Avoid The Yankees’ Mistake, And Don’t Draft Masahiro Tanaka In Fantasy Baseball

Masahiro Tanaka

The Yankees are the “winners” of the Masahiro Tanaka posting sweepstakes, signing the latest overhyped Japanese pitcher to a four-year, $88-million deal that could max out at seven years, $154-million if Tanaka exercises all of the options. I have “winners” in parenthesis on purpose – because I’m not a fan of this deal for the Yankees, nor do I think Tanaka will be a Fantasy ace. Since we’re focused on the Fantasy aspect of every signing here at RotoExperts, I will limit my commentary regarding the Yankees’ total waste of money by saying that they probably could have signed either Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez, or even Ervin Santana and gotten similar production for a whole lot less money. I’m going to let that comment “hang fire” for now and explain why you shouldn’t draft him as an ace, or buy him at auction for ace money, and let that speak to the Yankees’ big mistake.

Over the past seven seasons, Tanaka has posted an ERA of 2.30, including his rookie season-high ERA of 3.82 and last year’s ridiculous 1.27 ERA, during a season in which he went 24-0. Amazingly, he also posted a 1.27 season ERA back in 2011, when he went 19-5 in 27 starts for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japanese League. Tanaka isn’t an overpowering pitcher by any means. His fastball hums in there in the low-90’s, which is average at best, and he’s struck out about 8.5 batters per nine innings on average over his career. It also seems as though nobody in Japan can take Tanaka deep. In 1,315 innings pitched, Tanaka has given up just 66 home runs, or a startling 0.5 HR/9 IP.

Now that you’ve heard all the wonderful stuff, let’s look a little deeper for some truths. Tanaka is just 25 years old, the age when kids playing ball in America must be a special talent to get a sniff of the big leagues. Since Tanaka will also need to be acclimated to life here, his youth and lack of experience may require that he spend some time in the minors before joining the Yankees, perhaps even the entire 2014 season. It’s also worth noting that 1,315 innings pitched is a remarkably high number for a 25-year-old. There are reams of research that warn about high inning counts before the age of 23 affecting the natural growth of a player’s body, especially the arm. Granted, this applies down the road a piece, but I’d be a little leery about Tanaka’s long-term prospects given how heavily he’s already been used.

Since he’s not a hard thrower, Tanaka relies on feeding a steady diet of off-speed pitches to hitters. His best pitches are actually his slider and his splitter. Using those pitches early in the count may play well over in Japan, but you cannot feed off-speed pitches to hitters in MLB early in the count and expect strikes, especially if they’re off the plate a bit. Ask Daisuke Matsuzaka about nibbling the corners when you’re looking for strike one or you’re down in the count; it didn’t work well for him after his first couple of seasons. The Red Sox implored Matsuzaka to throw his fastball early in the count, and whether it was lack of confidence or lack of command, he simply could not do it. Dice-K was horribly ineffective when his fastball velocity faded due to a shoulder injury. If Tanaka cannot pound the strike zone early with fastballs, a’ la Yu Darvish, then hitters will just lay off the early splitters and sliders and abuse him when he throws a “get me over” fastball in a hitter’s count.

Much of Tanaka’s success is due in large part to his pinpoint control. Over the course of those same 1,315 career innings, he’s averaged just 1.9 walks per nine innings. That’s just insane! However, it would be folly to think he can duplicate that kind of success in MLB. In fact, he’s going to have a difficult time duplicating all of his skill metrics, meaning his strikeout rate (8.5 K/9IP), walk rate and home run rate (0.5 HR/9IP), as well as his WHIP (1.11 career). While we’re talking WHIP, it should be obvious that his low number there is driven by a lack of walks. His hit rate is actually a very average 8.1 hits per nine innings over his career, which brings up yet another reason to be wary of Tanaka this season. The Yankees infield defense is just awful. Robinson Cano is no longer manning the keystone, A-Roid will be at home looking for new ways to scam the drug testing protocols, Derek Jeter will have limited range at best (walkers don’t move very well on infield turf and soil), and the outfield defense won’t be all that great either. Tanaka’s hit rate is almost certain to be higher in MLB. If he doesn’t miss a significant number of bats and ends up pitching to contact with a lousy defense behind him…let’s just say, I’d keep a very close eye on his Batting Average on Balls in Play because that’s not going to be a recipe for success in a home ballpark that generally does not favor right-handed pitchers.

After all that, I don’t think I’m going very far out on a limb here in predicting that Tanaka will struggle with the Yankees in 2014. I didn’t even mention that he’ll be under intense scrutiny and pressure while pitching on MLB’s biggest stage, in its biggest city. Tanaka will be very heavily hyped in the Fantasy baseball realm this spring. Do yourself a big favor and let someone else take on what is sure to be a nightmare. Tanaka is not the second coming of Yu Darvish, and he just might end up reminding New Yorkers of Hideki Irabu instead.