Japanese Imports…and we aren’t talking Karaoke

masahiro-tanaka-yankeesToday Masahiro Tanaka signed a 7 year 155 million dollar contract with the New York Yankees. Here in New England the panic music is rising, the faithful are nervous that this makes the Yankees better than the Red Sox. At first blush I don’t think so, but that is a story for another day. Today I want to analyze Tanaka the pitcher in relation to the other 3 big name pitchers to start their Major League careers at age 25 or 26, Hideo Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish.

In this piece I am also going to introduce 2 new stats, or at least new to me as I haven’t seen them on any of the big websites. So maybe I’m breaking ground, probably not. Let me briefly describe them. Strikeouts and walks per 9 innings is a fairly well known stat that provides a sort of baseline in that if pitcher X pitched 9 innings you can expect him to walk Y number of batters and strikeout Z number of batters. Starting pitchers don’t pitch 9 innings anymore, so why measure them against what, at this point, is a number that has context but really isn’t relevant. I’d much rather know what each pitcher is going to do based on their own number of innings pitched and games started. The formula is this, strikeouts multiplied by innings pitched divided by games started, KIPGS. Same with walks, walks multiplied by innings pitched divided by games started, WIPGS. This gives a far more accurate assessment of what a pitchers true expectations are.

A quick rundown on each to refresh our collective memories.

nomo-medHideo Nomo spent 5 seasons in Japan, pitched 1051 innings, his KIPGS was 8.9, and WIPGS was 4.3. His career in the Majors lasted parts of 12 seasons, where he threw 1976 ? innings, his KPGS was 6.0, and his WIPGS was 2.8. He won Rookie of the Year in 1995. He was a solid major league pitcher for the duration of his career who never started less than 19 games, except for a short lived 2008 comeback with Kansas City when he was a reliever.

6a01310f9ede0b970c0147e325268a970bDaisuke Matsuzaka spent 8 season in Japan, pitched 1402 innings, his KIPGS was 7.1, and his WIPGS was 2.6. His Major League career, which could still continue this next season, has lasted parts of 7 seasons, his KIPGS was 5.2, and his WIPGS was 2.7. He was 4th in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2007 and 4th in the Cy Young voting in 2008. He was a key part of the 2007 Red Sox World Series starting rotation making 32 starts and throwing 204 ? innings. He has never truly regained the form he showed in those first 2 seasons in which he was effective, but not great.

130402225309-yu-darvish-ap2-single-image-cutYu Darvish spent 7 season in Japan, pitched 1268 ? innings, his KIPGS was 8.1, and his WIPGS was 2.7. His Major League career has started with a bang. In only 2 seasons with the Texas Rangers he has pitched 401 innings, his KIPGS is 7.6 and his WIPGS is 2.0. He has finished in the top 10 in the Cy Young award vote in both his seasons, 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2012 and 22nd in the MVP voting in 2013. He has been an All-Star in both seasons and is looked at as one of the premier pitchers in the game today.

Masashiro Tanaka spent 7 seasons in Japan, pitched 1315 innings, his KIPGS was 7.1 and his WIPGS was 1.5. He comes on the heels of Darvish’s great success and with his Japan numbers being better than any of his predecessors he comes to the New York Yankees with huge expectations.

The expectations are so big that Tanaka’s deal with the Yankees of 7 years 155 million dollars is 101 million dollars more than Darvish’s 6 year 56 million dollar deal with the Rangers. For a man who hasn’t thrown a single pitch in the majors Tanaka now finds himself with the 5th largest contract for a pitcher behind only perennial Cy Young candidates Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and new teammate C.C. Sabathia, who have 5 Cy Young awards between them. With the number of innings that Tanaka has pitched and the always questionable transition from Japan to the US is he worth the money?

Tanaka’s final season in Japan where he went 24-0, 1.27 ERA, 8 complete games, 2 shutouts, 0.943 WHIP, with a KIPGS of 6.7 and WIPGS of 1.1 was amazing. Scouts who watched him all season believe he can step into the Yankees rotation and compete like Darvish, if not better, and by the end of the season give the Yankees a top of the rotation that should be able to compete with any in the AL.

It was an investment the Yankees had to make. Their starting pitching staff ranked 8th in WHIP, averaged less than 6 innings a start, had a team KIPGS of 4.6 and a team WIPGS of 4.6. Awful numbers for a team that supposed to be a year in year out threat to win the World Series. These pedestrian numbers led the Yankees to 85 wins and 4th place in the AL East.

downloadThe Yankees are far from complete though after losing Robinson Cano in free agency and Mariano Rivera to retirement. Their lineup Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran will help replace Cano’s production, but there is still a whole at 2nd and 3rd base (A-Who?). David Robertson will get the first chance to replace Rivera as the closer. While I think he will be fine, its always hard to be the 1st one behind a legend.

Do I think Tanaka will help the Yankees yes. Do I think he will be as good as Darvish? I don’t. Darvish has been nothing short of amazing. No other Japanese pitcher has come over and dominated like Darvish. I subscribe that to Darvish’s superior size. At 6’5″ Darvish is 3 inches taller than Tanaka’s 6’2″ and Nomo and 5 inches taller than Dice-K’s 6′. Darvish’s average fastball velocity since joining the Rangers is 92.7, Dice-K’s was 91.6, where as Tanaka’s average fastball velocity has been 90.8. Those may not sound like things that are too different or too far off from one another, but in my opinion they are a very big deal.

Tanaka will likely be very, very good, but 155 million dollar good? As a Red Sox fan I can only hope that after all those professional innings in Japan and the history of Japanese pitchers pitching insane high school workloads will both work against him with Tanaka becoming a bust and being an A-Rod sized anchor on the Yankees payroll.

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