America has Masahiro Tanaka fever. For someone who has never thrown a pitch professionally in America, he is receiving nearly unprecedented levels of attention and is labeled by some as the prize of the free agent class this offseason.
Tanaka isn't fully a free agent, but for all intents and purposes he can be treated like one. After months of negotiations, MLB and Nippon Pro Baseball agreed to a new posting system that would allow a player to negotiate with any MLB team they want. If a deal is struck, the signing team must pay the player's Japanese team a set release fee not exceeding $20 million. That resulted in weeks of "will they or won't they" as to whether Tanaka's Japanese club, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, would actually post him. Under the old system, the team had the potential to earn nearly $100 million based on rumors of what the high posting bid would be.
In the end, Rakuten honored Tanaka's wishes and are allowing him to negotiate to play in America. Tanaka has just five days remaining before he hits the Jan. 24 deadline he needs to sign by or else play another year in Japan. The Yankees, Dodgers, White Sox, Cubs and Diamondbacks have all made offers exceeding $100 million, but there is no indication that any are ahead of the others at this point.
The Tanaka excitement is reaching a boiling point. Soon he will sign and will receive media attention like he has never seen before. Tens of millions will watch his first major league game. Hordes of media personnel will be following him all season long, Japanese and American alike. Tanaka-mania will sweep baseball.
With all the attention he has received, it can be easy to forget that Tanaka isn't the first mega-hyped pitcher to come out of Japan. Nor will he be the last. Players from Junichi Tazawa to Tomo Ohka to Hiroki Kuroda have all come from Japan as 37 pitchers made the jump to America since Masanori Murakami first came over in 1964. Some have been hyped up more than others. While some have found success in the major leagues, others may serve as a warning that Tanaka isn't a sure thing to succeed for whichever team he signs with.
Career in Japan: Nomo pitched five seasons in the Japanese Pacific League with Kintetsu. His first three years were his best as he posted a combined 3.01 ERA before dropping off to 3.70 and 3.63 ERAs in his final two years. Nomo was a workhorse, pitching a ton of innings each year. More than that, he continuously baffled hitters and struck out over 275 in a season three times. His stats would have looked even better had he been able to better control his pitches. Nomo often had problems giving up walks, giving up five per nine innings while in Japan.
The hype: Murakami may have been the first Japanese player to play in the major leagues, but 30 years later it was Nomo who made the transition popular. Still under contract with Kintetsu, Nomo exercised a loophole and "retired", allowing him to sign with a team in MLB. With a strange wind-up and a dominant forkball, people flocked to see him pitch for the Dodgers. Beloved in Japan, many would stay up or wake up to watch games he pitched in at 4:30 am local time. Despite trying to fly under the radar, Nomo was talked about by nearly everyone during his rookie year.
Nomo spent so much time in the public eye that it clearly began taking its toll on him. From a Sports Illustrated article written during his rookie season: "He has grown so press-wary that he mooned persistent Japanese journalists during spring training and agreed to field questions from SI only after extracting a promise 'not to sell your story to the Japanese media.'"
How did he pan out: All in all, fairly well. Nomo had an absolutely outstanding rookie season, justifying all the hype he had received. Over 28 starts for the Dodgers, he posted a 2.54 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP, struck out 236 batters, won the Rookie of the Year award and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. The next year, in 1996, he was nearly as good with a 3.19 ERA and 234 strikeouts, once again finished fourth in Cy Young voting.
However, 1997 would begin a run of five years where Nomo had an ERA above 4.00. He still had the big strikeout numbers, but his old command issues came back and American hitters began to figure out his forkball. Overall, he had a career 4.24 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over a 12-year career with seven teams. Certainly nothing to scoff at, but somewhat disappointing given his early showings.
Career in Japan: Starting his career as a teenager, Irabu put up a few nice years for the Lotte Orions in the Japan Pacific League. His best years came after a dreadful 1991 season when he posted a 6.88 as a 22-year-old. The four years following that saw him post a 2.76 ERA and earn a place among Japan's elite. His last year before moving to Major League Baseball was his best yet. In 1996 he made 23 starts with a 2.40 ERA and 1.06 WHIP while striking out over a batter per inning. It took several years, but he became a dominant force in Japan just before leaving.
