07 October 2013

Gem of the Offseason: Masahiro Tanaka?

The Nippon Pro Baseball league has been a source of hope and confusion.  Folks on this side of the Pacific try to make sense of the performances of those of that side.  The difficulty is a combination of multi-purpose stadiums, different types of scheduling, a widely diverse composition of talent, and an oft changing baseball.  All of these together make it hard to understand just what is happening.  If a pitcher is doing well, is he doing well because of the large stadiums, having an extra day of rest, eating up players who would have difficulty doing well in the International League, or did the ball have any impact?  It is a situation where one must depend on scouts and past history has shown that often scouts have difficulty projecting how well a player will transition to MLB.

Two surprises on this trek Eastward are familiar to Orioles' fans: Koji Uehara and Wei-Yin Chen.  The former was a question mark due to his injury history and how soft he tossed.  General opinion was that he could not start, which turned out to be true.  What was not seen is how well he would be in throwing an inning here and an inning there.  He turned into an incredibly useful pitcher and one that was able to net the Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter and first base revelation Chris Davis.  The knock on the latter was potential injury risk and an inability to miss bats.  Upon reaching this shore, he has turned into an average to above average pitcher.  He does have some issues with endurance, but his stuff has risen to what is needed for this league.

A couple obvious transitions would be Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish.  Although Matsuzaka fell apart after two seasons, his first two seasons were pretty solid.  If you considered era, Yu Darvish has been rather equivalent to what Matsuzaka accomplished.  We had projected Darvish to perform at this projection:

per 200 IP K BB HR FIP WAR
15th 177 137 15 4.49 1.2
50th 209 106 12 3.47 2.8
85th 240 75 8 2.43 4.8
What he wound up doing?

Per 200 IP 249 84 20 3.27
Proj Pct 94 74 1 56
Darvish outperformed our projections for strikeouts and walks, but well underperformed for home run rate.  In all, this wound up averaging everything out and our FIP results are almost right on point.  This projection performance does not alone prove or disprove that this projection has much utility.  However, it does seem to give a decent ballpark estimate of performance.  With this in mind, we look forward.

RHP Masahiro Tanaka

After a rather quiet offseason last year, another player is making noise about flying east and testing his mettle.  That player is RHP Masahiro Tanaka.  Tanaka was the NPB pitcher of the year in 2011 and, after an undefeated 2013 season, may win the award again this year.  Other winners of this award include Uehara, Darvish, Matsuzaka, and Hisashi Iwakuma.  On the other hand, winners have also included Kenshin Kawakami.  Below is his year by year performance.

7 Seasons9535.7312.3216852181284.
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/6/2013.

Tanaka has become a more accurate pitcher than Darvish, but does not strike out as many players.  Looking at his past three season, our projection model suggests this range of outcomes:

per 200 IP K BB HR FIP WAR
15th 177 80 18 3.79 2.3
50th 183 68 12 3.15 3.5
85th 210 48 8 2.34 5.5
This is a rosier projection than the one that was generated for Darvish.  Why?  Walks.  This model projects Tanaka to be much more capable of command than Darvish.  So much more that Tanaka is able to make up for his lack of strikeouts.  How could this make sense?  Two seamers and splitters.

Looking at the data from his games and the scouty report issued by Baseball America's Ben Badler, this is what it looks like to me.  Tanaka uses a 4 seamer, 2 seamer, slider, and splitter.  His 4-seamer can ramp up to the mid-90s, but has little movement on it.  In the majors, it might be a show me pitch that could set up his splitter, but it would be a pitch that he could pay dearly for.  His 2-seamer hovers around 90 and is a plus pitch.  His slider is a pitch that I have heard mixed reviews on.  Badler reported it as him hearing that it is capable of being a plus pitch.  I have not heard anything as shining as that.  The splitter though will be something to marvel at.  It comes in around the high 80s.  I'd expect his curveball and changeup to disappear if he comes state-side.

Among MLB squads, the Orioles' current composition relies heavily on the splitter. In fact, at 4.1% the Orioles are the team with the third most thrown splitters.  Only the Red Sox and Cubs threw more splitters.  Here is a top five:

Red Sox 5.9%
Cubs 4.2%
Orioles 4.1%
Cardinals 3.4%
Reds 3.0%
I am not certain if there is any organizational tendency to focus on pitchers with splitters.  If there is, then Tanaka would be someone to focus on.  I would very much encourage the team to figure out what the contract numbers might shake out to be.  A player who is worth at least 60 MM and at most 140 MM is a player that is likely worth having.  The Orioles have not been mentioned as a likely destination.  The Red Sox have been the team I have heard being interested time and time again.  The Mariners have also been given some press, but they are always attached to Japanese players due to their ownership's close connection to Japanese interests.

I'd offer a total package (any posting fees + salary) up to 120 MM.  It may be a bit of a risk given that much of Tanaka's game seems situated around inducing poor contact, but I think it is a risk worth taking.


Cardboard Ronnie Brown said...

I think the Orioles, mostly Dan Duquette, is opposed to developing young pitchers' reliance on the cutter (ex. Dylan Bundy). I don't think there is a problem with Tanaka's splitter. There might be a problem spending 120mil on Tanaka though

Jon Shepherd said...

You are absolutely correct. That is an oversight on my part. I will correct it above.


Unknown said...

Hi Jon,

How you doing? If you remember I was CB Coach. I hope your numbers are high on the posting and salary but I agree it is worth a shot. I was hoping around 100MM. We will see in November I guess, but since the Orioles never were serious in this market I would guess they do something different.

Anonymous said...

$120 million plus fees for Tanaka...no way...O's would never do that....and he is not worth that...way out of line.

Jon Shepherd said...

Hey, long time been from those Sunspot days.

I think we will know everything money-wise around mid-December. That said, I expect big pushes from the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers.

Jon Shepherd said...

Anon...120 MM would be with fees included. He is worth that much, which means a team paying that much as opposed to him receiving all of it.

Nomarless said...

I also looked at Tanaka...with graphs!

I think anyone willing to got to 120M level has to for 6 years, and feel he is the ONLY ace they can acquire..(meaning they are devoid of developmental one AND are not picking in the top 5 to 7 for a while(where Matt Harvey was))

The Cubs attachment makes me wonder...that splitter is fine, but he throws a TON of sliders. He also has quite a bit of mileage on that arm. I think teams can do themselves disservice in OVERPAYING.

But someone will - Dodgers and Yankees have the wherewithal to take the risks given their revenues (Dodgers) and salary space (Yanks). Boston might not be able to - given their other needs to keep pace..but one can never be certain.

Good article.

Anonymous said...

Think this would be an overpay, but i could see this fitting the Angels perfectly. No top draft picks or depth of this caliber and they have the revenue/cap space to do it. How else are they going to get a #2-3 SP? Kendrick and Trumbo aren't as valuable as they think.