International Free Agent Profile 2014: Masahiro Tanaka

Would investing in the young Japanese ace be a good strategy for the off-season? - Koji Watanabe

The Rakuten Golden Eagles ace is all but certain to be posted this offseason. Would it be in the Mets' best interest to be serious bidders for his services?

They say there are throwers and then there are pitchers. And refining things even more, there are pitchers, and then there are pitchers. Masahiro Tanaka is a pitcher. Born November 1, 1988, in Itami, a city in Japan's Hyōgo Prefecture, Tanaka's life has revolved around baseball since his earliest days.

His first taste of baseball came in first grade, when he joined a local Little League team as the team catcher. In Junior High School, his coaches began using him as a pitcher as well, because of his strong arm. The rest, they say, is history.

In 2004, Tanaka pitched for Tomakomai High School in the 87th National High School Baseball Tournament, better known as Summer Koshien, helping lead his team to the championship. The second-year student dazzled NPB scouts, mowing down competition with a hard slider and a fastball that touched the low-to-mid 90s. His last pitch in the tournament that year touched 93 mph, the first time in Koshien history that a pitcher his age and grade had ever thrown that hard. With Tanaka firmly established as their ace, Tomakomai High School won once again in 2005, making it back-to-back Koshien victories, and Tanaka was a big part of that. Despite the two wins, it was the 2006 Koshien tournament—a tournament that the school lost—that really raised Masahiro's status from star to legend.

Tomakomai High School made it to the finals for the third consecutive year and was poised to win their third Summer Koshien in as many years. In their way stood Jitsugyo High School. Tanaka did not start the championship game, but the youngster found his way into the game anyway, coming in relief in the third inning. He held his opponents to one run, striking out ten in the process. His Jitsugyo counterpart, current Nippon Ham Fighters ace Yuki "The Handkerchief Prince" Saito, matched Tanaka pitch-for-pitch. The game stayed tied 1-1 until the fifteenth inning, when tournament rules called for a rematch, the first time in 37 years that a rematch had to be scheduled.

That next day, Tanaka came in relief in the bottom of the first inning and pitched the remaining 7.1 innings. His team ended up losing, but he and Saito had already become the baseball equivalent of rock stars in Japan, cementing their baseball legacies. In the tournament, Masahiro Tanaka made six appearances, pitching 52.2 innings. He posted a 2.22 ERA, striking out 54 and walking 20. His 35th strikeout tied him with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who set the high school record with 458, and the subsequent next 19 set the new record. Unsettling to us Americans but par the course for Japan, Tanaka threw 742 pitches during that time frame. Later in the year, he was selected to play in the U.S.-Japan High School Baseball Tournament. It is there that he became known as Mā-kun, the nickname that has stuck with him ever since.

In late 2006, Mā-kun decided against going to college, and would enter himself into the NPB Draft. Because Yuki Saito elected to go to college, attending the prestigious Waseda University, Tanaka became the top high school amateur available. With their first round picks, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Orix Buffaloes, Yokohama BayStars and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles all selected the right-handed prodigy with their first-round draft picks. Only one team could get the prize, and the Golden Eagles won the draft lottery, winning the rights to sign Tanaka. After a few days of negotiations, Rakuten signed the pitching wunderkind to a ¥15 million contract (roughly $150,000) with various performance-based incentives and a roughly $1 million signing bonus. Assigned ‘18', the uniform number worn by NPB aces, Tanaka was all set to make his professional debut.

The day came on March 29, 2007, coincidentally, the same day Cy Young was born 140 years before. Things didn't exactly go swimmingly: in 1.2 innings, the ace gave up five runs on six hits and a walk. After being removed from the game, he was seen crying in the dugout because of his embarrassing performance. He resolved to never be so ineffective ever again, and judging by how his career has gone, it seems that this was a resolution that he stuck to.

