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January 29, 2014

Overthinking It

Polling the Industry: Masahiro Tanaka in 2014

by Ben Lindbergh


In December of 2011, shortly after the Rangers submitted a winning $51.7 bid for exclusive rights to talk to Yu Darvish, then-BP prospect writer Kevin Goldstein surveyed 10 industry insiders to see how good they thought Darvish was going to be. Instead of asking for physical comps or statistical projections, Kevin stacked Darvish up against a selection of five other right-handed starters and asked for each insider’s one-on-one pitcher preference. In retrospect, some of the responses seem silly—three people took Ian Kennedy over Darvish—but the consensus wasn’t far from the mark: Darvish, the insiders said, would be worse than Justin Verlander, roughly as good as Zack Greinke, better than Matt Garza and Kennedy, and much better than Ricky Nolasco. Sounds about right.

Last week, the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, the best Japanese starter to cross the Pacific since Darvish, to a seven year, $155 million deal (plus posting fee, luxury tax, and the priced-in expense of the opt-out clause) that will make him one of baseball’s 10 highest-paid players in 2014. The next question, naturally, is, “How good is the guy they just got?”

Internet opinions about Tanaka’s ultimate role span the starting rotation, so in an attempt to pinpoint a realistic role, I asked the industry, polling a range of team employees from international scouts to statistical analysts to scouting directors to assistant GMs. Some of the sources work for teams that were reported to be finalists for Tanaka, while others come from clubs that were never tied to him. Some have seen Tanaka pitch in person; others have only watched video, seen stats, and read reports. All were asked to pick pitchers based on expected 2014 performance only, with no consideration given to salary.

I received 12 responses from 11 teams, which I’ve summarized and excerpted below. And since hundreds of you responded to my request for votes from BP readers, we can also compare the insiders to the crowd.

***

Trevor Cahill
Resume:
League-average innings eater with a 100 ERA+ from 2011-13. Hit by a batted ball last August, which cost him a run at a third straight 200-inning season. More of a pitch-to-contact groundball guy than a bat-misser.
PECOTA Projection: 159 2/3 IP, 4.00 ERA, 6.4 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 55.8 GB%, 0.96 HR/9
The Industry Vote: Tanaka, 13-0
The Reader Vote: Tanaka, 93%

Including Cahill was the equivalent of the calibration question at the beginning of a lie-detector test. By asking you to recite your name and address, a polygraph operator can (theoretically) establish what it looks like when you’re telling the truth. By asking the insiders the Tanaka-Cahill question, we can confirm how deep they think the downside risk goes.

Cahill projects to be almost exactly a league-average starter—PECOTA gives him a 4.00 ERA, compared to a league baseline of 3.95—and the insiders were unanimous in their belief that Tanaka would be better than that (though the readers weren’t).

“Much better impact across the board,” one NL exec said of Tanaka. “I’ve never felt Cahill was a difference maker.”

“Cahill has been very average in the last three seasons and has also lost some durability,” one international scout said.

“You might say this would be Tanaka’s floor,” said another.

Justin Masterson
Resume:
Death on righties, vulnerable to lefties, and tough on the running game. Has never been on the disabled list.
PECOTA Projection: 186 IP, 3.95 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 56.6 GB%, 0.73 HR/9
The Industry Vote: Tanaka, 10-3
The Reader Vote: Tanaka, 75%

In the Masterson matchup, Tanaka’s support started to slip, but he retained a strong majority, with one respondent suggesting that he “has a better chance of leading his staff and dominating a game” and another calling him “more creative than Masterson,” a quality that could help him “handle more versatile hitters.”

Although one pro scouting director pegged him as the second-best starter on my list of five and an AGM gave him the edge because he added strikeouts without sacrificing grounders last season, Masterson’s inconsistency over the three-year period from 2011-13, in which (like Cahill) he posted an ERA+ of 100 (with a high of 122 and a low of 79), made him less appealing to others.

“I have concerns about Masterson’s success last year being the result of his drastically increased slider usage,” said one Tanaka supporter. “Both injury and hitter adjustments are on the table for 2014.” Another scouting exec expressed similar reservations. "I don't love or trust the way Masterson does it," he said.

“Hefty expectations, but Masterson’s 2011 [216 innings, 3.21 ERA, 4.0 WARP) is what I would expect from Tanaka…maybe 10 fewer IP,” an AL scout said. “Masterson himself has never approached those levels again and remains too vulnerable to platoon splits.”

Another scout who gave Tanaka a slight edge noted that while both pitchers may be somewhat dependent on their defense, the rookie starter should expect less assistance. “Can't underrate how bad the Yankees infield defense might be in 2014 and what effect that might have on Tanaka's line,” he said.

