The Posting of Masahiro Tanaka and a Short History of Japanese Pitchers in the Majors

Baseball fans following the Masahiro Tanaka posting saga know that Major League Baseball and its Japanese counterpart, Nippon Professional Baseball, recently reached a new agreement on rules for “posting” Japanese players. Under the old rules, established in 1998, MLB teams were subject to a blind auction-like process, whereby the highest bidder purchased exclusive negotiating rights with the posted player. These rules resulted in escalating posting fees for top Japanese players, including the $51.1 million fee the Boston Red Sox paid for Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 and the record $52.2 million the Texas Rangers paid for the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish  in 2011. The rules have long been much criticized because they created a windfall for the posting team, kept small market MLB teams out of the process, and hampered the Japanese players’ ability to negotiate a market value contract since he could only sign with the winning bidder.

Under the new posting rules, if an NPB team wants to make one of its players available to Major League clubs, the team sets a “release fee” of no more than $20 million. Any Major League team willing to pay the pre-set release fee is free to negotiate with and sign the posted player, thereby approximating a true free agent market for the player.

Posting fees have exceeded $20 million on only three occasions (in addition to Daisuke and Darvish, the Yankees’ $26 million winning bid for Kei Igawa  in 2006), so the new rules won’t necessarily have widespread impact. But there is little doubt that Tanaka would have commanded a record posting bid under the old rules. Not surprisingly, Tanaka’s team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, was the only NPB team to vote against the rule change. Tanaka has informed team officials he wants to pitch in the Majors next year, but there has been speculationthat the Golden Eagles may refuse to post Tanaka, who will not be a free agent in Japan for two more seasons. Tanaka led the Golden Eagles to an NPB championship last season after posting an astonishing 24-0 won-loss record with a 1.27 ERA.  In his seven-season Japanese career, Tanaka has pitched over 1300 innings with 53 complete games, 18 shutouts, and a 2.30 ERA.  In addition, he has posted a career strikeout rate of 8.5 Ks per 9 innings to go with a walk rate of 1.9 BBs.  His durability and dominance have Major League general managers salivating.

Scouting reports (Baseball America subscription required) indicate that Tanaka’s stuff translates well to the Major Leagues and he projects as #2 starter who can immediately step into a major league rotation. His fastball sits mostly the low 90s, though it ranged up to 96 mph during last year’s World Baseball Classic. Tanaka has two plus secondary pitches – including a late-breaking mid-80s splitter and a low-80s slider which breaks down and away from right-handed batters. Given his relatively young age (25), Tanaka has obvious appeal for Major League teams. The current free agent pitching class includes Matt Garza (age 30), Ubaldo Jimenez (30 in January), and Ervin Santana (age 31).  Like most free agents, these pitchers are either at their peaks or at the beginning of their declines. To obtain a free agent starting pitcher at the beginning rather than the twilight of his prime is a general manager’s dream scenario.  If posted, Tanaka will immediately jump to the head of this year’s free agent pitching class.

Several Japanese pitchers have had similarly dominant Japanese careers before moving to the majors, including Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, Diasuke, Igawa,and Darvish. Nomo became the first Japanese player to move permanently to the American Major Leagues when he signed with the Dodgers in 1994. Nomo came to the U.S. before the advent of the “posting era” after exploiting a loophole in his Japanese contract by “retiring” at age 25. Nomo racked up more than 1000 innings in his five NPB seasons, tossing 80 complete games and garnering a career K rate of 10.3 during his age 21 to 25 seasons. In his first season with the Dodgers, Nomo demonstrated that dominance of Japanese hitters could translate to the Majors when he posted a 2.54 ERA and 11.1 K rate, winning 13 games and capturing National League Rookie of the Year honors after the 1995 season.  Nomo continued to dominate National League hitters the next few years, whiffing more than 230 batters in each of his first three seasons with the Dodgers. In his first 10 big league seasons, Nomo accumulated 26 WAR before a late career slide after his age-34 season.

Hideki Irabu was the next big-name Japanese pitcher to relocate to American professional baseball.  (Irabu died tragically in July 2012.) Also the answer to a trivia question, Irabu was the last player to come to the big leagues from Japan prior to the 1998 posting agreement between NPB and MLB. In response to the retirement loophole exploited by Nomo (as well as Alfonso Soriano  who signed with the Yankees after “retiring” from Japanese professional baseball in 1997 at age 21 after making 19 plate appearances as a Japanese professional), Irabu was sold by his Japanese team to the San Diego Padres in January 1997. Unfortunately for the Padres, Irabu refused to play for any team but the Yankees, to whom he was traded later that year.  Like Nomo before him, Irabu was a dominant starter in Japan, racking up a 10+ strikeout rate and sub-3.00 ERA during his age 24-27 Japanese seasons. Unlike Nomo, however, Irabu’s dominance did not play in the Majors. Irabu won 13 games for the Yankees in 1998, but did not appear in either of the Yankees World Series sweeps in 1998 or 1999 and was traded to the Expos in December 1999. Irabu finished with a career 5.15 ERA, never approaching his Japanese dominance in America.

Like Nomo and Irabu in the 1990s, Matsuzaka, Igawa, and Darvish dominated Japanese professional hitters in the 2000s.  Matsuzaka  reached agreement with the Red Sox on a $52 million six-year contract after Boston posted its then-record $51.1 million winning bid in 2006. All told, the Red Sox invested over $103 million in Matsuzaka for his six seasons, resulting in an annualized outlay of more than $17 million for the pitcher. Matsuzaka was an all-star caliber starting pitcher for the Red Sox for his first two seasons, helping Boston win the World Series in 2007 and posting a spectacular 18-3 record in 2008. He accumulated 9.4 WAR in his first two seasons, but has been a negative win pitcher in the five seasons since then. Matsuzaka developed elbow problems in 2009, underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2011, and to date has not recovered his lost velocity. Igawa had six dominant seasons in Japan before being posted to the Yankees in 2007 prior to his age-27 season. The Yankees signed Igawa to a five year / $20 million contract after paying the $26 million posting fee, but Igawa never came close to approaching his Japanese success, appearing in 16 forgettable games for the Yankees before being banished to the minor leagues for good during the 2008 season.

The fifth great Japanese starting pitcher to come to the Major Leagues during his prime was Yu Darvish, who emerged in 2013 at age 27 as one of the top five starting pitchers in baseball. Darvish, like Nomo and Matsuzaka, has started off his major league career with two spectacular seasons. Nomo settled into a career as a solid #3 (2.5 WAR) starter after his first two dominant seasons. Before elbow trouble slowed him down, Matsuzaka appeared to be emerging as a frontline starter for the Red Sox.  Can Tanaka match the success of the top Japanese pitchers of the past twenty years? By most accounts, Cubs president Theo Epstein believes that he can. The chance to sign a starting pitcher before (rather than after) his prime is a tantalizing prospect. It has been widely reported that the Cubs are interested and will no doubt post the $20 million release fee for an opportunity to negotiate with Tanaka. The latest rumors indicate that Rakuten executives will make their decision about Tanaka this week. As I write on Christmas Eve, there is still no word. Cub fans may know soon if there really is a Santa Claus!

Photo: Daisuke Matsuzaka / spablab / CC BY 2.0 / Alteration: cropped edges