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.


86 Responses to “This is Not an Evaluation of the Masahiro Tanaka Contract”

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  1. Slats says:

    The 5th richest contract ever for a pitcher and he hasn’t thrown one pitch in the Majors.

    Wow, just wow.

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    • JS7 says:

      Are the rumors true that Tanaka is also going to play 2B for the Yankees on off days?

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    • Bip says:

      Pitcher contracts has been the area subject to perhaps the most dramatic inflation in the MLB lately. It’s not really surprising that a pitcher who was considered to be the best “free agent” and who did not require draft compensation would go for so much.

      Accounting for inflation (not just in the US dollar, but in the MLB money pool) this contract is not terribly huge. Zito’s is bigger, I’m sure, all things considered.

      The thing I found interesting is that he managed to get both an opt-out and a no-trade-clause.

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      • AK7007 says:

        The reason that people are surprised is that they are still holding onto the notion that past MLB success=guaranteed future success, which means pay should be tied to past success. Teams are operating under the brand new model of “expected future success=pay in spite of the lack of past track record.” Doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

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        • jdbolick says:

          No, intelligent people understand that major league experience is more projectable than non-major league experience. And as for Tanaka’s compensation specifically, that appears to have more to do with the lack of draft pick forfeiture and the Yankees’ superior resources.

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    • m_pemulis says:

      Or is it the single lowest contract for a 25-year old unrestricted free agent coming off a 1.27 ERA undefeated season in a AAA analogue?

      Unprecedented situation, people.

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  2. Chicago Mark says:

    George is now proud of his sons. Damn the tax! Full spend, er speed ahead.

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  3. Bobdole says:

    Could we please refrain from pompous intros about how everyone just knew Tanaka was going to play at destination X for price Y. If you were so certain before he signed, why not enlighten the rest of us and save a month of gossip? Free agent signings only look predetermined after the fact.

    -25 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Richie says:

      He did, you pompous poster. Jeff early on said the Yankees were the favorite, and whenever somebody asked, ‘What about the Cubs? Angels? D-Backs? Isotopes?’, Jeff always replied that he still figured on the Yankees. Why not read his stuff before posting, and save us a minute of reading?

      +29 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • I can’t speak for other people but I’ve been doing that for weeks?

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      • King Buzzo says:

        You even said in yesterday’s chat that he would go to Yanks. I was about to ask why you thought that, but no matter

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  4. JJ says:

    “Took the line and snorted it with million dollar bills.”

    Best analysis of this event. Seriously.

    +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. pudieron89 says:

    your articles have become ever more wandering and pointless

    -14 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • odbsol says:

      I was thinking the same thing in a way

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      • jose luis says:

        Jeff uses words to explore what is knowable about baseball and to acknowledge what isn’t. We would be lucky to have another writer to do what he does as well as he does it.

        +27 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Twm says:

        Yes, fewer essays, more power point!

        I kid, I kid. Mostly I enjoy the analytic articles, they provide insight into baseball at a quantitative level I could not achieve myself, and I can understand that this, and articles like it, might unnerve the reader unprepared to accept a bleeding of Not Graphs into longer form pieces on Fangraphs. But I enjoy a wandering mind, particularly when that mind meanders in alleyways and countryside not frequented by myself, though it maintains a pleasing and familiar pace.

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    • Chummy Z says:

      Thank you. Jeff’s analytical pieces are fine, but these empty fluff pieces have no reason to be on Fangraphs, especially considering how aimlessly long-winded they tend to be.

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    • Llewdor says:

      But in a good way.

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    • The Foils says:

      nah, it was fine

      Though of course it, like all Fangraphs article, probably should have cut two of its last three paragraphs.

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    • Alex says:

      Then you write them… producing original commentary and analysis is much more work than you might think. Thanks Jeff

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  6. Chummy Z says:

    Hate to be a negative nancy, but what was the point of this piece? No insights and even the disclaimer of “maybe this is a waste of your time” making that even more clear. I understand that there isn’t much going on now in baseball, but this is fluff.

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    • mooks says:

      Hate to be a Danny Downer, but what is the point of this comment? There’s plenty of deep analysis going on at this site and I don’t think every article is going to be a five star, especially this time of year, and it’s perfectly within your ability not to read the ones you don’t like. But hey I’m sure Fangraphs will hook you up with a full refund.