The hype: Irabu may single-handedly have been responsible for the posting system being created for Japanese-American transactions. The San Diego Padres purchased his contract from Chiba Lotte, resulting in an uproar from other MLB teams who had hoped for the opportunity to sign him. Of course, Irabu never even pitched an inning for the Padres as he refused to play for anyone but the Yankees, resulting in a trade of his rights not long after San Diego procured them.
After acquiring Irabu, the Yankees signed him to a four year deal worth nearly $13 million, a fairly large contract for the late 90s, and at the time the largest ever for someone who had never thrown a major league pitch. After just eight minor league starts, he was called up to the majors. His first start in the big leagues, the Yankees drew nearly double the amount of fans as they typically had for a weeknight game. Over 300 reporters came to watch him pitch against the Tigers while over 35 million people watched live in Japan.
How did he pan out: All in all, not so well. His best season came in 1998, when he had a 4.06 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. Irabu was often criticized by the Yankees -- particularly owner George Steinbrenner, who once called Irabu a "fat pus-sy toad" -- for his weight.
Irabu only pitched three seasons with the Yankees before being sent to the Montreal Expos. He lasted just three more additional seasons before flaming out with a career 5.15 ERA. In the end, Irabu couldn't handle the stress of being one of the most talked about players to hit the majors in years. He was supposedly a pitching sensation, but ended up burning out. Steinbrenner himself said Irabu dealt with more pressure of any Yankee in the previous quarter-century.
Sadly, Irabu killed himself in 2011 after several issues with intoxication and a pending separation from his wife and children.
Career in Japan: Matsuzaka started fast. As an 18-year-old with the Seibu Lions, he set Japan on fire with a 2.60 ERA. As a rookie, he faced Ichiro Suzuki and struck him out three times in three at-bats in their first meeting. He earned Japan Rookie of the Year honors. The next three years were decidedly mediocre as he maintained an ERA in the mid-to-high 3.00s. In 2003 he once again got his ERA under 3.00 and never looked back. Four marvelous seasons culminated in a 2.13 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 2006, his last year pitching in Japan.
The hype: After Nomo, there had not been a truly successful starting pitcher to make the move from Japan to America. In Matsuzaka, there was a belief that he was the best ever from the island. He had been scouted before ever pitching in a professional league as both the Rockies and Diamondbacks attempted to sign him following the end of his high school career in Japan.
Tales of his exploits in the Japanese league were legendary. Depending on who was asked, Matsuzaka could throw any number of pitches including a famed gyroball. His fastball reached the upper-90s. He was young, he was successful. He seemed destined to become the biggest sports acquisition from Japan ever.
It was that hype that also earned what was, at the time, the largest posting fee ever as the Red Sox bid over $51 million just for the right to negotiate a deal with him. That figure was nearly three times larger than Seibu's entire payroll. After tense negotiations, the Red Sox signed Matsuzaka to a contract valued at $52 million for six years. With such a large sum of cash invested in him, his media following was enormous and fans flocked to see him pitch.
How did he pan out: At first, he looked like he might live up to the hype. His first season had its ups and downs as he struck out over 200 batters, but had a 4.40 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. The following year is when he started to show a little more, earning fourth place in Cy Young voting with a 2.90 ERA. However, his strong ERA and a low BABIP belied worse stats in other categories. His walk rate shot up to five per nine innings and his strikeouts dropped some. If not for some luck, he could easily have had a worse year than his rookie season.
His luck from his sophomore year didn't hold up. His walk rate remained elevated and his hit totals jumped back to normal. He missed nearly half of his third season due to injury and, when he was healthy, posted a 5.76 ERA. He never really recovered from that, though his contract kept him in the majors. From 2009 through 2013 (he spent last year with the Mets), he pitched in 63 games and had a 5.41 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. Whether it was a rash of injuries or whether he wasn't as good as advertised, Matsuzaka has been one of the biggest busts to come over from Japan.
