To the shock of some and eyerolls of others, the New York Yankees have signed Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka to a huge seven-year, $155 million deal. Whatever you think about the size of the deal in the real world, it gives fantasy baseball drafters a perplexing dilemma – how much value does a rookie Japanese pitcher have in fake baseball?
On one hand, the 25-year-old is getting $22 million a year, clearly scouts from multiple clubs felt that he was worth well over $100 million. The Yankees certainly wouldn’t invest this much money if they didn’t truly believe that Tanaka will be a star. Don’t confuse baseball money with fantasy baseball value, though. Baseball money takes into account the market (i.e. did a pitcher recently ink the biggest deal in history in the past week?), the marketing boost (i.e. how many Tanaka jerseys the Yanks will be able to sell in Japan), and future potential which has nothing to do with this year’s value.
Tanaka has been a superstar in Japan though. Over the past three seasons, he has posted ERAs of 1.27, 1.87, and 1.27. He owns a career 2.30 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. He’s improved ever year that he’s played in Japan and posted a 1.4 or lower BB/9 over the last three seasons while striking out 7.8-9.6 per nine. Why shouldn’t we expect that to carry over?
Well, let’s take a look at a couple of recent similar examples.
Tanaka has often been compared with Yu Darvish who is coming off a monster campaign in 2013. First, I don’t believe this comparison is appropriate. Darvish posted a 10.7 K/9 in his final season in Japan. In two Major League seasons, he has posted an 11.2 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9. On the flip side, Tanaka posted a 7.8 K/9 last season and a 1.4 BB/9. He could be a 8+ K/9 pitcher but I don’t think we can expect the 11.9 K/9 Darvish posted in 2013. Nor Davish’s 3.4 BB/9.
Their production in Japan is similar, though. Darvish was dominant in Japan, posting five straight seasons with an ERA 1.88 or lower and owned a career 0.985 WHIP. That earned him a $60 million contract, nearly $100 million less than Tanaka. What a bargain.
How did that Japanese dominance translate to the US? At about the same rate as the dollar trades for the British pound. After not seeing an ERA over 2.00 since he was a teenager, 25-year-old Yu Darvish posted a 3.90 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, and 4.2 BB/9 in his rookie season. Was he stellar in his second season? No doubt. Did it take time to adjust to the American game? Absolutely.
Another example is Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma who came into the league at the same time as Darvish. Iwakuma wasn’t quite as successful in Japan as the other two but also didn’t post an ERA over 3.25 in his last four seasons in Japan, including a 1.87 in 2008. He only struck out 6.9/9 in Japan but also walked fewer than two batters per nine. At 30, he was signed by the Mariners. He played 30 games in his rookie season, starting 16 of them, and posted a 3.16 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 7.3 K/9, and 3.1 BB/9.
It was solid but certainly it wasn’t the Iwakuma we’d see just a year later. In 2013, he went 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, and 1.7 BB/9, finishing third in the Cy Young race.
As you can see, it is very possible for an elite Japanese pitcher to translate to the US in a major way, but it also takes some time.
Combine these trends with the fact that AL Division rivals Red Sox (first), Orioles (fifth), Blue Jays (ninth), and Rays (11th) all finished among the league’s top offenses. Add to that the fact that Baseball Reference’s Neutralized Pitching estimates that Clayton Kershaw‘s career ERA would go up by a good fifth of a run if he played half his games at Yankee stadium. Certainly, I wouldn’t plan on drafting such a risky asset prior to his rookie year but he’s certainly on my 2015 draft board.
But can we expect if we do? Certainly, playing for the Yankees, double-digit wins is almost a gimme if he stays healthy. Otherwise, when you look at what pitchers like Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, and Hisashi Iwakuma have done in their rookie seasons, it’s hard to expect an ERA below 3.70 or a WHIP below 1.22. I certainly wouldn’t expect a strikeout rate better than mid-7s. Is that solid? Sure. But in this league, where a 3.00 ERA is nowhere at the premium that it was a decade ago, there is no reason to grab him before 45-50 other pitchers go off the board.
Personally, I can live with missing out if he is an instant sensation, because that would buck the trend and avoiding the risk was still a smart move. Besides, based on trends, he’d be even better in 2015. Let someone else shoulder the risk on this one and draft someone who’s not a rookie in the toughest division to pitch in, playing in a hitter friendly park. We’ll draft him the year after when he’s in Cy Young conversations.