What is Masahiro Tanaka Worth?


Masahiro Tanaka has been discussed ad naseum around the internet since it was officially announced that the the Japanese right-hander would be posted this season by Rakuten. There have even been reports that the Mariners may be the front runner for Tanaka’s services, due to their mix of money, need, and possible intangibles (success with Japanese players, proximity, Hisashi Iwakuma) that may or may not play a role in Tanaka’s decision making process.

That said, I have yet to really put forth my thoughts on Tanaka, other than the possibility of a few mentions of my interest in his services, as if anyone would not be interested. On top of that, I haven’t seen too many posts discussing projections for Tanaka, so that is where the focus of the following will lie.

Dave Cameron talked about some possible comparisons for Tanaka, and because he is more knowledgeable than me in that vain, I won’t go in that direction. I may use projections that refer or are similar to that of Cameron’s, but I will focus more on what I think he will bring to the table, and how much money that is worth.

While not everyone agrees, the general consensus seems to be that Tanaka won’t be as good as Yu Darvish, despite being paid more. However, the comparisons to Darvish aren’t really that accurate outside of their nationality. They are not that similar in pitching style, with Darvish being more power oriented, and Tanaka more of a finesse hurler.

In my amateur, yet hopefully informed opinion, Tanaka looks capable of averaging somewhere around 3 WAR per season. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he has been able to get hitters out nonetheless, and is just about the enter his prime. That 3 WAR mark last year would put him on par with guys such as Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco, which is a tad frightening. Nolasco signed for 4 years and $49M, while Santana figures to get something between that, and what Tanaka will likely end up with.

However, if you jump up a couple spots to 3.1 or 3.2 WAR (that marginal difference in WAR is not enough to really state any kind of real difference) you see names like Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. A 3 WAR pitcher will generally fall somewhere around 40th in the league, which places him just outside of the “ace” range. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.

If we do return to the Darvish comps, Tanaka would be about 2 WAR shy of what Darvish has been able to produce in each of his two seasons, probably a larger discrepancy than most would hope for when an extra $50-60M is being talked about for the lesser pitcher.

In his post, Cameron set filters at Fangraphs to get some more accurate comps, that are based on pitching rates and styles, rather than ethnicity. His results found an average of 3.1 fWAR, with the top of the list featuring the likes of David Price and Roy Halladay, and the bottom featuring Wandy Rodriguez.

Both Price and Halladay have averaged 3.9 fWAR over their last three seasons, while Rodriguez was at 1.5. That is certainly a very big range, with a floor that would lead to a very hard bust for $100+M, but also a ceiling worth something around $23-24M per year.

The 3 WAR projection looks to make sense by both my quick estimate, and much more accurate, real-life comparisons. Now it is time to turn that into a contract.

Tanaka will probably get a 6 or 7 year deal. The international free agency rules make it so a player is under team control for at least 6 years no matter what, so it wouldn’t make sense for Tanaka to take less years, and essentially give the team an option for the last year. Just for arguments sake, let’s go with 7 years, in case Tanaka wants more security.

If Tanaka averages 3 WAR per season over that 7-year span (say 2.5, 2.5, 3.0, 3.0, 3.0, 3.5, 3.5), that is 21 WAR total over the length of the contract. Current market value is often believed to be around $6M, although with the contracts signed by Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, that number is no doubt higher now, and will continue to grow with inflation. Let’s assume $6.2M per WAR on the open market, to meet in the middle and make everyone happy.

21 WAR times 6.2 million $/WAR gives us just over $130M, or about $18.6M per year. That seems to be in the expected ballpark for what Tanaka will get, though some expect it to be more like 7/140.

That is a lot of information to swallow and process, so I will give some reference to make it easier to decide if you would be willing to pay Tanaka $130M like the above WAR projections suggest.

Over the past 7 years, three pitchers have accumulated between 19 and 23 fWAR, and they are listed below, again courtesy of Frangraphs.

1Jake Peavy– – –1081.08.482.530.90.27974.2 %39.3 %8.8 %3.513.463.6822.8
2Mark Buehrle– – –1454. %45.1 %9.3 %3.864.124.2322.7
3Max Scherzer– – –1019.09.442.881.02.30273.7 %39.2 %10.4 %3.673.513.4921.5
4A.J. Burnett– – –1364.18.633.561.00.29972.3 %50.2 %12.5 %4.153.983.7020.3
5Josh Johnson– – –828.28.382.820.65.30673.6 %47.4 %8.1 %3.453.183.4319.3
6John Lackey– – –1128.06.972.451.00.30572.2 %44.6 %10.0 %4.083.993.9719.3
7Andy PettitteYankees1003.26.682.780.83.31071.8 %47.4 %9.1 %3.933.833.9619.1
8Hiroki Kuroda– – –1120.06.752.070.88.28273.3 %49.0 %10.1 %3.403.613.6219.1
9Javier Vazquez– – –994.18.452.441.15.28872.0 %38.0 %10.5 %3.983.793.6819.1
10Ricky Nolasco– – –1172.27.502.031.02.30768.8 %42.1 %10.2 %4.323.653.6419.0
11Roy Oswalt– – –1044. %47.4 %9.4 %3.723.603.6619.0

That is pretty good company. A few of them are now old and/or retired, but all of them were regarded as above  average pitchers at some point from 2007 to 2013. Peavy, Scherzer, Johnson, Pettitte and Vasquez missed some of the 7 year sample for one reason or another, so their WAR totals may be slightly misleading to their skill level relative to the rest of the list.

So I think a good question to ask is would you pay the above pitchers $130+M over 7 years, or whatever the 2007 equivalent of that is? Are you willing to gamble on him being ’07-’13 Oswalt, because there is also chance he ends up being ’07-’13 Buehrle? I definitely think it is something you have to consider, and ultimately pull the trigger on.

I personally believe, justified or not, that Tanaka has a better shot at matching the guys at the top of the list than those at the bottom. I am sure some of that is the hype, but his performance in Japan, as well as the recent success from other Japanese starters gives me high hopes for Tanaka’s future.

So 7-years and $130 million it is. I might be willing to go up to 135, but anymore than that is almost guaranteed to be too much of an overpay. This team could be on the cusp of success, and another top-flight starter could give them contender-upside. No matter what the M’s do, their success is dependent on the development of the young players. But adding a pitcher with Tanaka’s ability would put them that much closer to the promise land, and would again show this front office wants to win.