Friday, December 27, 2013

Masahiro Tanaka: Short-term gain, long-term risk?

Japanese free agent pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is going to get an absurd contract from a major league team at some point in January. This much we know.

All 30 teams were notified that the 30-day period to sign the right-hander began at 7 a.m. CST Thursday. Teams have until 4 p.m. on Jan. 24 to attempt to reach an agreement with the 25-year-old pitcher.

If Tanaka and a major league team agree on terms, that franchise is required to pay his Japanese team, the Rakuten Eagles, a posting fee of $20 million.

Rest assured, someone will pay that $20 million, plus probably another $20 million per year over the next six or seven years to sign Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in Japan last season.

Whichever team signs Tanaka is going to get an impact pitcher. I have little doubt about that. Yu Darvish, the last big-name Japanese pitcher to come to the United States, has established himself as the Texas Rangers' ace. Tanaka's numbers in Japan are similar to those of Darvish:

Darvish (2005-11): 167 games, 1,281.1 IP, 93-28 W-L, 55 CG, 333 BB, 1,250 Ks
Tanaka (2007-13): 175 games, 1,315 IP, 99-35 W-L, 53 CG, 275 BB, 1,238 Ks

For me, the question about Tanaka is whether he will hold up healthwise over the life of the six- or seven-year contract he's going to get. I know, I know. He's only 25 and should be entering his prime years. But look at that innings total: 1,315 innings through his age 24 season

Tom Verducci at Sports Illustrated made this point better than I could. Verducci notes the last pitcher with that many innings at such a young age was Frank Tanana, who piled up similar totals between 1973 and 1978. During that period, Tanana made three All-Star teams. Then, he hurt his shoulder. He went on to pitch another 15 years, but was never quite the same. 

Going back even further, since 1961, Tanana, Larry Dierker and Bert Blyleven are the only three pitchers to have thrown 1,315 major league innings by age 24. So, indeed, Japanese pitchers like Darvish and Tanaka come to the United States with more wear and tear on their arm for their age than their American counterparts.

Darvish is one of the better pitchers in the American League right now. Will he continue to be effective through the life of his six-year contract? Nobody knows. For Tanaka, the issue is much the same. With his outstanding control and arsenal of pitches, he's going to make some team very happy in 2014 and probably 2015, too. But what about 2016 and beyond?

Will Tanaka become the next Hideo Nomo, who was outstanding his first couple years before morphing into a journeyman? Or is he going to be a long-term ace for the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers or some other big-market team? I wish I was smart enough to know, but we'll find out in due time.

1 comment:

  1. Obviously one of the biggest things about projecting a pitcher's performance is how healthy that pitcher is. And unfortunately for the guys asked to write the checks for free agent pitchers, nobody has identified a precise point at which a pitcher becomes overworked, probably because there is no point that applies across the board to every pitcher.

    For years Baseball Prospectus hit the drum with their Pitcher Abuse Points, but a lot of the guys who led in abuse (Livan Hernandez, Javier Vazquez, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Johnson) kept on pitching, to levels of success that was probably only as varied as their talents.

    The Verducci Effect -- different from the Tanaka issue because it measures an increase in workload for young pitchers and not overall workload -- is largely a junk stat because the subjects it measures do see a decline in performance... but so do statistical control groups of pitchers who didn't have a big increase in innings pitched. In fact, the control groups often do worse than the guys with increased innings.

    That is what I think strikes at the heart of the problem with investing in big, expensive contracts for pitchers. Pitchers as an entire group -- old, young, power pitchers, soft-tossers, groundballers, lefty, righty -- are unpredictable because so much of their performance is predicated on health. And it's not like Albert Pujols, where he keeps getting hurt so you can put him at DH to minimize his injury risk. A starting pitcher either takes the ball every fifth day, or he's not helping you.

    Whoever signs Tanaka will be taking a huge gamble. Is the risk more unique than any other huge baseball contract? I'm not so sure it is.