Homer Bailey
Resume:
Former first-rounder who took the scenic route to a 2013 career year in which he added velocity and strikeouts and began to fulfill his top-prospect promise.
PECOTA Projection: 174 IP, 3.62 ERA, 7.9 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 44.4 GB%, 1.03 HR/9
The Industry Vote: Tanaka, 8-5
The Reader Vote: Tanaka, 56%

And now we come to the closest showdown. After taking one step closer to the top of the rotation, Tanaka lost only one supporter, but even the insiders still on his side suggested that the competition was tight. “My guess is Bailey met his potential the last two seasons, and Tanaka has a better chance of output beyond Bailey’s 2013,” one NL front-office type said.

An NL exec agreed, leaning toward Bailey (who like Tanaka has a strong splitter) because of “higher-end stuff…and a better bet for longevity of being good.”

The Bailey voters in the group believed that the stats should be similar but marked down Tanaka due to the greater uncertainty that surrounds him. “[Bailey has] already learned to pitch effectively in MLB,” one scout said, “whereas with Tanaka there will be a learning curve in 2014.”

Mat Latos
Resume:
Workhorse with improving control who pitched through injury late last season but still topped 200 innings for the second straight year.
PECOTA Projection: 189 IP, 3.15 ERA, 8.3 K.9, 2.4 BB/9, 44.8 GB%, 0.90 HR/9
The Industry Vote: Latos, 8-5
The Reader Vote: Latos, 61%

The big Reds righty was my pick when I was looking for a strong no. 2 starter, and those who saw him the same way (or better) were happy to cast their lots with Latos. “A lower-end elite in my book…capable of being a top five starter in the NL any given year,” an international scout said. “Tanaka isn’t here.”

The NL front-office type agreed but suggested that Tanaka could get there in time. Although he gave the nod to Latos for 2014, he said, “Darvish was much better in season two, and I’d expect that from Tanaka too.”

Others praised Tanaka’s stuff and consistency. “I would take Tanaka because he's got the best secondary pitch of the group in his split and quite possibly the best control,” said one director. “Better pitch maker in Tanaka and more reliable package,” echoed another.

But as with Bailey, some sources used previous MLB experience to break the tie in favor of Cincinnati’s starter. “While I would expect Tanaka to perform similarly to Latos and Bailey, I would still take the proven commodities next season,” said an AL exec. An NL exec valued the same certainty, saying, "Latos has a pretty nice track record...he's super physical and we know how the stuff and feel play."

Stephen Strasburg
Resume:
Projected for the third-lowest ERA among starters, behind only Clayton Kershaw and Jose Fernandez. Arm injuries have delayed the monster season we’ve expected since he was drafted first overall in 2009 and dominated after a call-up the following season; still only a 200-inning season away from being the best pitcher in baseball. Only a few months older than Tanaka.
PECOTA Projection: 168 IP, 2.59 ERA, 10.3 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 48.7 GB%, 0.75 HR/9
The Industry Vote: Strasburg, 11-2
The Reader Vote: Strasburg, 90%

In the last faceoff, the tide turned against Tanaka, as the rave reviews for Strasburg poured in.

“Still one of the most talented pitchers in baseball.” “His ceiling remains huge.” “[His] stuff is more premium.” “Has already pitched as an ace…and has the best chance of any pitcher in the group to pitch as an ace in 2014 and beyond.” "Poised to take a pretty big step forward now that he's put TJ well behind him."

Tanaka was saved from a sweep by concerns about Strasburg’s health. Both of Tanaka’s supporters cited Strasburg’s injury history as a concern, with one ranking the Washington starter below everyone except Cahill. The other also said that Strasburg wasn't close to Tanaka, praising the Japanese pitcher's command, extensive arsenal, and superior feel for pitching.

***

Even after thoroughly vetting Tanaka and, in some cases, making nine-figure offers for him, teams haven’t illuminated all of the unknowns.

“We can go over and watch the guy make every start over there and we can watch every video from every angle and we can crunch every number, but there’s certainly some questions that just can’t be answered until he gets here,” said one scouting exec. “There’s obviously some non-zero chance that he’s better than any of these guys and an absolute magician in terms of command and control, and there’s a non-zero chance that he’s an extreme strike thrower who isn’t more than a four starter because he gives up too much contact.”

That wide range of potential outcomes was reflected in the responses. One source who’s seen Tanaka many times had him first overall, while two ranked him fifth out of six.

Still, while acknowledging the big error bars, we can come to some sort of consensus. Both the industry sources and the BP audience—which agreed quite closely—put Tanaka’s 2014 talent level between Latos and Bailey; BP’s projection calls for Tanaka to post a 3.41 ERA, almost exactly halfway between Latos’ 3.15 and Bailey’s 3.62. That profile doesn’t equal an ace, but it does translate to a three-plus-win pitcher today, with potential for improvement in 2015.

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

23 comments have been left for this article.

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