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January 23, 2014

Overthinking It

Several Stray Thoughts About the Masahiro Tanaka Signing

by Ben Lindbergh

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R.J. Anderson wrote the rapid response to the news that Masahiro Tanaka had agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees. That's where you’ll find all the juicy details on the player and the contract, which you should want to take a look at. This is where you’ll find a few other thoughts that crossed my mind as I digested the signing, as laid out below.

The $189 million mark, in memoriam
December 4, 2011. That’s the day when we first heard, via the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, that the Yankees were determined to keep their 2014 payroll below $189 million, which they blew by in adding Tanaka. This is how long ago that was: Mike Trout’s career OPS was .672, and Alex Rodriguez and Randy Levine were still penpals. Granted, Steinbrenner never technically guaranteed that the team’s payroll would sink below the luxury tax threshold, but he came close, saying, “I’m looking at it as a goal, but my goals are normally considered a requirement.”

For the Yankees, living life under 189 never made sense, but it seems even sillier in retrospect, after years of columns and reports and “Yankees Payroll Trackers” were rendered irrelevant in one Supermarket Sweep-style dash through the free agent aisle. So now we’re left to wonder: What was the original intent?

Was it a negotiating tactic, the team’s latest specious attempt to cry fiscal restraint? If so, it wasn’t an effective one, since no one who mattered was buying it, and it’s hard to think of a recent deal in which the Yankees got a clear discount (save for the special circumstances surrounding the Hiroki Kuroda contract). From Sherman’s first post on the $189 million mark:

“We get the eye roll when we tell teams or agents or the media [that the Yankees have financial parameters],” one team official said. They don’t have to believe us. They will see with our actions.”

Or was it a genuine attempt to collect what at the time seemed like it would be a windfall, as the Yankees’ atypical, even self-destructive restraint last offseason (like letting Russell Martin leave for Pittsburgh) seemed to suggest? If so, the Yankees should have listened to John Sterling one of the million times he told them that you can’t predict baseball. Instead, Hal had the hubris to think he could peg the Yankees’ 2014 payroll precisely over two years out.

It makes sense to set a target, of course, but that’s a lot of time. As it turned out, the Yankees overestimated the amount that the market-disqualification rebate behind the whole scheme would net them. They also misjudged their ability to produce talent from within.

“I just feel that if you do well on the player-development side and you have a good farm system, you don’t need a $220 million payroll,” Steinbrenner said in March of 2012. ” You don’t. You can field every bit as good a team with young talent.”

But the Yankees haven’t done well, player development-wise, and their farm system is worse now than it was then. Another possibility: perhaps the team was taken aback by the financial hit it took after missing the playoffs last season and was forced to change course. But if so, it shouldn’t have been. The warnings were out there.

The most inexplicable aspect of the story was always that the Yankees would make the 189 pronouncement publicly, since there was never any way that it would play well with the locals. Conditioned by years of unfettered Steinbrenner spending, Yankees fans weren’t likely to rally around the team’s plan to make more money by paying for last season in 109 easy installments of Chris Stewart. At worst, announcing the $189 plan could have caused a revolt; at best, it made Steinbrenner look indecisive.

Basically, I’d read a book about how it all didn’t happen. Dave Brown is right: the Yankees really should retire the number.

There’s never a bad time to bring up Matt Swartz’s research on “other people’s players.” In a series of studies, Swartz found that free agents who re-sign with the same teams tend to be better values over the lives of their contracts than those who depart, the implication being that teams are better judges of their own talent than they are of players from other organizations. I thought about that when the Yankees, who could use a second baseman, barely lifted a finger to stop Robinson Cano from signing with Seattle, and I’ve thought about it more since they spent a fortune on other players since letting him leave (though not for 10-year terms). Does it mean that Cano is doomed to decline quickly? No. But it is…interesting.

Never has he ever
Virtually every take on Tanaka’s contract made sure to mention that the right-hander has “never thrown a major-league pitch.” That’s true, of course, and as Sam Miller and I discussed on the podcast both today and on Tuesday, the fact that he hasn’t proved himself against MLB batters probably does widen the error bars around our projections of how he might pitch. But I wonder whether it overstates the uncertainty surrounding the Yankees’ best estimates.

