Tanaka signs with Yankees

As I’m sure you’ve already heard if you’re on this site, Masahiro Tanaka signed with the Yankees for 7 years and $155 million dollars, with an opt out clause after four years. Now I, like so many others, will offer my current opinions on the deal. I am extremely high on Tanaka and I think he will be an excellent pitcher, but my initial reaction was to dislike the deal. Immediately, it looks like a lot of money per year for a relatively unproven player. Plus, the opt out clause means that if everything works out perfectly and he’s a fantastic player, it’s a four year deal for a lot of money, not even through his entire prime. If he gets injured, or things go poorly, then the Yankees are on the hook for seven years, and a lot of money. It seemed like the main opportunity with Tanaka was to lock up a young player through his entire prime, and bet on him being outstanding. The Yankee deal keeps the high dollar value, but doesn’t cover his full prime years.

But then I though about it more. Fangraphs has done a lot of work on the market value of a win, and expected win curves. To what degree is still uncertain, but there is little doubt the market value of a win is up this offseason. Additionally, I’ve read several articles that discuss the value of a win being significantly higher to a team that is on the playoff bubble. In terms of the win curve, the Yankees are firmly on the bubble. The estimated market rate for this offseason generally has fallen around $6~7 million per win. If that’s the case, then the Yankees are betting that Tanaka will be an excellent pitcher, roughly worth 3~4 wins. But that is certainly not unattainable. I expect Tanaka to be worth a little more than that, more in the 4~5 win range over the course of his dear. The other factor to take into consideration is that Masahiro Tanaka is operating on a wholly different market than most players. Whether it’s 4 or 7 years, Tanaka’s deal will likely not cover any decline years. The market rate, as calculated, is typically factoring in excellent players as they are nearing or entering their decline phases. With Tanaka, he is arguably more likely to improve as the deal goes on than he is to decline. How that changes the market rate in the eyes of a team (if at all), is uncertain.

Regardless, I think I like the deal for the Yankees. I’m confident that Tanaka will be worth at least market value over the life of his deal, if healthy. That would likely have him trigger the opt out clause, making it a four year deal for the Yankees. For a team that is firmly on the playoff bubble, where every win counts significantly, there are much worse things than a market rate (or even above market rate) deal for a player who is not in his decline phase. Would locking him up for his entire peak be preferable? Certainly. But given the bidding, it’s uncertain if that was a possibility. What is certain is that the Yankees do not need to have Tanaka for 7 years to maximize his value. The Yankees are on the playoff bubble, and most critical spot on the win curve, right now. In the immediate future is when wins are most valuable to the Yankees. A four year, market rate deal is a great deal for the Yankees as they stand right now.

We won’t be certain of how this deal shakes out for a few years, but as I think about it I think my initial reaction was incorrect. The number seems high, and the opt out clause seems less than ideal, but there are far more factors to consider. That opinion may change, but for now I think it’s a deal favorable to both parties.There is the potential with Tanaka for significant upside and significant downside, but barring a disastrous turn of events the Yankees did just fine. They locked up the (likely) best starter on the market, to a deal that I expect to be no worse than market rate and possibly much better, without having to give up a draft pick as compensation, and they did it while being on the most critical point on the win curve. There will be a lot of talk about Tanaka being unproven, and the fifth highest paid player in baseball as an unproven commodity, etc. But in my opinion, Tanaka is operating on a different market, and every other pitcher has just as much likelihood to implode. To sum up my current opinions as succinctly as possible: The Yankees needs wins now and in the near future to compete, Tanaka will likely be a very good player, paying market rate will not cost the Yankees, and he didn’t cost a draft pick. Once the sticker shock wears off, the Yankees did well. Now, I look forward as the time nears where we stop guessing and analyzing, and finally watch Tanaka play in the MLB.

2013 Pitcher projections are live, featuring Masahiro Tanaka

The 2013 initial pitcher projections are now live, and available under the “Current Projections” tab.

