On Wednesday morning, the New York Yankees signed Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract that includes a fourth year opt-out clause for Tanaka. While he has pitched well in Japan, have the Yankees signed hype, talent or a combination of both? Will Tanaka really be worth the massive contract?
With Rakuten of the Japan Pacific League, Tanaka was lights out last year and for much of the six years before it. In 2013, he posted a perfect 24-0 record with a 1.27 ERA, his third straight sub-2.00 ERA season. He finished eight complete games and struck out 183 batters while walking just 32.
As I’ve written before, I don’t think Tanaka has long career ahead of him in MLB. He’s already pitched 1,315 innings in Japan. You can make the case that pitchers like Clayton Kershaw (1,180) and Justin Verlander (1,772) have pitched a lot of innings, but that’s not a fair comparison.
Tanaka comes from a baseball culture that is far different than that of what we have in the United States. They don’t care for their pitchers the way that MLB ball clubs do. The wear and tear builds up fast. In the offseason, pitchers will go through rehab to make sure that their arm is fresh and ready to go next season. Has Tanaka taken care of his arm for the long haul like Kershaw and Verlander have?
In the past ten years, we’ve now seen three high-profile pitchers come out of Japan. First was Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Boston Red Sox, then Yu Darvish with the Texas Rangers and now Tanaka. Matsuzaka took the MLB world by storm going 18-3 in his second season and posting a 2.90 ERA. Darvish has had similar success and holds a 29-18 record with a career 3.34 ERA in two seasons. There’s no denying that Tanaka can start off with the same success.
But how long will that last? Since Matsuzaka went on a tear with the Red Sox in 2008, he’s yet to post a season-ERA less than 4.42. In 11 starts with Boston in 2012, he went 1-7 with an 8.28 ERA. Currently, he’s a free agent as the Mets haven’t re-signed him.
Darvish, on the other hand, is still fairly new to MLB as he’s only been here for two years. If we go by a similar comparison to Matsuzaka, this is the year that he’ll struggle. It should be interesting to see how he fares in his third MLB season. Will he be the rule or the exception?
Can we expect a similar fate out of Tanaka? He comes from the same system and enters with similar numbers and the same hype. There’s no doubt the Yankees can get a few good years out of him, but seven? I’m not so sure.