Masahiro Tanaka: Top of the Rotation Starter?

Koji Watanabe

Ray offers a look at Masahiro Tanaka and discusses where he fits in 2014 fantasy starting pitcher rankings.

I wrote this piece on Masahiro Tanaka back in early November. Since it appears he will be posted and become a free agent, let's hear your thoughts on where you would rank him for 2014. I think I would have him in my top 30.

With the hot stove season about to heat up, one name you will hear a lot about is free agent starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka is another in the line of Japanese starting pitchers to leave Japan to pitch in the major leagues.

There will be plenty of teams involved in the bidding war for Tanaka's services this offseason, including the Yankees, Rangers, Dodgers, Cubs, and Phillies to name a few. There is a lot of disagreement over Tanaka's ceiing in the majors, some saying he is more of a 2-3 starter, while others, according to Ben Nicholson-Smith from Sportsnet.ca, who think he can be a top of the rotation starter.

Here is ESPN's Keith Law answering a queston about Tanaka in a recent chat:

Andy (Lynchburg, VA)

Do MLB scouts think Mashiro Tanaka has the same potential as Darvish? I've seen where writers seem to think so but was wondering what scouts think about it..

Klaw (1:21 PM)

No. Not really close.

To get an idea as to what kind of pitcher Tanaka is, here is a short scouting report from Baseball America's Ben Badler:

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.

He sounds like has has several ways to get a hitter out with three pitches that grade out as plus or better. Not too shabby if you ask me. I am not sure he is as good as Rangers ace Yu Darvish, Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma or Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda, but his stats below indicate he can be a very effective major league starting pitcher.

Here is a look at his career stats, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:

Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA GS CG IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO WHIP H/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2007 18 Rakuten JPPL 11 7 .611 3.82 28 4 186.1 183 83 79 17 68 2 196 1.347 8.8 3.3 9.5 2.88
2008 19 Rakuten JPPL 9 7 .563 3.49 24 5 172.2 171 71 67 9 54 3 159 1.303 8.9 2.8 8.3 2.94
2009 20 Rakuten JPPL 15 6 .714 2.33 24 6 189.2 170 51 49 13 43 0 171 1.123 8.1 2.0 8.1 3.98
2010 21 Rakuten JPPL 11 6 .647 2.50 20 8 155.0 159 47 43 9 32 1 119 1.232 9.2 1.9 6.9 3.72
2011 22 Rakuten JPPL 19 5 .792 1.27 27 14 226.1 171 35 32 8 27 0 241 0.875 6.8 1.1 9.6 8.93
2012 23 Rakuten JPPL 10 4 .714 1.87 22 8 173.0 160 45 36 4 19 0 169 1.035 8.3 1.0 8.8 8.89
2013 24 Rakuten JPPL 24 0 1.000 1.27 27 8 212.0 168 35 30 6 32 0 183 0.943 7.1 1.4 7.8 5.72
7 Seasons 99 35 .739 2.30 172 53 1315.0 1182 367 336 66 275 6 1238 1.108 8.1 1.9 8.5 4.50
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/1/2013.

Yeah, he seemed to dominate the Japanese league in 2013, going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, 0.943 WHIP and a 5.72 strikeout to walk ratio. He has impeccable control as evidenced by his career 1.9 BB/9 rate. He has walked just 51 batters over the last two seasons, covering 49 starts. As his walk rate has dropped over the last four seasons, his K/BB rate has jumped dramatically over the same time period.

His K/BB was good before 2011, but since then he has been pretty dominant on the mound, with ERAs of 1.27, 1.87 and 1.27 over the last three seasons. I don't know if he added a new pitch or gained velocity or what, but he has had his way with hitters in Japan.

Before I think about ranking him for 2014, I felt comparing him to Yu Darvish's tenure in Japan was needed, to see if anything jumps out at me.

For comparison purposes, here are Yu Darvish's stats in Japan, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:

Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO WHIP H/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2005 18 Nippon Ham JPPL 5 5 .500 3.53 14 94.1 97 37 37 7 48 1 52 1.537 9.3 4.6 5.0 1.08
2006 19 Nippon Ham JPPL 12 5 .706 2.89 24 149.2 128 55 48 12 64 0 115 1.283 7.7 3.8 6.9 1.80
2007 20 Nippon Ham JPPL 15 5 .750 1.82 26 207.2 123 48 42 9 49 1 210 0.828 5.3 2.1 9.1 4.29
2008 21 Nippon Ham JPPL 16 4 .800 1.88 24 200.2 136 44 42 11 44 0 208 0.897 6.1 2.0 9.3 4.73
2009 22 Nippon Ham JPPL 15 5 .750 1.73 23 182.0 118 36 35 9 45 0 167 0.896 5.8 2.2 8.3 3.71
2010 23 Nippon Ham JPPL 12 8 .600 1.78 25 202.0 158 48 40 5 47 0 222 1.015 7.0 2.1 9.9 4.72
2011 24 Nippon Ham JPPL 18 6 .750 1.44 28 232.0 156 42 37 5 36 0 276 0.828 6.1 1.4 10.7 7.67
7 Seasons 93 38 .710 1.99 164 1268.1 916 310 281 58 333 2 1250 0.985 6.5 2.4 8.9 3.75
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/1/2013.

Tanaka compares favorably to Darvish here, as his ERA was slightly above 2.00 for his career, while Darvish's career ERA was 1.99. Tanaka won more games in his seven seasons in Japan, but also made more starts. Tanaka had better control than Darvish, contributing to his higher career K/BB ratio.

Getting back to his low walk rate, only four starters in baseball had a lower BB/9 than Tanaka in 2013: Cliff Lee, of course, David Price, Adam Wainwright and Bartolo Colon. Only three starters had a higher K/BB than Tanaka - Lee, Wainwright and Mets ace Matt Harvey. Sure, the two leagues are different. I get that. But the comparison does tell me that he has talent, and could be a very good starter in 2014.

So, where will Tanaka rank in my 2014 starting pitcher rankings?

I think Tanaka will be just fine in the major leagues, and will probably rank him in my top 35-40 30 starters for 2014. If he can continue to show impeccable command, and maintain the solid strikeout rate, he could be a top of the rotation starter in due time.

Update: Baseball Nation's Rob Neyer wrote an article on Tanaka earlier today, discussing Tanaka finally losing a game in the Japan Series. He not only lost, he pitched all nine innings and threw 160 pitches. Here are Neyer's thoughts on Tanaka throwing 160 pitches.

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