At first glance, Masahiro Tanaka is still incredible. I had written about him prior to the season, and he maintained his pace this season. The current projections have him set to produce an FIP of around 3, and an xFIP of around 3.5 (xFIP projection needs a small amount of tweaking to update to a 2013 average home run rate, but should be fairly close). As far as FIP is concerned, that would put him in a tie with David Price as the tenth best starter in the league. Depending on innings pitch, that would make him a 4-5 win pitcher. By xFIP, that puts Tanaka about level with Mat Latos or Kris Medlen, which would be around 30th in the league, and a 3-4 win pitcher.

I think Tanaka will be an elite pitcher, even moreso if his lack of walks translate better than anticipated. Based on my projections, he is a safe bet to be around a 4 win pitcher, with potential for more. He has the potential to come in and be the ace of a staff, and it will be interesting to see how much he gets paid this offseason. In terms of how he compares to Yu Darvish, he is slightly worse than the current iteration of Darvish. Darvish is an absolute strikeout machine, and controlled his walks this past season. His FIP and home run rate are hurt by the fact that he plays in offense friendly Texas, but his xFIP is phenominal. While Tanaka has good strikeout stuff, and excellent control, I don’t think he will be quite as good as Darvish. However, he should easily be a front of the line pitcher, and likely the next best Japanese pitcher. It’s not often a team can acquire an ace, in their prime, for several years. Tanaka will cost a fortune, but he could easily anchor a rotation for several years, and help propel a team into the playoffs.

As far as non Tanaka pitchers go, ERA favorite Kenta Maeda still projects to be a solid MLB pitcher, though not spectacular, and not in the class of Darvish or Tanaka. Toshiya Sugiuchi also remains on the list from last season, still boasting the best strikeout stuff in the NPB, though not fantastic control to go with it. If he could learn better control, he could be a very good player. The most interesting players on the list are the two young rookies that appear, Tomoyuki Sugano and Yasuhiro Ogawa. Both boasted impressive rookie seasons at ages 24 and 23, respectively. Both may have slid under the radar a little bit, since they only finished 5 and 6 in the race for the ERA title this season, but both put up impressive peripheral numbers in unfriendly environments (Tokyo Dome for Sugano and Meiji Jingu for Ogawa). Sugano had the better overall year, as he was the only other player within a stone’s throw of Masahiro Tanaka in these projections, but Ogawa did play in the more difficult environment. They are definitely two to keep an eye on for the future. Sugano in particular has a very impressive projection of 3.37 FIP and 3.79 xFIP after just one season.

The projections will continue to be updated and refined, but for now, a quick glance tells us that Masahiro Tanaka is still an exceptional pitcher and should be an impact player in the MLB, and that there are two young players to keep an eye on in Ogawa and Sugano. There are other notable pitchers who could be quality MLB players, and many deeper looks to take, but at first glance the NPB boasts some impressive pitching talent with MLB futures if they choose to take that route. But most importantly, Tanaka still looks like an ace and a 4-5 win, top 20 pitcher, and he should be coming this season. I am exceptionally excited about his future, and think he could be one of the best Japanese players ever to play in the MLB, if everything goes his way. It will be fun to watch how the posting system is changed, and who wins the right to sign Tanaka in the coming months.

2013 hitter projections are up

The initial projections for batters for the 2013 season are now up under the current projections tab. The major change this year is using a three year weighted average instead of a two year weighted average. Previously, it was a two year weighted average because there were two years with the new ball. Now, since the ball was changed again, it’s a three year weighted average with the previous two years translated into this season’s offensive environment.

These projections are subject to change, but at first glance, home run power has all but disappeared. This is due to a few modifications to the translation factors, and it is true that almost every Japanese hitter to make the transition has hit home runs at a far, far lower rate in the MLB than they did in the NPB. Norichika Aoki having a very poor season in terms of power helped to change those numbers. However, the projections will only get steadier, and better, if the NPB can stick with a ball for any period of time. Additionally, something in the wOBA calculation is a bit off. It seems far to low as opposed to actual MLB players with similar lines, so I’m going by OPS for now, and will fix that as soon as I can.

