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.

Here’s a post on the current Japanese pitcher most likely to be the next Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers

3 Comments on “The Next Masahiro Tanaka”

  1. Burly Says:

    Another Japanese starter who deserves a mention because he is an eight year veteran and plays for an NPB team (the Seibu Lions) willing to post its players is Takayuki Kishi. Kishi will be 30 next year; and while I don’t like him as much as Kenta Maeda or Chihiro Kaneko, he’s a good pitcher. Kishi currently has a career 79-50 NPB record with a 3.15 ERA, 7.4 K/9IP, 3.2 K/BB, and a 1.12 WHIP.

    Like both Maeda and Kaneko, Kishi is a small right-hander. In fact, if the numbers listed on NPB’s website are accurate, he’s even smaller than Maeda or Kaneko, currently weighing less than 160 lbs. It’s hard to imagine a major league team risking much on a pitcher that slight.

    However, Kishi has handled NPB workloads well, pitching at least 113.2 innings pitched in each of his seven full seasons. He appears to have had minor injuries in 2010 and 2011, but he still managed to pitch 248.2 IP total those two seasons, and he’s pitched at least 156 innings in each of his other five full seasons.

    • Burly Says:

      The Seibu Lions signed Takayuki Kishi to a three-year deal last off-season worth a total of $1.2 billion yen ($11.82M at current exchange rates) if all incentives are met, so he may not be available for a few seasons yet.

  2. Burly Says:

    Chihiro Kaneko turned down a multi-year offer from the Orix Buffaloes last winter in favor of a one-year deal. This may mean he wants to be posted next off-season. He is expected to an NPB “domestic free agent” after the 2014 season, which essentially means he can ask to be traded, but it is the point at which NPB players are usually posted by their teams because they can sign with American teams without compensation to their former teams the following off-season.

    It is expected that Kenta Maeda will ask to be posted if he has a good season in 2014 with his current team, the Hiroshima Carp. However, the Carp still have a couple more seasons of control over Maeda before they have to post him or risk losing him to another NPB team as true free agent.

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