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January 22, 2014

Transaction Analysis

Yankees Sign Tanaka

by R.J. Anderson and Bret Sayre


NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

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

Fantasy Impact
Many eyes in the fantasy community were trained on the Tanaka sweepstakes. Even if a prospective owner believed in him as a front-of-the-rotation type, the difference in value would be noticeable depending on where he landed. And in this case, we have the worst-case scenario—an American League team without an elite offense that plays in a tough park for right-handed pitchers. These things could all be problematic, since Tanaka is not the dominant force that Yu Darvish is (despite how often they've been discussed in conjunction).

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).

In dynasty leagues, I would not drop Tanaka very much in first-year drafts despite his destination, since his ranking at no. 3 in my list from early January took into account some risk of his ending up in New York. At this point, it's really a toss-up between him and Clint Frazier, subject to your team's ETA to contention. The mileage on Tanaka’s arm and his lack of "ace" stuff is a concern, but I like him to be a solid no. 3 fantasy starter for an extended stretch. —Bret Sayre

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here
Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

Related Content:  New York Yankees,  Masahiro Tanaka

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

hyprvypr

As a fan of a team NOT from New York, I'm glad to see some other team overspent here. He will need to somehow show great durability AND have his stuff translate to a much harder stage on top of that dealing with the bandboxes of the AL East. I was hoping my team would sign him at 6 years, 105m, but at 7/155, I'm, VERY glad my team didn't sign Tanaka.

The opt out is usually a disaster too as it allows the player to walk if he's somehow outperforming his deal but if he's getting rocked every five days, he'll just linger on until he stinks, ala ARod...

Jan 22, 2014 11:29 AM
rating: 1
 
Eddie

Thanks for the quick analysis!

Why are teams accepting these opt-out clauses recently? They take on all the risk of bust signings, without any of the benefit of long-term assurance.

Jan 22, 2014 11:32 AM
rating: 3
 
sbnirish77

Seems like I remember reading in one of my Baseball Prospectus annuals of an effort at BP to project Japanese and Mexican league stats into MLB equivalents.

Can BP do those projections today?

If so, what do those projections say about Tanaka?

I guess with those stats in Japan he might project to be the next statistical outlier akin to BP's projections on Matt Wieters.

Jan 22, 2014 12:08 PM
rating: -1
 
delatopia

Don't think this can be done with any confidence or accuracy when Ben points out in his companion piece on thoughts about the signing that Kei Igawa posted very similar stats in the same league.

Jan 23, 2014 11:34 AM
rating: 0
 
Justice

The Yankees really had to extend themselves to get Masahiro Tanaka -- 7 years and $155 million, opt out rights after 4 years and a no-trade clause to boot. Don't forget, Tanaka has logged an awful lot of innings at a young age (he has averaged 188 innings pitches since the age of 18), culminating in tossing 160 pitches in a Japanese world series game and tossing another 15 pitches in relief the next day. That's shades of Jim Maloney throwing around 175 pitches in a 10 inning no-hitter against the Chicago Cubs in 1965.

What concerns me even more about Tanaka is the fact that his strikeout rate has been in decline in the last three years: 9.6 K/9 innings in 2011, 8.7 K/9 innings in 2012 and 7.8 K/9 innings in 2013. Both his strikeout trend and heavy workload are red flags in a young pitcher.

The bidding from the clubs that didn't get Tanaka forced the Yankees to pay top dollar and that's a good thing for baseball as a sport. Without competition from the other big market teams with some financial wherewithal, the Yankees (with their enormous local media revenue) would essentially have a monopoly on baseball's top free agents. This year, New York got a 38 year old Carlos Beltran, an outfielder who has constantly battled injuries in Jacoby Ellsbury, a catcher on the wrong side of 30 in Brian McCann and Tanaka. They also lost the best free agent in the 2013 class in Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and two pitchers, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte,to retirement. Are the 2014 Yankees better than last year's crew? If they are, it isn't by much.

Perhaps the Yankees have hamstrung themselves, at least a little bit, for next year's free agent class which could have a number of top pitchers: Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Homer Bailey, James Shieldd, not to mention David Price who could be available by trade. A team could likely sign Scherzer as a free agent next off season for terms that are less onerous team wise than the Tanaka deal.

