The Next Masahiro Tanaka
It was a good week for Japanese MLB pitchers. Yu Darvish came within one out of a no-hitter, Hisashi Iwakuma pitched eight innings of shutout ball against the Royals; and Masahiro Tanaka improved his major league record to five wins against zero losses. Thus, it seems like a good time for a piece on the next potentially great starting pitchers to come out of Japan.
First of all, it’s worth noting that there won’t be any more Darvishes or Tanakas coming out of Japan to MLB for at least the next three off-seasons. Darvish and Tanaka are special pitchers, at least based on their NPB statistics, who usually come around only a couple of times in a generation. The fact that these two were bunched so closely together is probably more random chance than anything else.
That said, there are at least two NPB starters who could be impact starters in MLB, maybe not Darvish and Tanaka, but quite possibly the next Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda. Those pitchers are Kenta Maeda and Chihiro Kaneko.
Kenta Maeda has been the best pitcher in Japan’s Central League for a number of years. He’s had some issues with elbow soreness early this season, but after seven 2014 NPB starts he’s 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA, second best in the Central League and fifth best in NPB. Maeda currently has a 6.9 K/IP ratio, which is lower than his 7.2 career ratio entering the 2014 season. However, his K/BB ratio is better than 4 to 1, and he’s averaging only 7.1 hits allowed per 9 innings pitched. Maeda will be 27 years old in 2015.
Kaneko is pitching even better, and has (perhaps) moved ahead of Maeda as the best NPB pitching prospect. Kaneko currently has a 1.67 ERA, which is second best both in the Pacific League and in NPB overall. More impressively, he’s way ahead of everyone in NPB this season with a 12.3 K/IP ratio. Kaneko led all NPB pitchers with 200 Ks in 2013, but his per inning strike out rate was not quite in the top five.
The knocks on Maeda and Kaneko are that they are both small right-handers, plus Maeda’s afore-mentioned elbow soreness and the fact that Kaneko will be 31 years old in 2015. While their odds of major league success (at least if they stay healthy) are better than not, there is a significantly higher risk than with Darvish and Tanaka that they could be the next Kei Igawa, a fine Japanese pitcher who just couldn’t make the adjustments to MLB.
Still, I expect that if Maeda and Kaneko are healthy at the end of 2014 and made available to MLB, both will deservedly receive multiple $20 million posting offers from MLB teams. It just isn’t that easy to find even major league No. 3 starters, and it’s going to be a seller’s market for Japanese starters next off-season.
As a final note, I’m going to give myself a pat on the back for my consistent trumpeting of Japanese starting pitchers over the last five years since I started this blog (see e.g., here and here). Frankly, it wasn’t rocket science. I’ve been following Japanese baseball for more than 20 years, ever since I read Robert Whiting’s terrific books on Japanese baseball (The Chrysanthumum and the Bat, You Gotta Have Wa, and Warren Cromartie’s ghosted autobiography Slugging It out in Japan).
Any objective observer has to come to the conclusion that NPB is better than any of the AAA leagues; and if any AAA pitcher pitched the way Darvish and Tanaka did for many years in NPB, you’d have to conclude that the pitcher would become an MLB ace. That’s basically why we are going to see Japanese MLB aces for years and years to come. Obviously, NPB’s elite pitchers won’t all be able to make the transition to MLB, but I think a majority of them will.