To us, Tanaka is still something of a cipher. We’ve seen the stats, we’ve watched a few GIFs and YouTube clips, and we know he likes Momoclo. We’ve heard about his repertoire and his heavy workload, and we’ve read some reviews by mostly anonymous evaluators, with verdicts ranging from “potential ace” to “no. 3 starter.” But most of us haven’t talked to him, or seen his full starts, or charted his locations and sequences. And we can’t put him under the PITCHf/x lens with fewer than 40 tracked pitches to go on, all of them dating from 2009. We know more about enigmas like Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana. Tanaka can look up almost anything about his new surroundings, but there’s a limit to what we can look up about him.

We often point out that teams know—or at least have the potential to learn—more about major league players than we do, particularly those in their own organizations. They can see the same stats we see, read the same articles we read, and watch the same games we watch, but they can also draw upon proprietary data that could add additional depth—HITf/x, scouting reports, physicals, and so on. The knowledge gap isn’t as great when we’re talking about a longtime big leaguer, but with an international player, that edge might matter.

The Yankees have been keeping tabs on Tanaka since Mike Trout was 15. (I always measure time in Mike Trout.) As Brian Cashman told MLBTradeRumors:

We started evaluating him back in 2007, certainly paying close attention to him in the '09 [World Baseball Classic]. This year we went to 15 of his games including the WBC and we sent a scout to evaluate him in the playoffs as well. We made a determined effort to know as much as we possibly could.

None of us has flown to Japan to know more about Masahiro Tanaka. We’re all total Tanaka posers, pretending we were into him before he was trendy. If he were an album, you might be able to sing along to the single, but you wouldn’t know the words to the other tracks. All of which is to say that Brian Cashman probably slept about as well last night as he would have after signing a domestic starter to a supersized contract. Except for the nightmare where he tried to look into Tanaka’s eyes, only to find himself staring at a pair of terrifyingly familiar sunglasses.

Igawa update!
Speaking of Igawa, he had a 2.59 ERA in Tanaka’s league last season, with almost identical strikeout and home run rates. Enjoy that thought, Yankees fans.

Bronx beta blockers
Having argued that Tanaka might not be nearly as much of a mystery to the Yankees as he is to us, I’d still suggest that this could be baseball’s highest-beta team. Last week, I made the case that New York might have one of the oldest offenses ever. While that doesn’t mean that the Yankees won’t hit, it does increase their downside risk and leave them vulnerable to the endless injury stacks that sabotaged them last season.

Much of the infield is a walking wishcast. The bullpen takes a big dip beyond David Robertson. The rotation includes a going-on-34-year-old who’s coming off a career-worst year and shedding velocity almost as fast as he’s dropping pounds; an about-to-be-39-year-old who faded down the stretch (but has generally been as consistent as they come); a 25-year-old with workload concerns and a declining strikeout rate who’s—say it with me—never thrown a pitch in the majors; Ivan Nova, who…okay, can’t think of anything negative to say about Nova; and either David Phelps or Michael Pineda. I’m putting a pessimistic spin on the situation, but even an optimist would admit that there are still more holes on this roster than one would expect to see on a team that just committed upwards of $400 million to free agents.

Even so, in light of his talent and where the Yankees would be expected to finish with and without him, Tanaka seems as likely as any acquisition this winter to push his new team into October, which supports what might otherwise look like an overpay. Put it this way: with Tanaka, I’d at least entertain the argument that the Yankees are Wild Card favorites as currently constituted, which I would have considered a stretch on Wednesday morning.

The other teams reportedly in the running until the Yankees performed their finishing move ("The Blank Check"): Astros, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, White Sox. So, big-name free agents: not just for current contenders anymore. With extensions sapping talent from free agent classes, teams that expect to be contenders at some point in the not-too-distant future are being forced to plan a few years ahead.

Who’s next?
Now that the starter seal is broken, GMs who need pitching are about to drop the pickup artist act and actually indicate interest. Brace for more signings, and soon.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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