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      • Chummy Z says:

        And here we go with the “it’s free” argument, a constant presence whenever anyone dares to critique an article here. If bloggers want to be treated seriously enough to get BBWAA membership and HOF voting credentials just like “real journalists” (please understand how much I hate that, but it’s true), then they need to be held up to a high standard. Fangraphs is one of the most popular saber sites, so what is on here is a reflection on the entire saber community. Fluff pieces like this do nothing to contribute to any understanding of baseball, and thus do nothing to show that “we belong” in the conversation with the mainstream.

        But instead of showing me how the article was good and change my perspective, you decide to attack the fact that I made the comment. Smooth move.

        I made it clear that I know that it’s a slow time of year, but this piece is just traffic fodder, with nothing of value to contribute to the community. Sorry I try to read all of the articles on the site, but I can’t forsee whether one will be good or not before I read it.

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        • mooks says:

          How could I possibly convince you this article was good? Why would I bother to? As far as the BBWAA membership goes, it ain’t exactly the golden standard of journalism.

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        • Cool Lester Smooth says:

          You’ve convinced me!

          Let’s demand a refund!

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        • chuckb says:

          But you didn’t offer any sort of meaningful critique. All you said was, “this is fluff.” Well, so was your “critique.” And then to deflect attention from your worthless “critique” you then decided to attack the person who suggested that the only thing it cost you was your time (which you, of course, compounded by wasting even more time with your “critique”).

          Is there anyone here who reads every article on fangraphs? I don’t, and I visit the site every day. If there’s something I’m not interested, I don’t read it. If I start reading something and it doesn’t intrigue me, I quit reading it. It’s pretty f-ing pompous, however, to type not one, but 2, comments talking about what fluff the article is, especially when it’s not as if you offer anything of substance either.

          If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Not every article is for everyone. But why you think anyone else gives a damn whether or not you happen to enjoy a particular piece is beyond me. These are serious delusions of grandeur.

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    • AK7007 says:

      “But as far as an evaluation of the deal is concerned, unfortunately that’s next to impossible.”

      This is an extremely profound statement. He’s trying to point out to everybody that we don’t have the knowledge necessary to understand what this deal means, when most other writers are clamoring to tell us “Exactly what this means right now, Clickbait!” Any complaints about the number of words required to get that point across end up sounding like “TL;DR.” Which is kind of a crappy reason to reject an idea as fluff.

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  7. Doge says:

    Wow
    Such Yankees
    Amazing balls
    Very contract
    Much years
    So money
    Wow

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  8. Angelsjunky says:

    Tough crowd. Jeez, folks – read it and enjoy, or don’t and leave your vitriol at the door.

    Anyhow, when I saw the headline of Tanaka’s signing–and the amount it was for–I breathed a sigh of relief because it wasn’t the Angels. Tanaka could be great, but the risk of $175 million is just too damn much with their pre-existing conditions, I mean contracts.

    I think the best comp I’ve heard is Dan Haren. The Yankees are hoping for the 2005-11 version, but I can’t help but think they’re going to get something closer to the 2012-13 version.

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    • Bip says:

      It would be very weird if they got the 2012-2013 version, considering 2012-2013 Dan Haren is quite a statistical anomaly. Rarely do pitchers with K/BB numbers as good as Haren’s perform so poorly.

      If Tanaka comes close to Haren’s peripherals, it’s much more likely that the Yankees made a good investment, at least for now.

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    • Larry says:

      I think the Haren comps are lazy or at the very least lack imagination – Tanaka was an ace in Japan and if not a true No.1, probably could pitch like one on many good nights – too bad in Yankees pinstripes.

      Tanaka isn’t going to go 24-0 in any season he pitches in the MLB but he has a better chance of being better than Haren, No. 3 type who has had some good seasons but on the downside of his career.

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      • Cool Lester Smooth says:

        Haren was a true No. 2 starter. From 25-29, the Yanks’ guaranteed Tanaka years, Haren averaged 4.8 rWAR per season (4.9 fWAR, but I prefer rWAR when there’s a real sample size).

        You really can’t expect any more than that from Tanaka. You might hope for more, but you can’t expect it.

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    • CrashCameron says:

      because we know the Angels spend so well

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  9. coldseat says:

    I think his point is no one knows so stfu with strong under currents of I’m sick of talkingheads and keyboard tough guys yammering on like they know it all + a dash of oh lawd I’m sick of Tanaka talk, let’s play the games already.

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  10. Bryan says:

    I don’t see it as a fluff piece. This article is about the limits of knowledge. An important part of analysis is knowing what you can’t know.

    +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bip says:

      Something basically the entire field of sports journalism would do well to learn.

