit on the ground what you can't hit, period.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Pictured: Success.

As for fastball command, that's a tricky thing to quantify. But according to the raw PITCHf/x data found on FanGraphs, Kuroda threw his sinker in the strike zone better than 50 percent of the time, and Iwakuma and Uehara both found the zone better than 60 percent of the time with their heaters. 

As for the natural advantage against right-handed batters, Kuroda, Iwakuma and Uehara had that going for them too. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Kuroda held righty hitters to a .602 OPS, Iwakuma to a .662 OPS and Uehara to a sterling .462 OPS. 

So the formula Cameron outlined was pretty much perfectly demonstrated by Kuroda, Iwakuma and Uehara, and they certainly reaped the benefits. Kuroda and Iwakuma finished in the top 25 among qualified starters in FanGraphs WAR, and no reliever had a higher fWAR than Uehara.

Said formula is one that Tanaka should be able to adhere to and benefit from as well. He absolutely has a splitter that should be hell on lefty hitters. He gets good marks for his command, which will help his suspect fastball. And as a right-handed pitcher, he should be fine against right-handed batters. He'll certainly be better than fine if his slider translates to MLB as well as his splitter.

In short: If Tanaka's going to crash and burn in MLB, I have a hard time imagining it being because his stuff and pitching style isn't cut out to succeed Stateside. 

If there's a concern, it's that Tanaka's arm won't stay healthy enough for him to show off his stuff and pitching style on a consistent basis. I'll let B/R colleague Joe Giglio fill you in on the details, but let's just say that Tanaka's arm already has a lot of miles on it and that him breaking down as a result of those miles is a legit concern.

But since we're being largely optimistic here, it must be noted that there's no such thing as a pitcher on the free-agent market who doesn't have a lot of miles on his arm.

It takes at least six major league seasons preceded by who knows how many minor league seasons for a player to qualify for free agency. The pitchers hitting the market for the first time are all in their late 20s or early 30s. The ones who aren't hitting the market for the first time are in their mid or late 30s.

Tanaka's not in the same boat. He just turned 25 a week ago. So the question I'm going to propose now is one that I presume the Yankees must have kicked around at some point: Would you rather gamble on a 30-year-old with a lot of miles on his arm staying healthy throughout the life of a multiyear deal, or on a 25-year-old with a lot of miles on his arm?

Yeah, I'll take the 25-year-old.

Do you think Masahiro Tanaka is worth a $75 million (at least) posting fee?

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And if Tanaka does stay healthy, another advantage he'll offer is that a multiyear deal would cover the rest of his prime years. A multiyear deal for, say, a 29- or 30-year-old pitcher would cover maybe one, two or at most three of his prime years, leaving the back end open for money to go to waste.

And on that last point, the money the Yankees are looking to pay for Tanaka isn't the kind of money he's going to have no shot of actually earning.

Let's assume that it will be a $75 million posting fee. Then it would be a matter of the Yankees working out a contract, which Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com projects to be somewhere in the $65-75 million neighborhood over six or seven years.

So realistically, the Yankees are looking at a $150 million investment. Over seven years, that's close to $21.5 million per year. Over six years, that's $25 million per year. Currently, only two starting pitchers have contracts with an average annual value that high: Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander.

But you know how many pitchers were actually worth $25 million in 2013? According to FanGraphs' WAR-to-dollars system, there were 10.

In other words: The ability of a pitcher to be worth $25 million is less exclusive than $25 million contracts for pitchers. 

For now, anyway. It must be kept in mind that a lot of money is being pumped into the game, and that a lot of this money is going to be pumped into contracts. As a result, a single win above replacement is going to become worth more money.

A few years from now, I won't be surprised if the FanGraphs leaderboard is showing as many as 25 pitchers worth as much as $25 million on an annual basis. Given his youth and his pitching style, I also won't be surprised if Tanaka is one of the 25 best pitchers in MLB, as Darvish, Iwakuma and Kuroda were in 2013.

Here at the end, we reiterate the question: Is Tanaka worth the trouble for the Yankees?

Well, let's see. He has a style and repertoire that should allow him to succeed in MLB. He has miles on his arm, but his youth helps cancel that out. And a couple of years down the line, the huge investment the Yankees will have made on him won't seem so huge.

So yeah. Go forth, Yankees. Go forth and be bold.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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