As far as the actual projections are concerned: once a new agreement is figured out to dictate the transfer of players, this is not the year to go hunting for a hitter. A lot of people have been talking about Wladimir Balentien, but he has said he is staying. Plus, he hits in the best offensive environment in Japan, and these projections weren’t really meant for ex MLB players playing in Japan anyway. I have no idea how those players would translate back to the MLB. Strikeout problems plagued Balentien before in the MLB, and there is no reason to think he has fixed them. Shinnosuke Abe still isn’t going to go anywhere and Seiichi Uchikawa is a first baseman and corner outfielder, so he won’t hit enough to cut it at those positions. That leaves Takashi Toritani, who I still think will be a bargain if a team thinks he can handle short, and Yoshio Itoi, who has gotten a decent amount of buzz as a center fielder. Most of the other players that can hit at around an average level don’t play a position that make them worth it.

Both Toritani and Itoi could be moderately valuable players, provided they can stick at shortstop and center field, respectively. I don’t think either will hit as well as Norichika Aoki (Toritani could be pretty close), and Aoki has been a fairly average (~2 win) player in right field. So, if they’re going to provide much value above average, Itoi is going to have to stay in center field, and Toritani is going to have to be able to play shortstop of second base. As far as comparisons to MLB players this year, at short Toritani would likely be similar to a slightly better Yunel Escobar with the bat, but much worse in the field, though it’s unknown by how much. At second, Toritani would pretty much be Daniel Murphy this season, but with less power and more on base skills. If he could field either position well enough, he could be a productive player. Itoi with the bat in center would be something like Jon Jay or Denard Span, which is great if he could field like Span, and not so great if he fielded like Jay.

Toritani or Itoi could be decent players, and there could be gems to uncover as I search and update more, but this is not a good year to shop for a hitter. We all know the real prize is Masahiro Tanaka, and I will be sure to have my projections for him and the other pitchers up very soon.

*Itoi played right field this past season, but primarily played center before that.

New park factors

The park factors including this past season have been updated under the park factors tab.

 

The projections themselves are taking longer than anticipated. The ball change this season has caused a lot of rework that needs to be done. I will get them out as soon as I can.

The NPB regular season is over

What that means is that it’s finally time to update the projections for this year. I have the updated park factors almost ready, though not on the site. It should only be a few days, or a week or so before I have the new projections available.  Unless I’m seriously underestimating the few changes that need to be made, which is entirely possible. Either way, the updated park factors and projections should be up relatively soon, so we can all begin to bask in that Masahiro Tanaka goodness as the speculation begins this offseason.

Wladimir Balentien, Japanese home run champion

As many people are aware of by now, Wladimir Balentien is now the NPB single season record holder for home runs. The record of 55 had controversially stood since 1964. Breaking the record is certainly an impressive feat, but just how impressive is it? To answer that, there are a lot of things that must be taken into account.

The original home run record and controversy

It is almost impossible to determine how impressive the original record was. We don’t know the run environment, or how the stadium played when Sadaharu Oh hit those 55 home runs. We do know that Oh was clearly the best player in Japanese baseball during his career from 1959-1980. We also know that the Yomiuri Giants at that time were clearly the best team in baseball, winning Japan Series titles in 1961, 1963, and 8 years in a row from 1965-1973. Additionally, we know that the Giants have been accused in the past of using underhanded tactics in order to have the best players, though that may or may not be true. Finally, we know that Oh did play in front of an exceptional player in Shigeo Nagashima, and in the outstanding Giants lineup in a stadium that has historically catered to offense.  So, if you believe in lineup protection, Oh had a lot of it, and he played on a dominant team. If the best players in Japanese baseball all played for his team, then he didn’t have to play against them. However, this is all speculation. The sport was very different then, and it is difficult to compare to today. Nobody else hit that many home runs during that time period regardless of who they played for, and 55 home runs was, and remains, an exceptional feat.

