Full disclosure: I love Masahiro Tanaka. I love Japanese players in general. They don’t cost draft picks or players, just money, and you can often get them right in their primes and Major League-ready. That’s all of the best things about signing a free agent and none of the bad things.
There is one pretty big problem, though, and that’s the amount of money they tend to cost. Between a posting fee and a contract, it’s unlikely we’re going to see another significant Japanese free agent cost less than $100 million in total. For that price, you’d better be getting an All-Star quality player. Tanaka, at least, looks like one:
Masahiro Tanaka in Nippon Professional Baseball
That’s some dominance, especially in the last few years. Tanaka reportedly throws in the mid-90s, so this isn’t some soft-tosser, it’s potentially another Yu Darvish. Darvish, for reference, had a 1.99 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.9 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 over his NPB career. Tanaka’s got a little more control and a little less strikeout ability, but a similar repertoire. Darvish’s 2.83 ERA in 2013 and likely top-5 Cy Young finish will have plenty of teams salivating at the thought of getting one of their own.
Except there’s some ugly history with Japanese players coming into MLB. Darvish is the first that looks viable, and we’re only two seasons into his career. After Daisuke Matsuzaka’s second year, he was coming off a 2.90 ERA and 154 strikeouts in 167 2/3 innings, looking worth every penny of the $100 million the Red Sox paid him. Then there were injuries and just bad pitching. Darvish hasn’t escaped that fate quite yet, and if he does, he’ll be the first posted pitcher to do so:
Major Posted Japanese Pitchers
Obviously not every Japanese pitcher came to MLB via the posting system, but most of the top ones have. The guy that really started it all, Hideo Nomo, is conspicuously absent, and his 3.15 NPB ERA translated into 12 MLB seasons, a 4.24 ERA, and 24.1 WAR. Dodgers and Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda’s been a quietly great pitcher, bringing 11 NPB seasons of 3.69 ERA pitching stateside and totaling 19.1 WAR and a 3.40 ERA over six years in the bigs. Then there’s Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners, Koji Uehara of the World Champion Red Sox, and less heralded pitchers like Tomo Ohka, Takashi Saito, and Hideki Irabu, all of whom have pitched a number of successful years in MLB.