As the free agent market begins for pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, the key question for Major League teams when they assign value to him is not how good he can be, but how many good years can he provide? That question is particularly vexing because Tanaka has thrown more innings at a young age than anybody in the majors in the past 35 years.
This reveals a clash of pitching cultures. Had Tanaka been raised in the American way of pitching, there's no way that he would have been allowed to throw 1,315 innings by his age 24 season -- which he did in Japan. The last pitcher to work that much in the majors at such a young age was Frank Tanana from 1973-78. Tanana made the All-Star team in three of those seasons. But in his age 25 season Tanana hurt his shoulder and, though he pitched 15 more seasons, never made another All-Star team.
But baseball in the 1970s was so different than baseball today that even that comparison doesn't hold up well. Think of it this way: we never have seen a major league pitcher with Tanaka's workload since specialized bullpens, pitch counts and innings limits have become industry standards in the past 20 or so years. Though Tanaka is now 25, an age which invites a major league team to dream on a contract of six or seven years, the calculus of his long-term value is complicated because his workload is so unusually high.
"Everyone is acting like it's a no-brainer all-in just because he's 25," said one club executive. "He's still a pitcher and he's still got serious miles on him. [Tanaka is a] very attractive player nonetheless but a real risk ... as with basically all pitchers."
Let's examine the rarity of Tanaka's workload. In addition to Tanana, only two other pitchers since 1961 have thrown 1,315 major league innings through age 24: Larry Dierker (1964-71) and Bert Blyleven (1970-75).
But what's even more rare is that he carried an unusually high burden as a teenager. At ages 18 and 19 with the Rakuten Eagles, Tanaka threw 359 innings. Only two pitchers in major league history ever threw more innings as a teenager and they did so ages ago: Bob Feller (1936-38) and Pete Schneider (1914-15).
Feller became a Hall of Famer, though his early workload was mitigated when he missed his age 23, 24 and 25 seasons while serving in World War II. Schneider, bothered by injuries and control problems, was finished pitching at age 23.
(As a comparison, Archie Bradley of Arizona, one of the top pitching prospects today, threw 138 innings in the minors at ages 18 and 19 combined.)
Remember, too, that Tanaka had a prolific high school career, which included throwing 742 pitches in five games in the famed Koshien tournament.
Why is this early workload so important? Any organization will tell you that just about the most dangerous thing you can do with a young pitcher is build up too many innings too soon. Biomechanical research has shown that the two greatest influences on injury risk are overuse and poor mechanics. Those influences especially come into play with young pitchers, who have not yet developed their full strength.
Pitch counts and innings limits have little influence in Japan. Tanaka had nine complete games as a teenager in Japan. Only 13 pitchers in major league history completed nine games as a teenager -- none of them in the past 48 years. The most "recent" teens allowed to complete that many games were Dierker (1964-66), Wally Bunker (1963-64), Mike McCormick (1956-58) and Chuck Stobbs (1947-49).
Japanese coaches believe in throwing more than do American pitching experts. However, their pitchers throw with more days of rest (generally every sixth or seventh day rather than the fifth day) in a shorter season against less imposing lineups. Tanaka, for instance, for all of his many innings, never made more than 28 starts in a season for the Eagles.
When pitchers leave Japan for the majors, the more rigorous schedule and lineups tend to exact a toll on them after two or three seasons. Eleven pitchers born in Japan have made 25 starts in a major league season. Only two of them were able to do so more than three times: Hideo Nomo and Hiroki Kuroda.
If you raise the bar to 30 starts -- and Tanaka will be expected to be that kind of pitcher with the money he will get -- Nomo and Kuroda are the only ones to do so more than twice. And Nomo is a more of a cautionary tale: a two-year wonder followed by 10 years a journeyman.
Tanaka, like Nomo, should be able to make an immediate impact. He features outstanding control and stuff, especially a wipeout slider. His mechanics are good, if slightly quirky. (He hooks his wrist with the ball after taking it behind him and raises his right elbow before rotating the ball to the loaded position.) He should be a high-strikeout, low-walk pitcher immediately.
The long-term investment in Tanaka, however, is a bigger leap of faith, if only because he has no few comps based on his workload. I'll give you the two best comps to Tanaka, based on age and innings. Here is the first, with their stats through the age 24 season:
Again, we're going to the Wayback Machine to find a comparison. Valenzuela's workload from ages 19-24 was heavy even for the 1980s. He put up another big year in 1986 at age 25: 21 wins and 20 complete games. Valenzuela completed 84 of his first 200 starts -- a ridiculous rate of throwing a complete game in 42 percent of his starts from ages 19-25. Valenzuela essentially was done as an impact pitcher after that. After age 25 he never made another All-Star team and went 74-85 with a 4.23 ERA.
The second comparison for Tanaka is Yu Darvish, who just completed his second season with the Rangers after pitching seven seasons in Japan. Here is how Darvish's stats in Japan through age 24 compare to those of Tanaka:
There's a lot of similarity there. Darvish has made an immediate impact in the majors, earning Cy Young Award votes each year and winning a strikeout title. But the story only has begun. He only now is approaching the kind of wall that Nomo hit but Kuroda avoided.
Also, because he signed under the old posting system which allowed him to negotiate with only one team, Darvish signed for "only" $56 million over six years. Texas did win his rights with a posting bid of $51.7 million, bringing the club's total investment to $107 million over six years. That's still a bit of a bargain compared to six-year deals for Matt Cain ($127 million), Cole Hamels ($144 million) and Zack Greinke ($147 million).
What does the new posting system, with a fee capped at $20 million, mean for Tanaka? He'll likely to get more than $100 million over six years, which will put the required investment in Tanaka in line with what the Giants gave Cain and in the ballpark of what the Phillies gave Hamels and what the Dodgers (in a free agent market) gave Greinke.
But is Tanaka worth what players like Cain, Hamels and Greinke earn? His worth is a product not only of his ability, but the timing of the change in the posting system and the inflation that hit the free agent market this winter because of increased television revenues. His timing is excellent. Now he can create a bidding war that includes the richest clubs in the game, especially the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Rangers and Cubs.
Every long-term signing of a pitcher carries risk, but this one carries more than most, because there are so many unknowns for so much money. Cain, Hamels and Greinke had established track records in the majors and familiar workloads when they signed their contracts. Tanaka has never pitched in the majors and has thrown more innings than anything we've seen in the modern game. A major league team will fork over more than $100 million for a pitcher who was developed and used in ways that never would have happened in the United States.