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    • chuckb says:

      I agree. With every transaction, people flock to the site to read — and then criticize — what a Fangraphs’ author has to say about the transaction. Is it a good one or is it a waste of money? It’s ok to say, “we’re just not sure.” The notion that there is 1 right or 1 wrong answer, or that the entire world is black-and-white with no gray whatsoever, is preposterous.

      If people aren’t interested in that perspective, whether they agree with it or not, they can choose not to read it, or to stop reading when it becomes obvious that they’re not going to get the clear answer they were obviously looking for.

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  11. My projections are pretty high on Tanaka. Initially, I questioned the deal due to the opt out clause and high dollar value. But I think Tanaka is operating on a different market, and the Yankees are at a pretty critical point on the win curve. I don’t think it’s a bad deal at all.

    I don’t mean to plug my site or anything, but my full opinions are too long to post here. I wrote them up on a post here:

    http://nomprojections.com/2014/01/22/tanaka-signs-with-yankees/

    I look forward to watching him pitch.

    (Also I apologize for posting on both articles, I’m just hoping some of the Fangraphs authors see it and take a look, because there are some points I would like to hear their opinions on in future articles)

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  12. Mr Punch says:

    There is, in effect, no limit to what the Yankees will spend. Here’s one way of looking at it: The Red Sox are one of the big-spending teams in baseball, and sometimes have ranked second in payroll. But in auction-style competitions for free agents, the Yankees have beaten the Red Sox every time. Literally.

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  13. Llewdor says:

    This sort of writing is why I’m a Jeff Sullivan fan.

    For years I thought I was a Mariners fan, but when he stopped writing about the Mariners every day I stopped following the Mariners.

    +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. Brian says:

    This article just makes it sound like Jeff Sullivan needs a vacation.

    I like Jeff’s writing in general but, ok, you’re tired of it. I get it. Every time there is a FA or a trade or something, fangraphs and a hundred other sites have to beat it to death now. And it’s repetitive. And you want to vomit when you see $/WAR.

    But you know, reading this was a waste of time on top of that. If you’re tired of writing and just want to say that there are error bars on any projection, you don’t need to take two thousand words.

    Not hating, but this didn’t need to be written.

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    • How would you recommend evaluating a contract given by the Yankees?

      +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Brian says:

        Jeff- I am a big fan of your writing as I mentioned. There are a lot of angles on it. I really want to write (or read) an article about why the Yankees went after Tanaka after passing on Cano. Maybe you think that angle is boring. You’re way more in/around these circles than I am so I am sure you have more fatigue than I. Anyway, not knocking you, please keep up the good work.

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        • Well, Cano’s 31, right? And Tanaka’s 25. The Yankees offered Cano a lucrative seven years and he signed elsewhere for three more and a quarter of a billion dollars. The Yankees do have limits somewhere, in that they don’t want to spend completely irresponsibly, and in their estimation Cano wasn’t worth more than that on the downside of his career. Tanaka, in theory, has a while ahead of him. They put their Cano money into Ellsbury and McCann, which looks to me like a better bet.

          Plus, I don’t know, it’s possible that back then they thought they might still get under $189 million. Don’t know how that thinking has changed over time.

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        • Brian says:

          (I guess we can’t respond third level?)

          You’re right about a lot of that, but I disagree about the valuation of the two players. You’re probably right that McCann/Ellsbury together being superior to Cano, but I don’t think you can really argue that Tanaka 25-28 is a better bet than Cano 31-34. Cano required a longer commitment, but at 24MM he’s vastly underpaid at the start.

          But i also think there is a great story in there about the Yankees potentially changin their view on being able to stay under 189 and missing out on some opportunities along the way, like a bona fide counter offer to Cano.

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    • rustydude says:

      I agree. If the author indicates that what you are reading might be a waste of time, he/she is probably right.

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    • A Fly On The Wall says:

      Brian, are you maybe a just little upset that Jeff’s Tanaka article got a bunch of comments and yours has none?

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  15. Andy says:

    I get why some people aren’t a fan of Jeff’s writing style, but I enjoyed this piece like so many of his other ones. When I read it really feels like he’s speaking directly to me specifically because it’s not perfect.

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  16. Utah Dave says:

    Man, tough crowd. All I know is that Jeff wrote all the pieces this past summer about pitches swung at farthest from the strike zone and pitches thrown farthest from the strike zone. And EVERY one of them was damn funny. Chillax on the hating. If you get half way through the article and think it is a waste of time, then stop reading it and get back to work.

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    • baycommuter says:

      This piece would have been more interesting if Jeff had written about Tanaka’s pitches thrown and swung furthest from the strike zone.