The fare more interesting part of Oh’s home run record was that it stood so long at all. Oh’s home run record has long stood in controversy, since it was first challenged in 1985. During that 1985 season, American Randy Bass was on pace to break the record of 55 home runs. He had 54 home runs at the end of the season, coming in to a final game with the Giants, managed by Oh. He was intentionally walked in each at bat, allegedly so a Westerner would not break Oh’s record.  An American pitcher later went on record saying an unnamed coach threatened to fine them $1,000 for every strike they threw to Bass. The record was tied during the 2001 season by American Tuffy Rhodes, with several games left in the year. Among those several games was a series against the Fukuoka Hawks, managed by Oh. Rhodes was intentionally walked in every at bat in the series. Later, Hawks pitching coach Yoshiharu Wakana went on record saying the pitchers were acting on his orders, also saying “I just didn’t want a foreign player to break Oh’s record.” The following season, the record was tied again, this time by Venezuelan Alex Cabrera with five games left in the season. Cabrera also went into a series against the Oh managed Hawks. This time, Oh told his pitchers to throw strikes. However, the pitchers did not, and threw balls well off the plate, and the record remained tied. This exemplifies the sort of shadowy underbelly the NPB has against foreign players, from having small foreign player limits on teams to the pressure placed on Japanese players not to leave the NPB for the MLB. That is why I think the most impressive thing that happened to Balentien was that this record was allowed to fall. The NPB has been becoming more and more open over the year. Allowing a hallowed, if suspiciously held, record to fall to a foreigner is a major step in that process.

Offensive environment and park

The previous two seasons had very low levels of offense, due to a change to the ball. This season, the ball was changed again to a ball that increases offense more. How does this new run environment compare to previous seasons? The NPB site offers data for all teams going back to 2008. In 2008, there were 1480 home runs hit. This was followed by 1534 in 2009, 1605 in 2010, and 857 in 2011 (ball change), 881 in 2012, and 1270 this season with a few games remaining. We don’t know what the run environment was when Bass played in 1985, or for certain when Rhodes and Cabrera played in 2001 and 2002. However, we can get a decent idea of the run environment in that era. The reason we can do this is because Cabrera played in Japan for so long. In 2001, Cabrera hit 49 home runs, then 55 in 2002, and 50 in 2003.  He played for another 7 seasons, and never hit more than 36 home runs again. This could just mean that Cabrera’s power degraded. However, considering there was multiple 50 home run hitters at the turn of the century, and more recently players have topped out in the high 40’s in home runs in conjunction with Cabrera’s career, it is likely that the offensive environment was greater from 2001-2003 than it was from 2008-2010. And the environment Balentien plays in today, is less offensive than it was in 2008-2010.  However, the park works against Balentien.  He plays in Meiji Jingu Stadium, which is the biggest offensive park for home runs. His numbers are likely significantly inflated by his home park.

Overall

Balentien’s record is definitely impressive. He plays in a more depressed offensive environment than previous challengers to the record. While he does play in the best park in the NPB for home runs, he still is way ahead of Tony Blanco’s 40 home runs in second place. He is also way ahead of the rest of his own team, where the second most home runs is Lastings Milledge at a whopping 16. And, unlike Oh when he set the original record, he isn’t doing it in a lineup filled with intimidating hitters, as Milledge is potentially the second best hitter at .251/.329/.436 (other players have been marginally better, but have not played as much) compared to Balentien’s .333/.458/.780. So, while his numbers are aided by his park (as records often are), Balentien has still had a remarkable season, and deserves the record he now holds. Additionally, the fact that he was allowed to break it, and not intentionally walked for the final ten games represents a major step in the right direction for Japanese baseball. It was a big moment for Balentien, and the NPB. So, back to the original question, how impressive has Balentien’s season been? The answer is incredibly impressive. He’s put up a season for the ages in a time when offense is not at a peak. Park aside, this season has been impressive in every way, and is a landmark accomplishment.

Hiroyuki Nakajima, Kyuji Fujikawa, and Wladimir Balentien, an exercise in hindsight

This post will serve as a short review of the two most notable players to come over this past offseason, and the most explosive one this NPB season.

Kyuji Fujikawa was expected by many to come in to the MLB, and be a dominant closer like he had been for years in Japan. My projections expected him to be a fairly good reliever, high strikeouts and walks, and a 3.65 xFIP. He started out the season setting up for Carlos Marmol, but due to Marmol’s ineffectiveness, Fujikawa quickly gained the closer’s role in Chicago. Unfortunately, we will never know what he could have done in his first season, as he got injured, and missed the entire season as he underwent Tommy John surgery. He only threw 12 innings. In those 12 innings, he struck out a very good 14 batters, while only walking two. However, he got some bad luck with a large ERA. Hopefully next season he will be able to pitch more., as he should be the closer again for the Cubs. And if he could keep his walks down, he could be an outstanding reliever.

