Looking for Comps for Masahiro Tanaka

Yeah, I know, this is like the 40th post this week about Masahiro Tanaka. I’m sorry about that, but in our defense, there’s nothing else going on. Tanaka’s posting has effectively shut down the market for starting pitching until he signs, or at least, until teams that think they have a shot at him learn that they don’t. Most of the position players worth writing about have already signed, and now we’re just into staredown mode between the Mets and Stephen Drew, the Mariners and Nelson Cruz, and the Orioles and Kendrys Morales. Maybe I’ll try to find something interesting to say about one of those three players next week.

Today, though, more Tanaka, because I still find this entire situation pretty fascinating. You guys expect him to sign for $120 million over six years, not including the $20 million posting fee, so the final price would put Tanaka squarely in the range of what Zack Greinke got last winter, despite the fact that he’s technically still a prospect. And historically, the crowdsourced contract forecasts have been low on the top guys, so there’s a pretty decent chance that he’s actually going to cost more than 6/$140M, and his final price might push him into the range of contracts recently signed by legitimate aces like Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander.

And yet, the general consensus is that Tanaka probably isn’t an ace in the way that most people think of the word. Most of the scouting reports suggest that his strengths are going to be throwing strikes and getting ground balls, with enough strikeouts on his splitter to make the overall package successful. There are certainly very good pitchers who fit that description, so I thought I’d create a list of pitchers who have pitched to something like that skillset over the last three years, as a representation of what that kind of performance actually looks like.

For those interested in the specifics, I set the filters thusly: From 2011-2013, a minimum of 450 innings pitched, a BB% between 5%-9%, a K% between 18-24%, and a GB% between 46%-54%. Because I’m not making adjustments for AL/NL, there’s a little bit of an unfair bias towards NL pitchers on the list, but this is more of an overview of pitcher types than a precise projection of Tanaka’s future performance, so I’m okay with the methodology being imperfect.

Anyway, 14 pitchers met this criteria, and here is their average season line over the last three years.

Name BB% K% GB% HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR/180 RA9/180
James Shields 7% 23% 47% 0.91 0.283 77% 80 88 84 3.3 4.2
David Price 6% 23% 47% 0.78 0.288 75% 81 81 80 3.9 4.1
Cole Hamels 6% 23% 46% 0.88 0.280 76% 82 83 84 3.6 4.0
Hiroki Kuroda 6% 19% 48% 1.00 0.283 78% 81 94 91 2.8 4.0
Zack Greinke 6% 24% 48% 0.80 0.300 75% 87 81 80 3.6 3.6
Roy Halladay 6% 22% 47% 0.80 0.293 72% 95 84 87 3.9 3.3
Madison Bumgarner 6% 23% 47% 0.73 0.285 74% 86 85 86 3.3 3.1
CC Sabathia 6% 22% 46% 0.93 0.306 72% 89 82 82 3.9 3.1
Jon Lester 8% 20% 48% 0.94 0.300 73% 95 91 93 3.2 2.9
Ivan Nova 8% 18% 50% 0.95 0.308 75% 96 97 97 2.4 2.8
Wandy Rodriguez 7% 18% 46% 1.10 0.280 75% 95 108 101 1.5 2.4
Yovani Gallardo 8% 22% 48% 1.08 0.293 75% 97 98 91 2.2 2.3
Jon Niese 7% 19% 50% 0.84 0.308 72% 103 97 93 2.3 1.6
Edwin Jackson 7% 19% 47% 0.88 0.311 70% 108 95 98 2.5 1.4
Average 7% 21% 48% 0.89 0.293 74% 89 90 89 3.1 3.2

The top half of that list is pretty exciting. Price, Greinke, Shields, Sabathia, Hamels, Kuroda, and Bumgarner are among the best pitchers in baseball, with each producing roughly +3.5 to +4.0 WAR per season over the last three years. This skillet can absolutely result in a frontline starting pitcher, so long as the pitcher is pushing the best aspects of each variable. These top notch hurlers are racking up four strikeouts for every walk — with the exception of Kuroda, who has prevented runs by stranding a lot of runners — and aren’t giving up too many home runs as a trade-off. If Tanaka performed at this kind of level for several years, I think his signing would probably be viewed as a success, even if he ended up costing as much as Greinke. This is the kind of upside that teams are going to be betting on, and if the median result is something like Lester or Sabathia, well, that’s not a bad bet to be making.

But there are other names on this list too. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, and not every pitcher who fits this mold has dominated Major League hitters over the last few years. On the other end of the spectrum, we see guys like Wandy Rodriguez, Edwin Jackson, Ivan Nova, Yovani Gallardo, and Jon Niese. In each case, these guys have some real talent, and one could even argue that this is a list of pitchers who might be underrated at the moment, but I’m pretty sure none of them would get $100+ million as free agents if they were to hit the open market. These guys are examples of some downside potential, even if the projections on how the overall skillset will translate are correct.

Jackson and Niese have given up too many hits on balls in play. Rodriguez and Gallardo have had home run problems. Nova gets just enough strikeouts to qualify for the list, and shows what one might expect if Tanaka’s splitter is more of a groundball pitch than a strikeout pitch. In each case, their flaws have made them more average pitchers than impact starters, and while they have value in their own right, this kind of performance from a $100+ million pitcher would almost surely lead to Tanaka being labeled a significant bust. If you think you might be buying David Price and end up with Jon Niese, you’re probably not going to be too thrilled.

Overall, the average — or median, either way the results are the same — outcome for this group is that of an above average hurler, but definitely not what one would consider an ace. The overall line looks very similar to the mark that we saw from pitchers like Homer Bailey and Andy Pettitte in 2013, for instance. +3.1 WAR would put Tanaka on the same level as Matt Garza or Ervin Santana, according to Steamer’s 2014 forecasts, while the current price expectations suggest that Tanaka might very well cost twice as much as either one. Even if we push the markers a little bit more to the optimistic side, we’re going to find pitchers who are worth roughly +3.5 WAR per season.

Maybe that’s worth a monster contract in a market that pays Shin-Soo Choo $130 million to be the position player equivalent of this kind of pitcher. But this same market paid Scott Kazmir $22 million, and I’m not sure Tanaka is actually a significantly lower risk or higher upside pitcher, given what we know about both. I like this kind of pitcher, and have generally been a booster of low BB/average K/high GB starters, as I think it’s been an underrated skillset in the past. But if Tanaka actually gets $150 million, maybe this skillset isn’t so underrated anymore.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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