That season was a lot of firsts for Mā-kun: On April 18, he won his very first game, threw his first complete game, threw his first shutout, and struck out double digits for the first time in his career. He was voted to his first NPB All-Star Game, the first rookie out of high school to be so honored since Daisuke Matsuzaka in 1999. In July, he recorded his 100th strikeout, making him the fastest rookie to record 100 strikeouts since Yutaka Enatsu, my favorite historical NPB pitcher, along with Victor Starffin and Masaichi Kaneda; look them up!.

In August, he became the first rookie to reach double digit wins since Matsuzaka. All in all, he had a good rookie season, going 11-7 with a 3.83 ERA in 186.1 innings. There were a few blemishes: he led the league in walks (68) and was second in wild pitches (10). But all in all, the good outweighed the bad. He was named the Pacific League Rookie of the Year, the first rookie out of high school to win the award since—you guessed it—Dice-K.

Tanaka established a very good starting point for his career and hasn't looked back since, progressively getting better and better. He missed nearly a month of playing time dealing with shoulder inflammation and pitching on the Japanese National Team in the 2008 Olympics, but he had a good season despite the bumps in the road. For the year, he went 9-7 with a 3.49 ERA in 172.2 innings. For the second time in as many years, he was selected to play in the NPB All-Star Game. His two biggest problems from 2007—walks and home runs allowed—dropped precipitously, and it was evident that the 19-year-old was serious about fixing the flaws in his game.

Mā-kun pitched for Team Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, starting his 2009 season off on the right foot. In the tournament, he worked out of the bullpen, owing to the amazing pitching staff that the Japanese team was using: Hisashi Iwakuma, Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Toshiya Sugishi. His 3.86 ERA was the highest among all of Japan's pitchers, but it was perfectly serviceable. Back with Rakuten, Tanaka started the baseball season spinning four straight complete games, the first pitcher to do so since Satoru Komiyama and Shigetoshi Hasegawa both started their seasons in such a manner in 1993. He was an All-Star for the third time in as many years, and his season stats reflected that: he went 15-6 with a 2.33 ERA in 189.2 innings with 171 strikeouts. The 20-year-old ace found himself near the top of numerous pitching categories that year: 3rd in ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts, and 2nd in wins.

Tanaka's 2010 season would be excellent for most other pitchers, but for him, would be considered a down season. He missed over two months of action because of a pectoral tear and a strained quad. Despite the setback, he still finished the season among Pacific League leaders, 3rd in ERA and 2nd in complete games. He finished the season 11-6 with a 2.50 ERA in a career-low 155 innings. Perhaps resolving to never have a down season again, just like his promise after his career debut, the 2010 season was the last time Rakuten's ace looked mortal.

Mā-kun won his first Eiji Sawamura Award in 2011, the second Eagle to win the award in team history (Hisashi Iwakuma was the first, winning the award in 2008). Owing to his own baseball prowess as well as the new offense-dampening Mizuno standard baseball, Tanaka went 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA in 226.1 innings pitched. He allowed 171 hits and recorded 214 strikeouts to 27 walks. His 19 wins were tied for the most in the Pacific League, along with D.J. Houlton.

He narrowly edged out Yu Darvish for the ERA title, as his 1.27 ERA was seventeen hundredths ahead of Darvish's 1.44. Darvish's 276 strikeouts blew away Tanaka's career high 241, costing the 22-year-old ace the Triple Crown. Tanaka was very good in 2012, but he wasn't able to replicate the video game numbers he posted in 2011. For the year, he was 10-4 with a 1.87 ERA in 173 IP. Of note, the right-hander, through luck and skill, depressed his walks and HR numbers to 19 and 4, respectively—that is, in 173 innings, he walked 19 batters, and allowed 4 home runs all year.

In December 2012, Tanaka signed a three-year extension with Rakuten, worth about ¥1.2 billion (roughly $13 million). In addition, he told the team about his desire to be posted, and play baseball in North America.