Market scarcity for top flight starting pitching in this off season led the Yankees to make a ridiculous offer for Tanaka. I suspect that that this signing will not work out well for the bombers.

Jan 22, 2014 13:35 PM
rating: 5
 
evo34

I'm with you on this. A guy who throws 91ish, and gets less than 8 K/9 in Japan is very unlikely to be a long-term ace, IMO.

That said, apparently Japanese radar readings "run" about 1.5 mph colder than MLB's:
http://irfast.blogspot.com/2013/09/is-radar-gun-in-japan-cold.html

Also, FWIW, Davenport's projection is rather bullish:
http://www.claydavenport.com/pt/TANAKA19881101A.shtml

Jan 23, 2014 01:49 AM
rating: 0
 
kcboomer

If this takes the Yanks back over the luxury tax thresh hold they will be kicking themselves for not re-signing Cano.

Jan 22, 2014 13:43 PM
rating: 0
 
Justice

This will certainly push the Yankees over the $189 million luxury tax threshold. And I agree, with all their profligate spending, the Yankees managed to bungle the one potential free agent acquisition that would have made the most sense for them: their former second baseman Robinson Cano.

Jan 22, 2014 13:50 PM
rating: 1
 
Adam Hobson

I just can't help thinking, WWSBD? (what would Scott Boras do?)

So say next year Scott Boras had another Stephen Strasburg-type. Near guaranteed ace coming out of college at age 21. Near-MLB ready.

Would it be better for them to play by MLB rules take $8 million as the top draft pick, spend a year riding buses in the minors, now they're 22. Their team will then plan the call-up to push the arb clock back a year, so they don't reach arbitration until they're 26. Three years of arbitration gets them to free agency at 29, heading into their age 30 season. They've made some nice money along the way for sure, but They've waited 9 calendar years to make the real money.

Or would it be best to go play in NPB making a tad over $1 million a year for four years until they're 25, then have the team post them (the team will make $20 million) and they can negotiate at 25 as an almost-free agent.

Maybe there's some rule against that, but I can't help but feeling that at some point we're going to lose three or four years of a star as they try to beat this MLB system designed against them.

Jan 22, 2014 14:12 PM
rating: 2
 
edwardarthur

I think Kevin Goldstein addressed this in one of the podcasts. If I recall correctly, an American who went to play in NPB would still have to enter the draft when he returned....

Jan 23, 2014 01:58 AM
rating: 1
 
Jack Thomas

Adam great idea! Have you considered being an agent?
This deal definitely points out the craziness of MLB's policy with international free agents. They definitely benefit from the system (Tanaka, Abreu, Puig, Cespedes, etc.). I would think the MLBPA would push for a world-wide draft.
It is amazing to hear the talking heads discussing Yankees-Dodgers world series after the Tanaka signing. The Yankees are somewhat improved team, but a huge risk for injuries.

Jan 22, 2014 15:26 PM
rating: 0
 
JP1024

Do we draw the line on calling it a "Player Option" at one year? And anything above a year is an "Opt out"? Is this just semantics or is there a difference re: the luxury tax?

Jan 22, 2014 19:09 PM
rating: 0
 
WaldoInSC

"Add in that he struck out more batters than he walked, and Tanaka looks like an elite pitcher..."

Um...

Jan 22, 2014 19:45 PM
rating: -1
 
palehose

The Yankees have no choice. Their fans look at the Yankees like tourist look at a Broadway show. No marque names no attendance. They had a scrappy team that contended last year into September and stadium attendance was down and TV ratings declined precipitously. The prices the Yankees charge have changed the customer base from core baseball fans to people looking for an entertainment experience. The bad news for MLB is that they will be driving up the prices for A level free agents for the rest of this decade. It will likely take at least that long for them to up grade their player development system so they can more efficiently acquire talent.

Jan 22, 2014 21:57 PM
rating: 2
 
slascher2

Can someone point me to the best studies of long-term contracts? It seems to me that virtually every one has been a disaster for the team, but I'd like to see the data.

Jan 23, 2014 08:45 AM
rating: 0
 
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