Career in Japan: Igawa had ups and downs with the Hanshin Tigers. His first two years were poor as he pitched part-time, mostly in a relief role. He broke out as a 21-year-old in 2001 with a 2.67 ERA and was excellent in the two following years as well. He then fell back towards the middle of the pack as far as Japan pitchers go with an ERA in the high 3.00s the next two seasons. He had a resurgence in 2006 before being posted, with a 2.97 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 194 strikeouts. After walking high number of batters early in his career, it appeared his command had improved greatly just before moving to America.
The hype: The Red Sox beat out the Yankees (among others) for Matsuzaka. So, the Yankees went with the next best Japanese pitcher to be posted that offseason in Kei Igawa. While he was often looked over in favor of Matsuzaka, Igawa was a highly regarded pitcher in his own right.
Matsuzaka was supposed to be the ace. Igawa was supposed to be a steady middle-of-the-rotation pitcher who could keep his team in the game every outing, garnering comparisons to Jarrod Washburn. However, his numbers in Japan generated some hesitation among people in baseball, who thought Igawa might end up being a bust.
The Yankees ended up bidding over $26 million to negotiate with Igawa, then gave the left-hander $20 million for five years.
How did he pan out: Igawa's first start came on April 7, 2007 against the Orioles. He pitched five innings, allowing seven runs on eight hits and three walks while striking out two. That's a pretty good corollary for how the rest of his career went. He made 14 appearances in his rookie year, posting a 6.25 ERA. The next season, he had just a brief stay in the majors and allowed six runs in four innings. He spent the next few years permanently embroiled in the New York minor league system, finding moderate success. He went unsigned after his original deal with the Yankees expired.
Igawa and Matsuzaka are the key players brought up in conversation when discussing whether Masahiro Tanaka might end up being a bust. However, there is one major league player whom Tanaka has been more oft-compared to, and he is looking like he'll be the most successful yet.
Career in Japan: It's shocking just how good Darvish was in Japan. In 2005 he was 18 years old and had a 3.53 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 94 innings. And that was by far the worst season he ever had on the island. The following year he broke out with a 2.89 ERA and upped his strikeout totals to 115 in 150 innings. Then he went on an unprecedented run. Darvish maintained an ERA under 2.00 in each of the following five years with a WHIP below 0.90 in four of the five. He began striking more and more batters out while lowing his walk rate. In 2011, just before being posted, Darvish had one of the most outstanding seasons of any pitcher in a professional league ever. Over 28 starts he averaged 8⅓ innings per outing, allowed just 37 earned runs over 232 innings, struck out 276 batters, walked just 36 and had an incredible 0.83 WHIP.
The hype: The talk around Darvish was at a fever pitch only comparable to that of Matsuzaka. For years teams waited in eager anticipation for Darvish to finally make the move to the MLB. From his outstanding age-20 season through the next few years. Before he even signed in Japan after his high school career -- even well he was still in junior high! -- major league squads were champing at the bit to get him. However, Darvish always wanted to play in Japan first.
His performances in the 2009 World Baseball Classic only elevated his status higher as he struck out 20 hitters in 13 innings while posting a 2.08 ERA. Even Tanaka himself, after winning the Pitcher of the Year award over Darvish in 2011, said "I only had better numbers than [Darvish] ... As a pitcher, I'm nowhere near his caliber." So when he was finally posted by Nippon, excitement was at a fever pitch.
That led to an unprecedented deal as the Rangers paid $51.7 million for the rights to negotiate with Darvish, then ultimately signed him to a $60 million deal.
How did he pan out: So far, so good. He has only had two years and, as was seen with Nomo and Matsuzaka, a Japanese pitcher can struggle after that first initial test. Darvish appears to be different, though. Certainly no Japanese pitcher has ever matched his 2013 season when he had a 2.83 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, and a league-leading 277 strikeouts.
Darvish has never had the command issues that other Japanese pitchers have had, either. His repertoire is more overpowering. He was the best pitcher in Japan in his time there and, despite finishing second for the AL Cy Young award last year, is on the shortlist for best pitchers in the world.
Time will tell if Darvish can keep it up, but for now he appears set to become far and away the best Japanese pitcher -- and perhaps player -- to ever play in Major League Baseball. Masahiro Tanaka can only hope to impress as much as Darvish has.
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