Hideo Nomo was included on the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot earlier this month. Hideki Matsui was the MVP of the 2009 World Series. Takashi Saito came to America at 36 and was one of the best relievers in history through age 41. Ichiro Suzuki, a lock for Cooperstown, has 2,742 hits (and counting) after 1,278 in Japan, for a total of 4,020.
Last season, Koji Uehara, at 38, closed out the World Series after one of the best relief seasons ever. Yu Darvish led the American League in strikeouts with 277. Hiroki Kuroda, at 38, was the Yankees best pitcher. Hisashi Iwakuma, little known outside Seattle, finished third in the AL Cy Young voting.
Perhaps that gives some flavor of why Masahiro Tanaka, who played in the same Japanese major league as all of them and just had a year like no pitcher in Japanese or American history has ever seen — 24-0, 1.27 ERA — is causing a bit of excitement.
None of the players mentioned above ever equaled the mythology of Tanaka’s 24-0 season. When he finally lost a game — in the Japanese World Series — he came back the next day in relief to close out the championship.
So, in the next 30 days, some MLB team will sign him to a fat, long contract.
How fat, how long and with whom is a mystery. The names in the rumor mill start with the Yankees, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, (“we won’t be outbid”) Cubs and Rangers. But up to a point, a very high point, any team with deep enough pockets should be in this hand to see how the cards fall, and which team or city Tanaka might fall in love with.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Tanaka, who is only 25 and whose fastball tops out above 95 mph, is probably not going to duplicate his career in Japan (99-35, 2.30). But he might come closer than you think. Darvish, at the same age, was 93-38, 1.99 in Japan. Now he’s pitching near-perfect games for Texas.
In recent years, more and more Japanese players show less of a drop when they cross the Pacific. Kuroda did not come to MLB until he was 33, yet his six years in the majors are very similar statistically to his last seven seasons in Japan. Iwakuma, now 32, has been just as excellent in two years with the Mariners as he was the previous three in Japan. If Iwakuma is still holding up after 11 years pitching in Japan, why is Tanaka suspect at 25?
The drop in pitching performance from Japan to MLB was once thought to be large, with flashy failures like Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa. The fear of injury may be an even bigger worry to American teams. Darvish and Tanaka began working under big-league pressure in Japan at age 18. Look how fast Daisuke Matsusaka burned out after two good years in Boston. For $103 million, the Red Sox never even saw a “gyro ball.”
That’s why Tanaka is so fascinating, so tempting and so hard to evaluate. There is just enough legitimate doubt about any pitcher changing leagues, continents and cultures, mixed with just enough fear of looking the fool for overpaying, that all of MLB, even the Yankees and Dodgers, may not bid quite a high as they should.
Last winter, Zack Greinke got a six-year, $147 million free agent contract from the Dodgers. He was 29 and coming off a couple of nice seasons — 15-5 and 16-6.
With Greinke’s $147 million at the top and Darvish’s $111 million at the bottom, Tanaka might end up somewhere in the middle. Or not. If the Yanks and Dodgers both lose their minds, Tanaka may end up owning the moon and two planets to be named later.