"I developed an interest in playing in the Majors at some point in the future, so I thought it would be good to let the organization know at an early time. That just happened to be this year", he said. Alluding to Yu Darvish and the success he had in his first year in Texas, Tanaka added, "I finished my sixth season and when I see people close to my age making it, it made me want to give it a try myself". The staff ace picked a great time to come out about his wishes to be posted, because his 2013 season is likely to get the Rakuten Eagles a hefty posting sum, and the ace pitcher a hefty contract.

Tanaka's 2013 season started off innocuously enough. He continued posting excellent numbers, as he has for the better part of a half decade. But something else was happening: Mā-kun kept winning. Fast forward to the end of the season, and Tanaka went undefeated for the season, winning 24 games and losing none. He became the fourth pitcher in NPB history to go undefeated for the entire season while pitching enough innings to qualify for pitching titles. His 24 wins were the most wins by a pitcher since 1978, when Keishi Suzuki won 25. His 99 career wins in 175 career games are second only to Japanese Hall of Famer Victor Starffin, who needed 165 to win that many games. For the season, Tanaka posted a 1.27 ERA, striking out 183 batters while walking 32. He is all but certain to win his second Eiji Sawamura Award, and there is a distinct possibility that he might win the Pacific League MVP as well.

It is widely believed that the Eagles will post Tanaka this winter; both player and team stand to make more off his record-setting season than they might any other year. Various MLB teams have sent scouts to watch Tanaka, including the Mets. Three teams specifically—the Yankees, the Rangers, and the Orioles—have supposedly been scouting the young ace for years, going back as far as 2010.

His NPB stats are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2009 20 2.33 2.97 189.2 8.1 2.0 8.1 0.6
2010 21 2.50 3.03 155 6.9 1.9 9.2 0.5
2011 22 1.27 1.88 226.1 9.6 1.1 6.8 0.3
2012 23 1.87 1.88 173 8.8 1.0 8.3 0.2
2013 24 1.27 2.29 212 7.8 1.2 7.1 0.3

His delivery is relatively standard. Standing tall with his glove out, he tucks his leg and glove together, hesitating only momentarily before releasing the ball from a high ¾ angle, wrapping his wrist to hide the ball. His follow-through and landing all are smooth, and he leaves himself in good defensive positioning. His delivery is relatively low effort and doesn't raise any immediate red flags in terms of control or injury. From the stretch, his delivery misses the slight hesitation, but is otherwise the same.

Tanaka has an impressive pitch repertoire. His four-seam fastball sits around 90 mph and tops out at roughly 95. He throws his slider almost as much as he does his four-seamer, a tight, biting pitch that sits in the comes in around 80 mph on average, but tops out in the high 80s. It is much more than a get-me-over pitch, and is a legitimate weapon against both lefties and right-handers.

Mā-kun is best known for his splitter. Ben Badler of Baseball America writes that it is, "arguably the best splitter in the world". Though Tanaka throws his slider more than his splitter, the splitter is his best strikeout pitch. Sitting in the mid 80s and coming in as high as the low 90s, the pitch has a great deal of horizontal and vertical movement. The last pitch in Masahiro's selection is a shuuto that can be a weapon against both lefties and right-handers, like his slider. Like his four-seam fastball, the shuuto sits at 90 mph, roughly, and tops out in the low 90s. It features movement that tails into right-handers and jams them, or down and away from left-handers, a harder, tighter version of his slider. A changeup, curveball, and cutter round out his pitching arsenal, but these pitches are rarely thrown and do not figure much into his overall pitching strategy. Of them, the curveball is the strongest pitch, but it is mainly used to change the eye level and timing mechanisms of hitters, coming in at around 70 mph in a loopy arc.

Does He Make Sense For The Mets?

What team wouldn't want a pitcher like Tanaka? Therein lies the problem. Coming off of arguably his best season, the young ace pitcher will be very expensive. Assuming the MLB/NPB posting system does not change, the team that wins a blind bid is given exclusive rights to talk with Tanaka and sign him to a contract. So in addition to having to ante up because of the right-hander's high overall value, they will also have to compete against each other, trying to strategically outbid one another without necessarily breaking the bank.

