Rising Son: Tanaka separate from the pack
In 2008 Sports Illustrated published an in-depth article on the life on Yankee starter Chien-Ming Wang, appropriately entitled, Chien-Ming Wang has a secret. In his native country of Taiwan, the former sinker-baller was a celebrity. He couldn’t get out of his car in Taiwan without getting mobbed by worshipping fans. Yet when he walked down the streets in New York City, he was barely bothered; no one hounded him or even recognized him. The piece delved into his personal life, as well as how he developed his signature pitch.
It was an interesting story on the foreign pitcher. One a reader could thoroughly enjoy.
Yesterday the Yanks landed 25-year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, luring him to the Bronx with a pact worth $155 million over seven years; thus snagging the hurler from the Rakuten Eagles. Tanaka has put up staggering numbers in Japan since his debut in Nippon Pro Baseball in 2007, winning several awards and attaining superstardom along the way.
This writer does not in fact know whether or not Tanaka can walk down the streets of Tokyo without being mobbed. Only time will tell if he will be able to take a stroll in Times Square without the hassle of adoring fans and media. But over the next seven years, rest assured, we’ll learn a lot about this newcomer.
What we do know now is that he was 24-0 in NPB last year with a microscopic earned run average of 1.27. Over the last three seasons alone he piled up 53 wins and only lost three games, posting an ERA of 1.44. For the sake of getting too analytical, most folks are predicting his WAR to have impressive range, meaning he will be worth a heck of a lot of victories throughout his Yankee tenure.
His total WAR is going to be 16.8 after seven years.
No! It’s got to be 6.8 per season.
Thanks for your input, Twitter.
Notwithstanding the ever-glorious, overanalyzed “wins above replacement” stat, his regular numbers from the Far East are unheard of here in the United States – and even in Japan, those numbers leap out at you, giving a lot of pundits and writers the impression he is separated from the pack of aces.
Take for example Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was a well-sought-after pitcher during the 2006-07 offseason. His best season in Japan (pitching for the Seibu Lions) was the year right before he signed with Boston, being 2006.
Dice-K’s numbers that season: 17-5, 2.13 ERA, 186.1 innings pitched, and 200 strikeouts. His transition to Major League Baseball wasn’t anything special, going 15-12 with an ERA of 4.40 his first season in Beantown with the Red Sox, which was of course ’07. His workload got a bit heavier that year (204.2 IP) but the number of Ks was consistent; in fact, one more than his previous season at 201 strikeouts.
His claim to fame was his 2008 season in Boston when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, which could be attributed to a lighter amount of innings – 167.2. His K total also fell to 154 strikeouts. From there, the “Dice Man” became nothing to write home to Japan about.
Point being Dice-K is not exactly comparable to Tanaka. Neither is Kei Igawa (a teammate of Matsuzaka’s from the Seibu Lions) who the Yanks acquired prior to 2007. Igawa’s best year in Japan came in 2003 when he was 20-5 with a 2.80 ERA; 206 IP, amassing 179 strikeouts. It’s also worth mentioning he never won more than 14 games in a single season for the Lions after ‘03.
That being said, Igawa never made a difference in New York. Before he was let go he finished with a 2-4 record in pinstripes, a 6.66 earned run average, and he struck out just 53 batters.
In other words, he was a bad investment. Igawa’s ERA describes his time in New York perfectly, being the mark of the devil, and for the record, there’s no chance he was mobbed by fans. Frankly, if Yankee fans were to have seen Igawa in the street (that is if they would have even recognized him to begin with) they probably would have thrown eggs and tomatoes at him.
And no, he cannot be compared to Tanaka.
Even the great Yu Darvish cannot truly be compared to Tanaka. His best season for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters was 2011, the year before he came to the states and joined the Texas Rangers. In ’11, Darvish went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA; 232 innings pitched and a mind-blowing 276 strikeouts.
While 18 is a strong number in terms of win total, it’s not quite on par with Tanaka’s 24 from last season, although Darvish’s first two seasons in MLB weren’t bad:
2012: 16-9, 3.90 ERA, 232 IP, 221 Ks.
2013: 13-9, 2.83 ERA, 209.2 IP, 277 Ks.
And while we won’t know what Tanaka’s numbers will be over the course of his first two seasons in pinstripes for another couple years, we do know his numbers were better than Darvish’s were overseas.
Hisashi Iwakuma, a Japanese starter who joined the Seattle Mariners in 2012, only mustered up 29 wins over his last three seasons in Japan (2009-11, for the Golden Eagles) – a far cry from the 53 Tanaka has racked up over his last three seasons pitching in the land of the rising sun.
It’s quite possible Tanaka is the best Japanese-born starting pitcher we’ve ever seen – at least that’s what the numbers suggest. Better in his native Japan than Matsuzaka; better than Igawa, better than Darvish, better than Iwakuma – and maybe even better than Hideo Nomo.
Nomo was MLB’s first notable Japanese import, and he pitched for the Kintetsu Buffaloes from 1990-94. The most wins he notched in a single season in the Far East: like Darvish, 18. Again, not as many as Tanaka’s 24.
The truth is we won’t know how well his stuff will translate from NPB to MLB until we receive a sample size, which could be a year or two. Yet if his numbers, compared to the other Japanese-born starters, are any indication, he will surely succeed. He could potentially go soaring above and beyond the realm of accomplishments of the other Japanese pitchers.
And if Tanaka does indeed dominate, there’s a good chance he won’t be as lucky walking down the streets of New York as Wang once was. The man from Japan might just become a little too popular to go unrecognized in the city that never sleeps.
But that all depends on how he does. And you can bet your life Yankee Universe will be watching.