Jan 06

Masahiro Tanaka: Why you don’t want to over pay for the Japanese RHP in his first year

Masahiro Tanaka will shed his Golden Eagles jersey for an MLB club this season. It projects to be great news for the winning bidder, but from a fantasy perspective I'm preaching patience (Photo: Kyodo News / Associated Press)

Masahiro Tanaka will shed his Golden Eagles jersey for an MLB club this season. It projects to be great news for the winning bidder, but from a fantasy perspective I’m preaching patience (Photo: Kyodo News / Associated Press)

I’m as intrigued as anyone regarding the outcome of negotiations with Masahiro Tanaka, the 16th player to be posted by the Japanese League. The bidding war created by a prime free agent opportunity is always exciting, and in particular when we’re talking about a front of the line starting pitcher. As fantasy owners though we need to be more tempered in our own bidding, and in our expectations, at least in his first year. In the history of the posting system, six pitchers (four starters) have made the jump from the Japanese League to the bigs. Some have been successful, others have not.

What’s important though is that all have struggled with the adjustment in their first season. Be it quality of competition, adjustment to life in a foreign land, language barriers or whatever the case, each of the four starting pitchers who have arrived at the MLB level after posting from Japan saw significant inflation in ERA,

Briefly, both Kei Igawa and Kasuhisha Iishi suffered this fate after strong 2006 and 2001 seasons respectively. Igawa didn’t stick around with the big club for long – appearing in a total of 16 games for the New York Yankees over two seasons and failing to register an ERA of under 6.25 in either of the two campaigns. Iishi actually pitched fairly well in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, going 14-10 with an 8.4 K/9 number and a 4.27 ERA (just .88 points above the 3.39 number that allowed for Major League interest the season prior). He finished fourth in rookie of the year voting for 2002. Still, he led the league in walks in his first season (106) and finished second the following year. He was serviceable, but not astounding.

Akinori Otsuka stands alone as a pitcher who was truly successful in his first post-posting season, appearing in 73 games with a 7-2 record and 1.75 ERA for the 2004 San Diego Padres (he’d later go on to save 32 games for the Rangers in 2006), but as a reliever his output isn’t really relevant to this conversation.

On to more notable names, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish suffered similar fates in their first year. Of course, we all know how the second season went for Darvish, but that’s not my focus here… in most leagues (non-dynasty/keeper) you’re drafting Tanaka this season on his year one value and you’re likely paying a draft day price vs. his potential.

In his seven year MLB career, Dice-K has been hot and cold, which isn’t exactly what the Red Sox bargained for when paying his $51 million posting fee and $52 million contract. After four consecutive seasons with a sub 3.00 era (including a sterling 2.13 mark in his final year with the Seibu Lions) Matsuzaka doubled his ERA to 4.40 in his Red Sox debut. He struck out an impressive 201 batters that year (in 204 innings) for a near 9.0 K/9 rate – a mark he had bested in three of the previous four seasons. He turned it on in year two though, finishing fourth in AL Cy Young voting with a 2.90 ERA, and a league leading 6.9 hits per nine innings (he posted a 1.324 WHIP however, as he led the league with 94 bases on balls). His ballpark adjusted ERA was second best in the bigs that season. Year two was the ‘potential’ season. A sterling mark and strong Roto campaign. The problem: owners likely paid for year two’s stats in his debut campaign, given all the hype surrounding his arrival in the Majors.

The same can be said for Darvish, who is coming off one of the more dominant seasons in recent pitching memory, with a whopping 277 strikeouts, and a 2.83 ERA as part of a Cy Young runner up season. His 11.9 K/9 is the 9th best mark of all time, appearing behind six Randy Johnson seasons and two others. His second year in the league was outstanding, and speaks to his talent level. His first year was a far cry from his Japanese numbers, however. In fairness, they’d have been impossible to replicate: no one expected a 1.44 ERA or the 276 strikeouts he posted in his final year in Japan to carry over. A 3.90 ERA with 221 strikeouts and a 1.28 WHIP was a nice enough stat line, but it wasn’t what you paid for on draft day.

Meanwhile Tanaka arrives (presumably) in the bigs on the heels of an amazing streak, finishing his regular season at 24-0 with a 1.21 ERA and boasts strong career numbers as well. He’s high on potential too… but chances are that in standard leagues he’ll go high based on his year one hype and the future payoff instead of first year reality. Plus, with a career K/9 of 8.5 he won’t have the big strikeout numbers to redeem his first season that the others (who both had considerably higher rates) redeemed themselves with. He struck out just 7.8/9 last year, compared to 10.7 in his final season for Darvish. In the long run, his control (career 1.9 BB/9) makes him an attractive option, but in his first year without the ‘strikeout stuff’ that both Matsuzaka and Darvish possessed makes the adjustment even harder – from a fantasy perspective, at least. At 24 years old I think he is very much worth the cost of posting, but you aren’t signing him to a five year contract like his future team – you’re drafting career potential during what is likely to be an adjustment season.

Of course, he hasn’t even selected his team and the context (as well as whether he finds himself in the American or National league) around him makes a significant difference to his value, so keep an eye on the bidding process. Seattle is evidently the leading candidate, but a half a dozen teams or more remain in the race. Either way, unless cooler heads prevail on draft day, I’m not paying an expectant price.

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