This is Not an Evaluation of the Masahiro Tanaka Contract

So we know, now. It always looked like Masahiro Tanaka would get six or seven years, and an average annual value a little north of $20 million. There was little to guess about, with regard to his contract. The question was which team would end up being able to give it to him, and now we know that team is the Yankees, who seemed like the favorites from the beginning. After all the rumors, after all the drama, after all the dead nothing in between, Tanaka went to the more or less predictable place for the more or less predictable commitment. As soon as the changes to the posting system were put in place, it was obvious that Tanaka would end up getting free-agent money.

Whenever something big goes down, people want to read about it, because they want to know what it means. Was it smart, or was it not smart? What does this mean for the team, now? What does this mean for the team down the road? What does this mean for the rest of the teams? Basically, what are the implications of the news? One here is that we know where Tanaka is going. Another one here is that the rest of the market should spring back to life. But as far as an evaluation of the deal is concerned, unfortunately that’s next to impossible. So an evaluation isn’t what follows.

I mean, it’s obvious that Tanaka has been dominant in Japan. There’s not a single person on Earth who questions the success he’s had overseas, and that’s success he’s had pitching baseballs against quality opponents. Tanaka’s pitched well in some approximation of the high minors, and that’s why he was treated like an elite-level domestic prospect. Yu Darvish was dominant, too, and so was Daisuke Matsuzaka, and so was Hideki Irabu before him. Tanaka gets connected to the same names over and over and over, and it gets boring and even aggravating to read about, but there’s a legitimate reason for the connections — because Japanese baseball is different from American baseball, the history of Japanese players is instructive.

And no matter how much you dig into the data and the scouting reports, you’ll come away in basically the same place: some guys have had good success here. Some guys have busted. There might be reasons for the busting in hindsight, but then, there can always be reasons. If Darvish busted, we could’ve blamed his workload. If Hisashi Iwakuma busted, we could’ve blamed his shoulder issues. When literally every single pitcher anywhere is a risk, hindsight doesn’t really do us very much good.

In Tanaka’s penultimate Japanese season, he registered almost nine strikeouts for every walk, not unlike Darvish in his last Japanese year. So far Darvish owns an MLB ERA- of 78. In Tanaka’s most recent Japanese season, he registered about six strikeouts for every walk, not unlike Matsuzaka in his last Japanese year. So far Matsuzaka owns an MLB ERA- of 102. That’s the essence of it, and while Matsuzaka had success early, and while he was a little older than Tanaka when he first came over, the reality is that Matsuzaka didn’t meet the hype, and at first he seemed almost flawless. People even believed that he threw a mythical pitch.

It seems like Tanaka’s stuff should play well, just like Iwakuma’s stuff, and just like Hiroki Kuroda‘s stuff. A good splitter is an almost unhittable weapon, and Tanaka seems to have one. He can get the ball in at well past 90 miles per hour, too, and he additionally offers a slider. He always did strike me as the best available pitcher of the winter, and I do like his odds of having success. But then, one notes that his strikeouts have slipped from 28% to 24% to 22%. This is dismissed by some who claim that Tanaka simply picks his spots now, and maybe that’s true. Or maybe he’s just gotten worse at strikeouts before even debuting Stateside. That’s just something we don’t know right now.

A thing we do know is that Tanaka will be working on a different schedule than he did in Japan. This always makes people worry that a pitcher might have trouble adjusting, at least at first. Iwakuma, for his part, required several months to build up his arm strength, as he wasn’t in good enough condition out of camp. Darvish was better in his second year than in his first. Kuroda hit the ground running. Matsuzaka too. Maybe if you analyzed all Japanese pitchers, you might be able to figure something out about their immediate adjustment periods, but that wouldn’t tell us anything about Tanaka specifically, because specific players aren’t subject to general adjustment factors.

Maybe I’m just wasting your time. Of course we don’t know for certain what Tanaka is going to be. We don’t know for certain what David Price is going to be. Hell, we don’t know for absolute certain what David Price has already been, and we have records of all that. It isn’t new to talk about the fact that all baseball players are mysteries, and analysts are arrogant and overconfident. It seems like Tanaka should be good. It seems like he should help the Yankees have one of the better starting rotations in baseball. It seems like Tanaka is a good investment for both the present and the future. On that basis, the Yankees invested an awful lot of beer money.

The real complication is that any evaluation has to consider both the player and the cost, and, what are we really supposed to do when it’s the Yankees who are spending? At least when it seemed like the Yankees were trying to get under $189 million, we had a line. We could say, all right, this move is or is not a good idea, with that target in mind. Now the Yankees have blown by $189 million, and my understanding is they’d passed that mark even before Tanaka was acquired. How are we supposed to interpret Yankees money? If they’re willing to pay a tax, and if their wallet is effectively bottomless, what hope do we have from here? If there’s no such thing as a move that prevents the Yankees from being able to make another move, can we really say anything, besides “that was a lot of money they spent”?

Even the Yankees, of course, have some kind of limit, and nobody wants to deal with the tax rate they’re going to face for each dollar spent above the threshold. But we don’t know where that limit is, and we don’t know if reaching it is even particularly realistic. It’s hard enough to evaluate contracts for anybody else, given the amount of money that’s flooding the game these days. Every team is richer, and so every team is spending more, and they’re going to spend even more down the line, and that’s all hard to make good sense of. But costs only really matter in that they take up X amount of budget space. Out of that budget space, teams are trying to get 40-50 WAR. If we don’t know what a team’s budget space is, and if it’s indeed likely to be astronomical, then, well, we’re left to just focus on the players, because the money can’t be made sense of. The Yankees are spending a lot on Masahiro Tanaka. If he’s a total failure, the Yankees will probably be able to make improvements. So what would it really matter to them if Tanaka fails, beyond the runs he’d allow on the field in the shorter term?

There are unknowns for every single move in baseball. There are unknowns with the Rays’ trade for Logan Forsythe. Therefore, evaluations of every single move in baseball have to come with error bars. But most of the time, at least, the unknowns can be turned into approximations, reasonable educated guesses. Masahiro Tanaka is a bigger unknown than most. And the significance of a dollar to the Yankees, relative to the significance of a dollar to somebody else, is a tremendous unknown, now that the Yankees are spending freely again. They could afford to spend a lot more than they will. So we’re left without knowing what to do with ourselves.

Except, I guess, celebrate that we’ll see Masahiro Tanaka pitching in the majors in a couple of months. That’s going to be swell, probably. Maybe we should’ve just been focusing on the players the whole time. That’s what baseball’s really supposed to be about, isn’t it? Maybe that makes the Tanaka contract some kind of psychologically liberating. Maybe he’ll just be good or bad or in between, and that’s all that’s going to matter.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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