Transition to Majors should be smooth for Tanaka
Numbers and history indicate Japanese ace will be successful with MLB club
People who minimize the potential value of Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka may be living in a different century. Nineteenth or earlier would be a reasonable estimate.
We are well beyond the point in the global evolution of baseball where Japanese players making the transition to North American baseball can be dismissed -- or even diminished. There are a growing number of examples to support their effectiveness in the Majors.
Hideo Nomo was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1995, and went on to pitch very effectively for most of the next decade.
Ichiro Suzuki may be past his peak now at age 40, but he was a splendid player for a decade in Major League Baseball -- a four-tool standout, to the point where he will be a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame. Yes, the one in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Hideki Matsui had six productive seasons as a reliable middle-of-the order run-producer in the Majors.
OK, Daisuke Matsuzaka did not live up to the world-class hype that greeted his arrival in the Western Hemisphere. He was frequently injured, and often not a complete mystery to Major League hitters. But Matsuzaka did win 15 games for a Boston club that won a World Series in 2007, and he encored with an 18-3 record in the next season.
But even more recently, another Japanese pitcher has met extraordinarily high expectations. That would be Yu Darvish of the Rangers, who led the American League in strikeouts last season (277 in 209 2/3 innings). Darvish also led the league in batting average against (.194).
Every case is obviously different, but the general trend is that notable success in Japanese baseball can translate into notable success in the Major Leagues.
That brings us back to Tanaka, Japan's leading ace. If anything, Tanaka's 2013 season was so good as to nearly enter the realm of myth. He was 24-0 with a 1.27 earned run average for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, leading the club to the championship of the Pacific League, and a triumph in the Japan Series. He won his second Sawamura Award, Japan's equivalent to the Cy young Award.
Those numbers are reminiscent of Bob Gibson's immortal 1968 season (22-9, 1.12). The pitching was so good that year that the mound was subsequently lowered to give the hitters at least a marginally better chance.
In the case of Tanaka, you look at 24-0 and 1.27, and you think there had to be something else going on. Perhaps the competition wasn't all that rigorous. But that sort of thinking by Americans in regard to Japanese baseball is outdated, antiquated and fundamentally incorrect.
Tanaka has been duly scouted, studied, analyzed by all of the appropriate people. The consensus is that he is significantly better than any other pitcher on the free-agent market this winter. Plus, he is only 25. This should not be a case of an American team getting a Japanese pitcher whose best days were all spent on the Asian side of the Pacific Ocean.
Some North American franchise is going to have to pay dearly for Tanaka's services. The $20 million posting fee maximum agreed upon by the Major Leagues and Nippon Professional Baseball will simply attract more clubs into the bidding. Before that agreement expectations were that Tanaka's posting fee would exceed the record $51.7 million paid for Darvish. With a six-year, $60-million deal on top of that, the total cost to the Rangers for Darvish was nearly $112 million.
With the new $20-million maximum on posting fees, the Rakuten club will receive less of a windfall, for Tanaka's posting. But Tanaka's total take could very well be considerably larger than the deal Darvish received.
It is a risk for a Major League franchise to spend a bundle on a pitcher who has never pitched for a standard North American professional baseball team. This will only be clear with the precise vision of hindsight. But in this case, going after Masahiro Tanaka does not primarily represent risk. It represents one distinct path to an improved rotation.