Is Japanese Ace Masahiro Tanaka Worth All the Hype?

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterOctober 23, 2013

Masahiro Tanaka has posted a 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA this season in Japan.
Masahiro Tanaka has posted a 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA this season in Japan.Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The market for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is beginning to take shape.

The Dodgers were on hand in Japan for the 24-year-old right-hander’s start this past Friday, according to Mark Saxon of

And they’re not the only team to express early interest in Tanaka.

Sources told George A. King III of the New York Post that the Yankees will be among the most serious bidders in the Tanaka sweepstakes. It has also been reported that the San Francisco Giants (via CSN Bay Area), Texas Rangers (via Baseball America), Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics (via the Boston Globe) will be in the mix.

Given Tanaka’s overwhelming success this past season in Japan as well as the lack of starting pitching in the upcoming free-agent class, it makes sense that so many contending teams are interested in acquiring the right-hander’s services.

Naturally, the signing of a high-profile international player such as Tanaka, who turns 25 on Nov. 1, will inevitably lead to lofty expectations for his stateside career. It’s even easier to envision the 24-year-old making an immediate, Yu Darvish-like impact in the major leagues after he posted a 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA for the Pacific League champion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this past season.

However, as Jonah Keri of Grantland argues, assuming that Tanaka’s success from the Pacific League will translate in the major leagues can be dangerous:

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Nippon Professional Baseball does have its share of stars. But the least-skilled and least-polished players in Japan are far worse than the bottom of the barrel in the majors. They're often 19-year-old kids, young enough to be better suited for rookie ball, only not even necessarily among the elite players at that level if they were hypothetically dropped onto low-minors rosters in the U.S...

This is the challenge scouts face in covering players from any country that's not the U.S. In Cuba and Korea, Taiwan and Japan, analyzing a pitcher's stuff, repertoire, and body type becomes far more important than sweating the results. 

However, Keri’s caveat about the quality of Japanese baseball shouldn’t entirely detract from Tanaka’s present ability and ultimate ceiling.

In August, Baseball America’s Ben Badler shared valuable insight into the right-hander’s future in Major League Baseball, stating, “The most prized talent in Japan is Tanaka, a 24-year-old who some scouts project as a potential No. 2 starter who can immediately step into a major league rotation.”

Badler went on to supplement his projection of Tanaka with an in-depth scouting report:

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.

After a thorough scouting evaluation and review of his 2013 stats, there’s clearly plenty to be excited about regarding his seemingly imminent arrival next season in the major leagues.

At least so it seems.

Masahiro Tanaka Japan Pitching Statistics (2011-2013)
Baseball Reference

As originally noted by my colleague Joe Giglio in early September, there is one worrisome trend to Tanaka’s performance over the last three seasons:

First and foremost, two things jump out when perusing Tanaka's statistics from Japan: A 19-0 record and declining K/9 rates over the last two seasons. While wins and losses can be deceiving and ultimately factor in many things other than the performance of an individual pitcher, 19-0 is quite impressive. It's also very likely to open the eye of fans here in American when Tanaka's name does become mainstream in November or December. As for the K/9 rates: Although Tanaka is missing bats at a smaller rate in 2012 and 2013 than he did in 2011, his ERA (1.20) and WHIP (0.93) are currently career bests.

Though his declining strikeout rate shouldn’t affect his final price tag this offseason, it’s still a trend worth keeping an eye on as he embarks on a career in Major League Baseball.

What is concerning, however, at least in terms of his immediate stateside impact, is that Tanaka will be following in the footsteps of Yu Darvish, who was signed by the Rangers to a six-year, $51.7 million contract after winning an intense bidding war—for an additional $60 million—to negotiate with the right-hander.

That being said, there’s at least one Major League Baseball scout that believes Tanaka is already better than Darvish was at the time he was signed by Rangers (via the New York Post):

“He is better than Darvish because he is a strike thrower,’’ the scout said. “Overall, Darvish’s stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch. He is like Kuroda, he has a lot of guts. He throws four pitches but when it gets to [stone]-cutting time, it’s fastball and splitter.’’

However, that lone scout’s opinion isn’t the industry consensus; most evaluators, such as Badler, have taken the conservative approach of projecting Tanaka as a No. 2 starter with the floor of a mid-rotation starter.

In terms of a potential contract, Tanaka’s final price tag is more likely to reflect the thin market for free-agent starting pitching rather than his success in Japan or perceived future potential in Major League Baseball. However, the right-hander won’t be eligible for the posting process until his 25th birthday on Nov. 1.

Because large-market teams such as the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees are expected to engage in the sweepstakes, it’s conceivable that he’ll land a more lucrative contract than Darvish, perhaps somewhere in the range of six years and $70 million guaranteed.

As Giglio noted, “When it comes time for posting fees and free agent contracts, Tanaka is likely to receive less than Yu Darvish's total package, but, considering the dearth of free agent arms outside of Matt Garza, could be worth a total deal around what Anibal Sanchez received last offseason.”

And with a little more than a week remaining until Tanaka is cleared to begin the posting process, we should start to get a better idea of the teams interested in signing Japan’s top pitcher.

* statistics for Masahiro Tanaka reflect his performance during the regular season only.