Masahiro Tanaka Starts Season 21-0

Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka won again today to start the 2013 NPB season at an amazing 21-0.  This sets the NPB all-time record, as does his 25 consecutive winning decisions since August of last year, one more than the all-time major league record set by Carl Hubbell in 1936-1937.

Tanaka has a 1.23 ERA so far in 2013 in spite of the new lively baseballs which have brought offense back to Japanese baseball after two seasons of frustration for hitters when a less resilient ball was used.  It is virtually certain at this point that Tanaka will have an ERA below 1.90 for the third season in a row.

There’s a lot of talk about Tanaka requesting that that his team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, post him after this season so that he can play in MLB.  It remains to be seen whether this will actually happen.  The Golden Eagles can hold him for one more year before essentially being forced to post him after the 2014 season, in order not to lose him as a free agent after the 2015 season.  Maybe Tanaka and the Golden Eagles have an understanding that the team will honor Tanaka’s request to leave, but I kind of wonder if some of the rumors to this effect are not just wishful thinking by MLB fans and media.

The Golden Eagles and Tanaka have had a good relationship so far, and it’s clear that the Golden Eagles’ success in 2014 is greatly dependent on Tanaka pitching for the team.  The Golden Eagles are presently leading NPB’s Pacific League by 7.5 games with a 73-49 record.  Needless to say, without Tanaka on the mound this year, the Golden Eagles have been only a little better than .500 team.

On the other hand, the Golden Eagles are a small-market team and the pay-off for posting Tanaka this off-season is as high as it’s ever going to be.  The Golden Eagles reached 1,000,000 in attendance this year after 58 “home” games, which was the fastest in the team’s existence since it joined NPB as an expansion team in 2005.  Even so, that’s an average of only 17,428 fans per game, which is pretty poor, and it’s even lower when you take out the one “home” game the Golden Eagles played at the Tokyo Dome (the Yomiuri Giants’ home field) this year and drew 43,000+.

If the Golden Eagles make the Japan Series this year, they’ll draw better next season.  Even so, with Tanaka likely to command a posting fee of $50 million to $60 million, there’s a whole lot of reasons for the Golden Eagles to sell Tanaka off now while his value is at an all-time high.

The only negative things that can be said about Masahiro Tanaka is that he’s not quite as good as Yu Darvish.  Also, Tanaka’s strikeout rate is down this year (163 Ks in 190 IP, or 7.7 per 9 IP).  However, he’s still got more than six Ks for every walk allowed, and he gives up very few home runs, both this year and throughout his NPB career.

Even assuming that Darvish is a better pitcher than Tanaka, if Tanaka is posted this off-season he would likely command as much or more than the reported $51.7 million posting fee the Rangers submitted for Darvish two years ago.  Tanaka is plenty good, and the value of Japanese pitchers has to be as high as it’s ever been, given the success Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda have all enjoyed this year.  I would think a lot of teams would pony up the big bucks to land the presumed next great Japanese ace.

I also wonder whether the Hiroshima Carp will post the NPB’s second best pitcher Kenta Maeda this off-season.  Maeda’s 2.02 ERA leads the Central League by a wide margin (next best is 2.44), after leading the Central League in ERA last year by a wide margin.  He’s currently second in the Central League in strikeouts and has a better than 4-to-1 K-to-BB rate.  The Carp are another small market team, and they don’t get along well with Maeda because they’ve consistently low-balled him on salary, unlike the Golden Eagles with Tanaka.

The biggest knock on Maeda is his Tim Lincecum-like body — Maeda’s listed as 6’0″ and 161 lbs, even skinnier than the Freak.  All reports are that Maeda’s body type makes him seem riskier to major league teams.  Clearly, Maeda hasn’t shown much effect of his heavy NPB workloads so far, but Lincecum’s decline the last two years hasn’t helped Maeda’s stock, even though Timmy’s problems seem to have had more to do with his inability to command a consistent release point than arm strain.

Maeda will be 26 next year, and given the concern major league teams have about his durability, his value would seem to be greater this off-season than at any point in the future as he gets older and accumulates more mileage on his pitching arm.  He could also turn out to be a bargain to a major league team if his size (and competition from Tanaka) keeps his winning post fee and subsequent contract price down.

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