Masahiro Tanaka, who was recently posted by the NPB's Rakuten Golden Eagles, will inevitably be compared to Japanese predecessors Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma. A closer look, however, reveals the comparisons are unjust. Tanaka is unlike any pitcher posted by a Japanese baseball team.
There is no need to compare every single Japanese pitcher that comes over to the United States with every other pitcher from the Land of the Rising Sun. Justin Verlander and Jamie Moyer both originate from the US, after all, and this may be the first time they've been mentioned in the same sentence together.
Scouts praised both Darvish and Matsuzaka before their debut American seasons, basing their reports on their performance in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league. Tanaka receives similar praise from front offices and scouts based on his domination of NPB. The talent level in Japan sits between Major League Baseball and South Korea's Korea Baseball Organization, which sports AAA-type talent.
Baseball America's Ben Badler on Tanaka:
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. Even though Tanaka can reach the mid-90s, his fastball is the pitch that gives some scouts pause because it comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable than the velocity might suggest. Tanaka has two secondary pitches that have earned grades of 60 or better on the 20-80 scouting scale, including a 70 splitter with late downward action to keep hitters off his fastball. His low- to mid-80s slider is another plus weapon, while he'll mix in a curveball as well.
Baseball America's Jim Callis on Darvish back in January '12:
Darvish is a frontline starter who has a proven track record in the Japanese major leagues. I'd give him a 70/Low (and rank him as baseball's fourth-best prospect behind Trout, Moore and Harper), and I also could see him as a 75/Medium.
Baseball America listed Darvish with six pitches, a four-seam, two-seam, slider, curveball, splitter and changeup, all of which received at least a plus grade (60 on the 20-80 scale). In addition, Baseball America lauded Darvish for his athleticism, which contributed to his ability to repeat his deliver and command his pitches.
ESPN's Keith Law on Matsuzaka back in January '07:
Matsuzaka brings at least two plus pitches to the table: a hard, "rising" fastball (hold your e-mails -- I've read "The Physics of Baseball") in the 92-95 mph range; and his famous slider, an out pitch breaking ball with a hard, filthy break downward. He also throws a splitter that's at least a solid-average pitch, with good bottom and a nice separation from his fastball; he uses it more against left-handed hitters than against righties. Like a lot of Japanese starters, Matsuzaka has an exaggerated delivery with a big twist, giving him a lot of deception that will make him harder for American hitters to pick up, at least at first.
Tanaka, Darvish and Matsuzaka all share very little in common besides the fact that they all faced high pressure in Japan and started their professional baseball careers at the ripe age of 18-years old. Tanaka's main pitch is the splitter, which some have dubbed "the best splitter in the world." Darvish sported a variety of nasty pitches while Matsuzaka carried the legend of the gyroball (which was brilliantly paired with an absolutely amazing, Grammy-worthy song by the Red Sox marketing department). The three are very different pitchers, despite the fact that they all hail from the same country.
While the three differ in-terms of pitching style, it is worthwhile to compare their NPB statistics to judge their potential success in the majors. All three, at the time, were hailed as the best pitchers in Japan (although older starters like Kuroda and Iwakuma have had more success that Matsuzaka). Take a look at the Japanese stats for all three pitchers:
Tanaka's career numbers sit somewhere in-between Darvish's and Matsuzaka's numbers in terms of success. Tanaka and Matsuzaka sported a WHIP in the 1.1 range with a similar strikeout rate, Tanaka at 8.5 K/9 and Matsuzaka at 8.7 K/9. Darvish is the only pitcher that posted a sub-2.00 ERA while pitching in Japan.
One flag of concern is Tanaka's strikeout rate, which fell over the last three seasons (28% in 2011 to 24% in 2012 to 22% in 2013) while his walk rate remained relatively stable (3.7%, 3.0%, 4.3%).
While scouting reports say that Tanaka won't have the same problem as Matsuzaka with pounding the strike zone (some have compared Tanaka to Koji Uehara in his ability to force the issue), Matsuzaka did not have a huge walk issue in Japan, posting 1.6 BB/9 in his last year in Japan. However with the Red Sox, Matsuzaka's walk rate rose to 3.5 BB/9 in 2007 and 5.0 BB/9 in 2008. Tanaka posted a 1.4 BB/9 walk rate last year.
That being said, comparing Tanaka to just Japanese pitchers is extremely close-minded.
Jim Bowden of ESPN and Sirius XM compared Tanaka to Dan Haren, an incredibly underrated pitcher in his prime.
The best MLB comparison for Masahiro Tanaka is Dan Haren circa 2006-2011. Great command and a 70 split— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) December 28, 2013
From '06-'11 (age 25-29), Haren posted a 3.46 ERA with a 1.140 WHIP, 8.5 H/9, 1.7 BB/9, 7.9 K/9 and a 87-62 W/L record. Haren made three All-Star teams, but never finished higher than fifth in the Cy Young voted. While he was a very good, consistent pitcher during the period, Haren was never considered an ace. Some of Haren's top similar counterparts according to Baseball Reference are Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy, John Lackey and Ted Lilly.
Tanaka, who has not yet proven that he produce in Major League Baseball, will likely sign a six or seven year deal with an average annual value of at-least $17-million dollars, a result of the new posting agreement between MLB and NPB. If Tanaka is worth $17-million without having pitched in MLB, what are top young talents such as Mark Appel, Archie Bradley, Taijuan Walker, Xander Bogaerts and Byron Buxton worth?
Six Red Sox prospects in BP's top 101
Where they're ranked and in what order is something we'll have to wait to find out.
It is a forgone conclusion that Tanaka, the first true Japanese superstar free-agent now that the posting fee is limited to $20 million, will sign a huge contract given the lack of top-of-the-rotation pitching on the open market. Despite the anticipated mega-deal, it will be completely unreasonable to expect Tanaka to be Darvish from the get-go. Darvish came to America extremely polished, built like a prototypical ace at 6'5 and 225 pounds versus the 6'2, 205 pound Tanaka. Darvish's smooth windup had neither mechanical nor injury concerns, something Tanaka's heryky-jerky motion cannot claim.
The effect of Tanaka's heavy workload will not be known until a couple of years down the line but Matsuzaka and Darvish set two very different precedents. Tanaka, like Matsuzaka, threw an extreme number of pitches during his high school. Like Matsuzaka, Tanaka is not a big pitcher (Matsuzaka was listed at six feet, but was an inch or two under in reality. Tanaka is listed at 6'2). Matsuzaka's shoulder was clean and healthy when he came over to the states. A couple years later, he was under the knife of Dr. Lewis Yocum.
On top of the pitch count concerns, it is not yet known how he will adapt to the American style of care for pitchers. Matsuzaka famously stuck to his own Japanese routine, a likely root for the series of arm injuries he struggles with to this day. There is also concern about Tanaka's flat fastball, a result of his height. How his fastball plays in America will play a huge factor in how the rest of his pitch repertoire translates to America. Tanaka's success depends on a how a large amount of variables fall.
Tanaka is already over-hyped and if Bowden's informed, middle-ground evaluation of Tanaka stands to be true, he will be worth nowhere near the astronomical contract he is set to receive. In the end, Tanaka has as much a chance of being another Darvish-eque success as he does a Matsuzaka-esque flop.