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  17. pft says:

    Without Tanaka the Yankees could easily have gotten under 189. He will cost them 33 million this year 22 million salary, 11 million tax), plus 20 million posting fee (or 3 million if you prorate it over 7 years), for a total 2014 cost of 53 million (or 36 million).

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  18. Bip says:

    ITT people are scared and confused when a sports writer doesn’t take a definitive stand on an issue, instead choosing to acknowledge considerable uncertainty.

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  19. Frank says:

    I get there’s some hate on this piece, it’s navel gazey, goes over sentiments anyone at the baseball fandom point of reading Fangraphs has heard many times before, and reads a little bit like someone parodying a Grantland article. Still there’s nothing out there that says you can’t do that, and it picks up speed after the middle.

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    • Brian says:

      I think it’s a very good read. Love analytics, but I also appreciate narrative from good writers. Roger Angell is my favorite baseball writer of all time, and this post reminded me of him a bit. At the very least, the point that we should perceive Yankee free agent signings a bit differently (and all other FA signings by other teams) is a good one to explore. In my opinion, this was a great effort by Jeff.

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  20. BurleighGrimes says:

    It is a writing pet peeve of mine when writers give caveats like “this may be a waste of time. ” Even writing ostensibly about nothing, when executed well, can show us something or make us feel something. Jeff’s analysis here is actually quite interesting: this is an impossible deal to analyze in a meaningful, complete way–we all just have to watch the story unfold. But there’s no reason or to hedge one’s bets as a writer: just write the piece, and let the haters say what they may.

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  21. Bobby Ayala says:

    Come back to LL where you writing is appreciated.

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  22. Tenacious D says:

    THIS IS JUST A TRIBUTE

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  23. Compton says:

    I like Darvish and Iwakuma as much as anyone, but isn’t it a little premature to call their transitions successes? Each have 2 seasons or less (…fewer?) of experience. What if we evaluated Dice-K’s transition after 2 years? Daisuke had a 92 and 90 FIP- his first two seasons, Hisashi at 112 and 87.

    I guess what I’m saying is that this article makes complete sense. You have to know your limitations when working with data.

    Godspeed.

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    • Grammar Police says:

      You were right with “2 seasons or less of experience” since we can measure something like experience in a non-quantized way. You can have between 1 and 2 seasons of experience.

      When every announcer everywhere says hitting/pitching “with less than 2 outs” it hurts a little.

      PS – you should write “Each HAS 2 seasons…” Each is singular since it is somewhat shorthand for “each one” in that usage.

      I am sorry for this entire comment.

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  24. jpg says:

    To throw in my two cents, I love this site. I’m not a huge fan of Jeff’s writing style because he lays it on a little thick at times. I think his analysis is excellent and I respect his opinion, so I still read and enjoy most of his work here. I didn’t have a problem with the piece. I thought it was a little long winded and wasn’t heavy on analytics but it was good read that touch on a quite a few items. I think that touches on the root of the problem: Too many things were only “touched” on.

    To be blunt, FanGraph’s coverage was lame. Tanaka single-handedly brought both the free agent market and trade market to screeching halt for several weeks. The hot stove was an iceberg. I think many were expecting far more extensive coverage than this. His finally signing is a pretty big deal.When, no offense to the other writers, there are more articles talking about stuff like the crowded Cards rotation, Cuban Emigrants and the future of base stealing than there are about Tanaka’s signing, you’d never think it actually was a big deal.

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  25. Kyle says:

    If it were an evaluation of the Tanaka contract, Dave Cameron has some made-up numbers that show linear $/WAR predicted it on the dot. (kid because I love, Dave)

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  26. pft says:

    “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?”

    Not really, you also need to consider how much revenue a given team will expect from the signing. Not equal for every team. Some of that is due to additional W’s, then you have consider ticket prices, size of stadium and market size relative to league average, and in Tanakas case the size of the Japanese resident population and tourist population who might buy tickets. In addition, there are significant revenue opportunities for the team in sponsorships, in stadium advertisements and in stadium concession sales.

    Tanaka probably made more sense for the Yankees than any team given their need and their ability to exploit his revenue potential. I suspect he might pay for himself the first couple of years, especially if he is good.

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  27. dbssaber says:

    Le traison des blogs

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  28. Joseph M Jones says:

    “and so was Hideki Irabu before him” yeah, not so much. Irabu posted ERA’s that were a full 1.2-1.4 runs higher and had nowhere near the SO:BB ratios.

    Darvish absolutely compares to him, especially since you don’t have to factor in “different eras”.

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