Baseball: Japan at San Francisco Giants

New Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka left Japan this past weekend and will be officially introduced to the New York media on Tuesday. If the stories we’ve seen so far are any indication, expect a New York writer or two to invoke the dreaded name of Kei Igawa, immortal Yankee failure. See stories from when news broke of Tanaka’s signing with the Yankees in late January. Bloomberg Businessweek, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and others joined in the fun, unsurprisingly, since dropping the Igawa name around Yankees fans is a good bet to elicit a reaction (and a click).

So, before any reporters ask any stupid questions at Tuesday’s presser, let’s get this out of the way: in no way is Kei Igawa an apt comparison for Masahiro Tanaka, other than the fact that they played in the same league before heading stateside.

Igawa spent six full seasons and parts of two others with the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Central League. Although his most recognized season came in 2003 as a 23-year-old, when he won the Central League MVP (as well as the Pitcher MVP, its Cy Young equivalent), one could argue he was actually better in 2002. In both seasons he was dominant, as he tossed over 200 innings in 29 starts, posted a K/BB over 3.00 and an ERA under 3.00. His 2.49 ERA and 3.82 K/BB went unrecognized in 2002 as the Tigers finished four games under .500, but his 2.80 ERA and 3.02 K/BB in 2003 were for a pennant-winning club and thus led to greater awards visibility.

2004 and 2005 were struggles for Igawa. He posted a career best 4.22 K/BB in 2004, but saw his home run rate double, a trend that continued into 2005. In 2005, he ranked fifth out of his five teammates with at least 20 starts in the following categories: ERA, WHIP, H/9, HR/9, BB/9, and K/BB.

2006 saw improvement, as he lowered his ERA to 2.97 and posted another sparkling 3.96 K/BB. But the league had changed drastically from the past two years, as runs per game dropped from 4.7 in 2004 to just 4.1 in 2006. The driver behind this drop was almost entirely a dearth of home runs — home runs per game dropped from 1.30 in 2004 to 0.93 in 2006. And so while it was certainly good news for Igawa that his HR/9 dropped from 1.3 in 2004 (and 1.2 in 2005) to 0.7 in 2006, much of it could be attributed to changes in the league as opposed to changes in talent.

But Igawa’s ERA had dropped to 2.97, and people unfamiliar with the changes in Japanese baseball — i.e. Americans — may not have recognized the factors behind it. As such, it was easy for Igawa to sell his 2006 season as a return to form, something that likely influenced the Yankees’ willingness to drop $26 million on the posting fee and $20 million over four years for a contract.

In 2006, Igawa was a distant second on his own staff in ERA and third in HR/9, although his 3.96 K/BB was by far the best of the 2006 Tigers. But his stuff — an 87-90 MPH fastball, a changeup and a slider — hardly screamed ace, or even solid No. 3 starter. Igawa was an abject failure in MLB, as he posted the ERA of the Beast (6.66) in 71 2/3 innings with the Yankees.

It’s worth bringing up Igawa’s statistics relative to his teammates (and not just the league) because of so many stories like the ones linked above calling Igawa an ace of the staff. Although he was certainly treated as such — thank his great seasons in 2002 and 2003 for that — his numbers didn’t suggest he was even the best pitcher on his team.

Tanaka, on the other hand, was the ace of his Rakuten Golden Eagles’ staff for the past five years. Even at age 20, when he was pitching next to Hisashi Iwakuma, Tanaka stood out as clearly the best pitcher on his team, leading in ERA, K/BB, K/9, BB/9, WHIP and IP in 2009. After ceding the throne briefly to Iwakuma in 2010, Tanaka dominated for the next three years, posting not just the best marks on his team but arguably three of the top five seasons in NPB history.

Consider, Kei Igawa’s final three seasons before heading stateside:

2004: 200.1 IP, 3.73 ERA, 10.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9
2005: 172.1 IP, 3.86 ERA, 7.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9
2006: 209.0 IP, 2.97 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9

And Tanaka’s

2011: 226.1 IP, 1.27 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9
2012: 173.0 IP, 1.87 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 0.2 HR/9
2013: 212.0 IP, 1.27 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9

The 2011 and 2012 NPB, it must be noted, were a pitcher’s heaven. Teams scored only 3.2 R/G over those two seasons as home run rates plummeted to just 0.5 runs per game. But in 2013, as the league introduced a new ball to increase home run rates (with some controversy), runs per game increased to just under 4.0, similar to the league Igawa faced in 2006. And not only did Tanaka handle the change well, he actually improved his ERA and maintained his ability to keep the ball in the park.

From 2011-2013, Tanaka led Rakuten in ERA, K/BB, K/9, BB/9, HR/9 and WHIP each season. He was a transcendent player, as he contributed heavily to the young franchise’s first winning season in 2009 and carried the team on his back to its first championship in 2013. He wasn’t just a Japanese staff ace, he defines the Japanese staff ace. His stuff — a mid-90s fastball, a devastating splitter, and a solid slider — far outpaces what Igawa showed at the end of his Japanese career as well.

Of course, this won’t stop the comparisons, and it won’t guarantee Tanaka avoids Igawa’s fate as an MLB failure. But the truth is simple: unfavorably attaching Tanaka to Igawa simply because they played in the same league and were at one time the best players on their respective staffs is lazy, and any analysis attempting such a ploy should be dismissed as such.