Hiroyuki Nakajima was signed to compete for Oakland’s starting shortstop role. My projections saw him as a decent player, and productive shortstop with good defense, but nothing to write home about (and the projections preferred Takashi Toritani in terms of shortstops). However, a poor training camp and the emergence or Jed Lowrie and other players kept Nakajima from making the roster to begin the season. His ineffectiveness continued with a .283/.331/.367 line with Triple-A Sacramento. Interestingly, that AAA line is almost identical to the .279/.332/.394 I had projected him for. To make matters worse, Nakajima was outrighted from the Athletics 40 man roster this August. As he adjusts to the major leagues, I still think he has a shot to compete for a job, but likely as a backup rather than a starter.

Balentien’s season deserves, and will receive, a post of its own as he has destroyed the ball all year en route to breaking Sadaharu Oh’s single season home run record (it is an interesting story in how challengers to that have thwarted in the past). My projections expected Balentien to be second in the league in home runs, behind Tony Blanco. Sure enough, those two are the top two in home runs, though Balentien has blown away Blanco overall. Both of those players play in the two biggest offensive stadiums in Japan, with Balentien playing in the park that inflates home runs the most. Due to the ball change, home runs are up significantly this season. With the ball change, and his home park, and the big power major league fans always loved, it’s relatively unsurprising to see Balentien break the home run record.

Soon, I will review Balentien’s season in much more detail, as well as discussing the posting system, Masahiro Tanaka and players that could make the transition, and a general review of the season and the players my projections liked for the MLB (a few of them had breakout seasons).

A short news update

I’m going to be overhauling the site a bit in the coming few days. I apologize for the lack of posts, I’ll be sure to begin again shortly.

First of all, I won’t be updating my projections until after this season. The reason for this is that the NPB changed the ball again. Only this time, they didn’t tell anyone. For a while, everyone had been pretty suspicious about the sudden offensive spike in the NPB this year, with home runs and overall offense being way up. As it turns out, the NPB changed the ball to a more offensive one, and didn’t tell anyone. Didn’t tell the players, or the teams. So, that’s why I won’t be updating my projections until the end of the season. A lot of things need reworked with a new ball change, and I’m going to wait until I have a larger sample with the new ball before I rework them. At least a full season’s worth of data.

However, there are a few things I want to address, such as players who may be coming to the MLB this offseason, and changes to the posting system. Additionally, I want to take a look at Wladimir Balentien breaking the NPB home run record. I will also be making more of my data and information available in the coming days.

The man, the myth, the Ma-kun: A preview of Masahiro Tanaka, future MLB ace

Masahiro Tanaka is going to cost a small fortune. For the price Tanaka will likely cost, you could buy an unnecessarily large and fancy mansion. You could be over 1/4 of the way to sending a robot to Mars. You could certainly retire and never worry about money again. Or, you could acquire a Japanese baseball player for five years. Tanaka will certainly be expensive, but will he be worth it? The spectrum of 100 million dollar Japanese baseball players has only two, polar opposite data points. Will Tanaka be closer to the disappointing Daisuke Matsuzaka? Or closer to the currently electrifying Yu Darvish? The true answer remains to be seen. Luckily for all of us, it will be seen eventually, as the 24 year old plans on making a move to the MLB within a few seasons. Regardless, I’m here to save everyone some agony and answer the question right now. He will be as good as Darvish, or close to it. He will be worlds better than Matsuzaka. He will be an MLB ace, and he will be worth every penny. Here is why:

The Stuff

In Japan, Tanaka is a man among boys. In a world filled with control artists, he features a devastating slider that can reach velocities some other players can only touch with their fastball. In addition to a mid to high 80s slider, Tanaka has a four seam fastball that sits in the 90-93 MPH range, and can touch 96. Along with those, weapons, he has an 84-88 splitter, and a two seam fastball. Oh, and he also controls these weapons better than almost every player in the NPB. But, how do these weapons compare to those mentioned above; Darvish and Matsuzaka?