I believe that the winning bid for Tanaka will be in the $30 million range. For context, the Hanwa Eagles of the KBO received $25,737,737 from the Los Angeles Dodgers for their posting of Hyun-jin Ryu and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters received $51,703,411from the Texas Rangers for their posting of Yu Darvish. Tanaka is better than Ryu but is not as good a pitcher as Darvish. Accordingly, his posting fee will likely be more than Ryu's, but less than Darvish's.

Contractually, Ryu signed a six-year, $36 million deal with the Dodgers, and Darvish signed a six-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers. A six-year deal for Tanaka would make sense. He will be 25 in 2014, and such a contract will take him through his prime years. Though Tanaka is not a better pitcher than Darvish, I think his per year annual value will equal or surpass that of Darvish. Darvish's success with Texas and Tanaka's record-breaking season might very well increase Mā-kun's leverage and inflate his contract.

I do not think that Masahiro Tanaka represents much risk in replicating some of the success he had in the NPB in MLB. He might cost a pretty penny, but there is no doubt that he will be an effective pitcher. He doesn't come without any red flags, though. Most glaring to me, because of the situation that the Mets are currently in with Matt Harvey, is Tanaka's pitch usage. His slider is thrown hard, and is used a great deal. While an effective pitch, throwing that many sliders at that high a velocity is something to be aware of. Tanaka has never really had injury problems, and more specifically, elbow problems, so the injury risk from throwing such a high stress pitch so often is more ephemeral than anything else.

Another red flag that a MLB team bidding on his pitching services would have to be aware of is that his walk and home run rates are invariably going to spike. Tanaka has a decent-if-pedestrian strikeout rate for a pitcher of his pedigree, and his plus strikeout-to-walk ratio has generally had more to do with his excellent control rather than his strikeout stuff. Against MLB competition, his walk rate will almost certainly rise. Even if his strikeout rate stays steady, he will likely put more men on base, which increases the risk of them coming around to score. Against the larger, stronger hitters in MLB, his home run rate will almost certainly rise as well. I don't mean to say that he will become home run prone, but any increase will negatively impact his numbers, and how the team fares while he is on the mound.

So, should the Mets be in on Masahiro Tanaka? While the Mets have many holes, starting pitching isn't necessarily one of them. Though Zack Wheeler, Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee are the only starting pitchers that can comfortably be written into the team's 2014 starting rotation right now, the team has internal options, as well as a number of low-risk, moderate-reward free agents. While Tanaka is very likely to be far superior to all of those options, his addition to the team would be a luxury, more than a necessity. With limited funds, the team would be better suited dipping into them to improve the holes that already exist, rather than further fortifying strengths.

Could the team win and sign Tanaka, and then trade one of those starters, established or prospect, to shore up one of the many holes that currently exist? In theory, yes. There would be a lot of moving parts in such a scenario, though. The Mets would have to win Tanaka's bidding, sign him to a contract, identify a trade partner for one of their pitchers, and settle upon a fair return for that player that both sides find mutually agreeable. Time constraints, as well as outside influences (other teams, changes in the market, etc.), would also exert influence over such wheeling and dealing. While not a completely outlandish and impossible scenario, I do think it is unlikely.

Whatever team eventually signs Tanaka is going to obtain the services of a very good pitcher. In another place, in another time, I would be very vocal for the Mets going after the right-handed ace, and would be excited that the team would have a legitimate chance to sign him. The team's current financial woes, coupled with how the roster is currently filled, leads me to believe that they won't be legitimate players to land the ace. In theory, the entire baseball establishment might discount Tanaka, and the Mets win with a cheap, reasonable bid. In reality, that is highly unlikely, as it only takes one team with money to spare and a will to win the bidding to knock the Mets out of contention for his services.

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