Baseball: Japan at San Francisco Giants

Masahiro Tanaka became a New York Yankee today. As inevitable as it feels now, it was certainly in doubt for quite a while. The Cubs, the Dodgers, and even the Astros were in the running for the services for the Japanese workhorse. But in the end, it wasn’t ever close.

As it turns out, offering to pay much much much more money than the other teams works almost every time in the “player acquisition” game. Sweet as calling on an old horse like Hideki Matsui to extoll the virtues of the pinstripes is, the money was more than enough to get Tanaka’s name on a contract.

The money and the opt-out, leaving the former Rakuten Eagle with a chance to test free agency again before he turns 30 – a recent wrinkle to the FA process with that benefits each side if you look at the right angle.

So what do the Yankees get for their very large outlay of cash? They a lot, really. They get what they need more than nearly every other team in baseball – a chance to compete.

As mentioned in my discussion with Yankees writer Mike Axisa earlier today, competing for playoff berths means everything to Yankees franchise. Not just because of their legacy and tradition, but to the bottom line. Reports suggest the Yankees lost $60 mil in ticket revenue alone in 2013 thanks to the uninspiring roster of retreads they ran out for eight months. Decreased ticket sales and depressed TV ratings? What they pay in luxury tax could pale in comparison to another season lost at sea in the AL East.

While Masahiro Tanaka doesn’t guarantee playoff dates all on his own, he gives the Yankees options and limits the number of spots still unclaimed. He also, based on his success in the NPB, represent a player with a reasonably high floor. A player with a minimal chance of washing out completely…probably.

Tanaka is no slam dunk, though scouting reports and video evidence against admittedly overmatched Japanese hitters make it tough to imagine anybody touching him. R.J. Anderson of Baseball Prospectus pulls back the curtain a little in his Transaction Analysis, pointing to his “drive and drop” style and relatively diminutive size as reason to worry about his fastball plane. And though he can dial it up to the upper nineties on occasion, he still lives right on the average of a right-handed starting pitcher in the low 90s.

Tanaka is often credited (here, for instance) with being different than a “typical” Japanese pitcher. He doesn’t throw the kitchen sink up there, throwing countless pitches and arm angles at hitters hellbent on fouling off pitches and asking questions later.

His a fastball/splitter pitcher, with a slider he can work in as required. Not many starters feature the splitter as their number two offering. The two starters who threw splitters the most frequently in 2013? Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda. And what do those two players have in common? They’re both very good at keeping the ball in the ballpark with their split-fingered fastball.

Below is a video of the last splitter hit for a home run of Big Hiroki Kuroda. The date? June 25th, 2011.

You might quibble with the difference between missing barrels (like Kuroda) and missing bats (like Yu Darvish) but Tanaka looks like a player with the right skill set to thrive in the tight confines of Yankee Stadium. A hopeful mark for those looking to draw a circle around the expected performance of Tanaka. At the very least, the Yankees did their homework and have a great idea as to what they just bought.

There is always injury risk, an examination of which requires a two-pronged approach. Number one: Japanese pitchers might throw more pitches than their North American counterparts but they do so with a great rest period. Number two: he’s still a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt. It’s true, they do. All the time. If you’re reading this and you’re a pitcher, you could get hurt just reading this sentence. The one that just ended. That comma splice? Tommy John. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Good luck with your rehab.

The Yankees didn’t solve all their problems and roster shortcomings with this one signing. Even after inking Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Brian Roberts, and Brendan Ryan, there is a lot of work left to do if the Yanks expect to compete with Boston, Tampa Bay and the rest of the AL class.

But they gave themselves options. They reduced the number of wildcards in their starting rotation by one. They showed they will not be outbid on a player that suits their needs and they showed the luxury tax threshold was a nice little diversion for a couple years but ultimately meaningless. Winning is crucial to their business in a very real way. They must do what they can to increase their odds of winning, using the full brunt of their financial heft to get it done.

They got it done with Mashairo Tanaka. The Yankees made the kind of splash that only the Yankees can make. The Dodgers might spend dollar for dollar with the team from the Bronx but it only feels dirty and wrong when the Steinbrennars do it. I don’t make the rules, this is just the way it works. And will continue working into the future. Forever.