When compared to Darvish, the stuff is similar. Darvish throws more pitches than Tanaka does, but the pure stuff is relatively equal. Darvish sits in the 91-94 range, topping out at 97. His main secondary weapon is a low 80s slurve. However, he also throws a two seam fastball, cutter, two curveballs, a splitter, and a changeup. Additionally, Darvish pitches from the stretch almost exclusively, making him very difficult to steal on. In contrast, Tanaka has been criticized for his lack of ability to pitch from the stretch and hold runners. So, in pure stuff, Darvish holds a slight edge.

Matsuzaka is fairly similar to the other two in terms of pure stuff. He throws a four seam fastball that sits from 90-94, topping out at 97. In addition, he throws a low 90s two seam fastball, a cutter in the high 80s, a slurve in the low 80s, and a changeup. Matsuzaka throws more pitches than Tanaka does, but he lacks a true out pitch to dominate hitters. Tanaka has a dominant slider, in addition to velocity. Edge to Tanaka here.

The Numbers

Tanaka’s numbers are nothing short of eye popping. Last season, Tanaka threw 173 innings, to the tune of a 1.87 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, and 0.2 HR/9. And the previous season, he was even better. In 2010, he had a 1.27 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, and 0.3 HR/9. He doesn’t walk anyone, he strikes out a bunch, he doesn’t allow home runs, and he doesn’t allow hits. His K/BB ratios the last two years are 8.93 and 8.89. His numbers are spectacular, especially for someone as young as he is. However, raw numbers don’t always tell the whole story of how he will play in the MLB. Luckily, I have a projection for that sort of thing. I project Tanaka for a K/9 of 9, a BB/9 of 3.3, and an xFIP (using MLB 2012 league average home run rates and a constant of 3.1) of 3.68. That is all star caliber production, and he absolutely blows away the current field in terms of projections.

Darvish put up video game numbers as well when he was in Japan. Darvish in his last season in the NPB had a 1.44 ERA, with a 10.7 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, and 0.2 HR/9. His previous season he had a 1.78 ERA, with a 9.9 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, and 0.2 HR/9. His K/BB ratios were 7.67 and 4.72. Darvish struck out more than Tanaka does, but his walk rates weren’t nearly as good. Tanaka has K/BB ratios that are just otherworldly. And we all know Darvish was a great pitcher his rookie season, and is only getting better. By the same projection system, Darvish projected for 9.5 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, and 3.79 xFIP. His projections are very near those of Tanaka. But who is better? I give the edge to Tanaka here. His walk rates are incredible. He might not have quite the strikeout stuff than Darvish has, but he does a much better job of controlling his. Plus, Darvish currently plays in a huge hitters park, which will suppress his value some.

This is where Daisuke falls behind a bit. He had excellent NPB numbers, but not as good as Darvish or Tanaka. In his last NPB season, Matsuzaka had a 2.13 ERA, with a 9.7 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, and 0.6 HR/9. In his previous year, he had a 2.30 ERA, with a 9.5 K/9, 2.05 BB/9, and 0.5 HR/9. His K/BB ratios were 5.89, and 4.61. He just was not on the same level as the other two. In terms of his projections, he projected for 8.9 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, and 3.92 xFIP. Daisuke is clearly inferior when compared to Darvish or Tanaka.

The Verdict

Will Tanaka’s numbers remain strong like Darvish? Or take a flop, like Matsuzaka? He has the potential to the better than either of them. Darvish has the better repertoire, but Tanaka has the better numbers. An interesting note is that both Darvish and Matsuzaka had their career seasons immediately prior to earning an MLB contract. Tanaka has already had two seasons comparable to those or better. Additionally, Matsuzaka had some control issues in Japan. Darvish had some control issues in the MLB. Tanaka has better control than either of them. I hesitate to say that Tanaka will be better than Darvish. I consider them at approximately the same level: among the best to ever pitch in the NPB, and elite in the MLB. In the wake of Darvish’s success, Masahiro Tanaka will certainly be paid like a star. And he will play like one too.