Analysis of a Japanese Import
Keith Law, ESPN: “A big game pitcher who is at worst a number three starter and could potentially be a number one…”
Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus: “…throws heat into the mid-90s with good sinking action, outstanding placement and running it in at will. He supports those varied flavors of gas with a plus curve, a plus slider and a plus change. It's the assortment of a pitcher who should be perfectly suited to step into a rotation as a true staff ace. Who couldn't use one of those?”
Sounds like a great pitcher, one you would want to front your rotation for years.
Oh. Wait. Did you think I was talking about Masahiro Tanaka?
My mistake. I probably should have mentioned in the first sentence that the above analysis isn’t about Tanaka, but was written and said about another heavily hyped, “we have to have him because he’s unbelievable,” pending megastar import from Japan who cost a fortune to negotiate with and sign. His name was Daisuke Matsuzaka and these “expert” opinions were presented prior to Matsuzaka’s big league debut with the Red Sox in 2007.
Although it shouldn’t, it still stuns me that this level of mania from the entire baseball world – the know-nothings to the know-somethings to the should-know-betters – are so enamored of a pitcher like Tanaka from whom no one can know what to expect. Comparisons to Hiroki Kuroda are fine, but mechanically do you know who he resembles? Daisuke Matsuzaka. Hype-wise, do you know who he resembles? Daisuke Matsuzaka. Workload-wise, do you know who he’s been used like? Daisuke Matsuzaka.
None of that means anything, of course. Tanaka can arrive and become a crossover star like Yu Darvish or an occasionally good but mostly frustrating disappointment like Matsuzaka. And that’s the point. It’s a massive investment with collateral implications for a maybe.
When Darvish planned to come to North America, there was a reluctance on the part of teams like the Yankees to even get involved in bidding for his services because they were so horrifically torched by their ridiculous $46 million investment in Kei Igawa; because Hideki Irabu was so bad; because Jose Contreras didn't work out in New York; and because they saw what happened with Matsuzaka. Desperation, need and the fact that his posting fee won’t be counted in the luxury tax has led the Yankees to being all-in on Tanaka. Have they been influenced by the success of Darvish and another international free agent they uncharacteristically steered clear of, Aroldis Chapman? Probably. But they can’t blame the international market for their scouting mistakes and reluctance to delve into that market again due to their own stupidity.
Some of the best Japanese players have either been signed as a novelty and not expected to be as good as they were (Hideki Matsui); were trailblazers (Hideo Nomo); and were completely unknown prior to bursting onto the scene (Hiroki Kuroda). Again: nobody knows.
Regarding Kuroda, prior to joining the Yankees most observers who didn’t actually watch him pitch gave him a “meh” because of his average numbers with the Dodgers and the lack of a giant posting fee to validate his arrival. In reality, Kuroda was a fiery competitor who should have had better numbers with the Dodgers but was hindered by injuries and a lack of support. He’s the same pitcher now that he was then. He’s just receiving attention for it.