When Yu Darvish was still just a 24 year old starter out in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league in Japan, he gained worldwide fame for putting up what can only be described as “video game numbers” – 18-6 record, 1.44 ERA, 232 innings, 0.828 WHIP, 276 SO (10.7 K/9), 1.4 BB/9, and an 0.2 HR/9. If it had had happened in the majors, it would have been considered one of the greatest pitching seasons of all time.
Believe it or not, this year’s big name Japanese Pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka, has been even better. At the same age as Darvish, Tanaka went undefeated, 20-0, with a 1.23 ERA, and amazing, albeit slightly worse peripherals – 0.934 WHIP, 7.7 SO/9, 1.3 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9. Tanaka has stated his intention to be posted this offseason, and, considering the stats and the comparison to Darvish, he could break Yu’s record 51.7 million dollar posting fee.
Whether or not he will garner that amount will likely be dependent on the specific evaluation by Yankees, Rangers, Red Sox, and Dodgers’ (the teams most commonly linked to Tanaka) scouts.
The general consensus on Masahiro is that he is not as elite of a prospect as Darvish was. A general tool for evaluating pitching prospects is that the more bats they miss, the greater their potential. Whereas Darvish was able to whif 10.7 batters per nine in has last season in the NPB, Tanaka only struck out 7.7. That number is barely above the major league average – assuming he maintains it in a more difficult league.
In the past, Tanaka has compensated for his relatively pedestrian strikeout rate with an impossibly low walk rate. The problem now, though, is that Japanase Pitchers’ walk rates tend to spike considerably when they make the transition over to the States. Recent imports Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, and Daisuke Matsuzaka all saw their walk rates at last double once they came to the majors. A pitcher with a 2.6 BB:9 and 7.5 K/9 screams #3 or #4 starter, not “ace worth $100 million between posting and a contract.”
Of course, there are legitimate reasons why Tanaka has been able to put such gawdy numbers in Japan and why teams, the Yankees in particular, have already heavily scouted and discussed him. His stuff isn’t as good as Darvish’s but its still absolutely dominant, with a fastball that can reach the mid 90’s, a plus, low to mid 80’s slider, and what Ben Badler of Baseball America called, “arguably the best splitter in the world.” The latter pitch is Tanaka’s biggest case for big league success, as it allows him to produce troves of groundballs and outperform his peripherals.
Some scouts even believe that Tanaka could be better than Darvish because unlike his baseball elder, he possesses pitching intelligence.
“[Tanaka] is better than Darvish because he is a strike thrower.” One scout told George A. King of the New York post “Overall, Darvish’s stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch. He is like Kuroda, he has a lot of guts.”
All this could amount to a posting fee worth up to $60 million and a contract worth up to 80, but there’s one caveat that analysts seem to be overlooking: durability. In Japan, pitchers tend to start once a week instead of once every five days as is the standard Major League practice, and they are therefore forced to take on a heavier workload when they come ot the US. While this was not a problem for Darvish, who threw 232 innings in his last NPB season, Kuroda lasted only 14 starts before his first DL trip and Matzuzaka suffered from tired shoulders, rotator cuff strains, and has undergone Tommy John Surgery since his rookie season with the Red Sox (admittedly, this could also just be due to the extreme overuse Matsuzaka was subjected to as a high scholer in Japan). For his part, Tanaka has started only 23 and 22 games in 2013 and 2012, respectively, which could give team’s pause before handing out the five or six year deal he is likely demand.