January 22, 2014
Yankees Sign Tanaka
Signed RHP Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year deal worth $155 million. [1/22]
The market has been on a holding pattern since Rakuten posted Tanaka on December 26, leaving David Price, Matt Garza, and the remaining available starters in the cold. Mike Pelfrey's agreement with the Twins, which happened three days before the announcement, marks the last time a starter agreed to a big-league contract. Were it not for Clayton Kershaw's massive extension, the market would've been silent for a month. But, with Tanaka choosing his team, now the offseason can resume—and the conversation can shift to whether the newest Yankee was worth the wait.
Don't confuse Tanaka for a new sensation. His Prospectus debut came in March 2007, with Mike Plugh writing, "If the veterans show him the ropes, he'll adjust, and we may see the emergence of another top Japanese pitching prospect." The veterans must have showed him the ropes, because Tanaka emerged en route to accumulating more than 1,300 professional innings—and that doesn't include his work in international competitions. Teams have a large body of work from which to form evaluations, though how they go about it is likely to differ.
The difference in competition levels and league quirks—namely the ball and the schedule—make translating Tanaka's statistics tricky, though he did compile numbers befitting a 19th-century ace. Tanaka's walk rate (1.9 per nine innings) advertises excellent control, while his home-run rate (0.5) suggests his pitches are tough to lift. Add in that he struck out 5.7 times more batters than he walked, and Tanaka looks like an elite pitcher—even his won-lost record last season (24-0), however useless for analytical purposes, echoes the sentiment.
Yet the scouting reports suggest Tanaka is unlikely to be an elite starter in the majors. Though his arsenal comprises no fewer than five pitches (including a low-90s fastball that he'll cut and sink, splitter, slider, curveball, and changeup) he's likely to trim the fat upon arrival. The splitter has trapdoor qualities and qualifies as Tanaka's best pitch, and the slider has the potential to be another out pitch. His drop-and-drive mechanics will cause some to think of his countryman Hiroki Kuroda, while others fret about his fastball's flat plane to the plate.
The mechanical concerns extend beyond a collapsed back leg. Tanaka's delivery features a pause—as is the cultural staple—that can disrupt the hitter and pitcher's timing alike. In December, Doug Thorburn expressed concern about what he deemed below-average balance and posture. Thorburn concluded Tanaka should be a solid investment, but warned that due to the mechanical inconsistencies "he might very well struggle to find the same success and make adjustments against patient, powerful major-league hitters."
Those flaws might cause apprehension, but the workload will be the bigger hurdle for Tanaka to clear. When Ben Lindbergh delved into the art of NPB scouting in November 2012, former Dodgers GM Dan Evans identified the schedule as the biggest difference starters must embrace. Evans said the change “can be a difficult adjustment," in large part because "it involves teaching your body to respond to a different throwing routine and also getting used to working on a different calendar entirely.”
There's more to it than a lagging body clock. How Tanaka—who already has a lot of innings on his arm—will adjust to making more starts on less rest is anyone's guess. Tom Verducci dug deep to find pitchers with similar inning totals at Tanaka's age, and fingered Fernando Valenzuela and Yu Darvish as the best comparables. The exercise borders on false hustle, however; as one executive told Verducci, "[Tanaka is a] very attractive player nonetheless but a real risk ... as with basically all pitchers."
Still, you can excuse Yankees fans who find Tanaka to be a realer risk than most pitchers. The opt-out clause, which allows Tanaka to bolt after his fourth season, complicates this deal more than the typical free-agent signing. Yet the money involved is closer to what Zack Greinke received (six years, $159 million) than the $56 million Yu Darvish received from the Rangers. Perhaps that should have been expected; after all, by capping the posting fee at $20 million, the leagues ensured teams could spend more money on signing the pitcher and less on negotiating rights. Likewise, eliminating the one-on-one nature of previous contract talks afforded agent Casey Close the freedom to play bidders against one another.
In the end, Brian Cashman won the process. He needed to after spending the winter inking Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Hiroki Kuroda. Cashman wanted a starter who could step in near the front of the rotation and offset the loss of Andy Pettitte. Tanaka is risky, and nobody, not the Yankees or any other party, involved or otherwise, knows how he'll hold up moving forward. But he was the most intriguing pitcher available, and one who can justify the Yankees' gamble in time. —R.J. Anderson
For 2014 only, Tanaka could have coasted into the top 30 by signing with a National League team (cough, Cubs, cough, Dodgers, cough). As it is, I’d slot him between 30th and 35th overall among starting pitchers—and if I’m taking him in a redraft league, my expectations are a 3.80 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and 175 strikeouts over 210 innings. That would put him pretty close to 2013 Chris Tillman value, which sounds about right (especially considering Tillman finished 31st among starters last year).
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson