Masahiro Tanaka's Rakuten Golden Eagles were playing just their 9th season as a part of Nippon Professional Baseball in 2013. In their previous eight seasons, the club had finished over .500 just once, in 2009. In 2013, en route to its first Japan Series championship, the Golden Eagles finished 82-59-3, 23 games over .500. The 24-year-old Tanaka finished 24-0.
To see what he meant to this Rakuten franchise, watch the reaction of the crowd as he entered to claim the save in the final game of the league's semifinal series. (Tanaka also recorded the save in the deciding Game 7 of the Nippon Series, just one day after suffering his first loss of the season, a complete game, 4 earned run, 12 strikeout effort in Game 6):
No Japanese pitcher has approached the achievements of Tanaka's 2013 campaign. Apart from the gaudy record, the 6-foot-2 right-hander tied a career best with a 1.27 ERA over 212 innings of work, struck out 183 hitters, second in the league, and walked just 32.
Tanaka's season has put him in position to attract a record posting fee, above even the $51.7 million Texas paid for Yu Darvish and the $51.1 million Boston paid for Daisuke Matsuzaka. But neither pitcher completed a season worthy of rivaling Tanaka's 2013.
Matsuzaka's best year came in 2006 with Seibu, another Pacific League squad. Matsuzaka struck out 200 over 186 1/3 innings en route to a 2.13 ERA. Both the ERA and his 5. K/BB registered as career highs. Tanaka has posted a superior ERA in each of the past three seasons and posted a superior K/BB in both 2011 and 2012 (8.9 both times).
Darvish's best campaign came in 2011, as a 24-year-old, his last with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Pacific League. Unlike Rakuten, the Fighters are a perennial power -- 2013 was their first sub-.500 campaign since a 62-71 clunker in 2005. Darvish finished with a 1.44 ERA on the 2011 Fighters, struck out 276 (10.7 K/9) and walked just 36.
Tanaka, then 22, went pitch-for-pitch with Darvish. He posted a league best 1.27 ERA over 226 1/3 innings and tied Darvish with six shutouts. But Tanaka's arsenal wasn't quite as devastating as Darvish's -- he struck out 35 fewer batters than Darvish in just five fewer innings.
Darvish's 2011 campaign compares well with Tanaka's 2013 on raw numbers, but Tanaka was pitching in a much more difficult environment for pitchers. Pacific League pitchers allowed just a 2.95 ERA in 2011 as hitters limped to a .251/.308/.348 line. The league ERA jumped to 3.57 in 2013 as hitters managed 143 more home runs than in the barren 2011 season. The league batting line grew to .262/.331/.376. To put faces to it, the 2011 NPB hit like 2013 Dan Uggla. The 2013 NPB hit like 2013 Russell Martin. And Tanaka still had a lower ERA in 2013 than Darvish did in 2011.
With such a pedigree, Tanaka's astronomic price tag -- assuredly at least $100 million between posting fee and contract -- becomes understandable. Considering some of the demands from free agent pitchers this offseason, it seems downright cheap. Ricky Nolasco , who posted a 4.29 ERA (91 ERA+)over the past three seasons, has asked for five years at $80 million. Ervin Santana and his 3.85 ERA (101 ERA+) over the past three years has demanded a $100 million contract.
Tanaka certainly has the ability to outperform both veterans. Aside from his domination of the NPB, scouts have been impressed. Some have given the obvious comparisons to Darvish or Hiroki Kuroda, who pitched well for the Yankees this season. One called Tanaka "A surefire No. 3 and maybe a [No.] 2" -- something that would certainly put Tanaka above Nolasco and possibly above Santana as well. And, of course, Tanaka is only 25 in a market where every other premium starter is at least 30.
None of it will be enough to stave off baseball's typical fear and anxiety surrounding the acquisition of a foreign player. As good as Tanaka was in NPB, it is still only roughly equivalent to minor league Triple-A ball, and pitchers with better scouting pedigrees and better numbers than Tanaka have stumbled in the majors. And past mistakes in the Japanese market stick in the minds of executives.
The Yankees, for instance, were expected to have trepidations lingering from their ill-advised decision to sign Kei Igawa out of Japan in 2006. Igawa's $26 million posting fee ranks third behind Matsuzaka and Darvish and comes in at more than double what Ichiro Suzuki attracted as the first player to come over via the posting system in 2000. The skepticism kept the Yankees out of the bidding war over Yu Darvish, largely due to Igawa's failures (and, less recently, those of Hideki Irabu).
There is no comparison, however, between Igawa and Tanaka. Igawa's best season in Japan came in 2002, four seasons before he left for the United States. He allowed a 2.49 ERA and 15 home runs in 29 starts and struck out 206 over 209 2/3 innings -- impressive for a 22-year-old. But in the three seasons leading up to his departure, Igawa allowed ERAs of 3.73, 3.86 and 2.97 respectively. Over those three years, Japanese Central League pitchers allowed respective ERAs of 4.39, 4.10 and 3.68. Igawa was above average, not the ace Darvish, Tanaka or even Matsuzaka was.
Tanaka has everything any team should be looking for in a young pitching asset. He has the frame. He has the mid-90s fastball, a plus splitter and a plus slider. He has possibly the best pre-posting career of any Japanese pitcher, as he brought a cellar-dwelling franchise from the depths to a championship at just 24 years old. With Jose Dariel Abreu off the market, he is almost certainly the best player not under an American professional baseball contract.
Front offices will worry. That's what they're paid for. But the hype around Tanaka is real. As one Yankees insider put it, "We're not going to get his kind of player on the free-agent market." Neither will anybody else. Forget the lack of experience, forget all the Kei Igawas, Hideki Irabus and Kaz Matsuis. Talent wins, and in Masahiro Tanaka, the talent is impossible to miss.