Should More Major League Teams be Trying to Sign Starting Pitchers Out of Japan?
Top notch pitching in the American League
Early on this season, Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish have been two of the best starters in the American League. Both starters were signed out of Japan to very large contracts, without ever having pitched in the big leagues before being guaranteed the money given to them by the Rangers and Yankees. Giving out large contracts to unproven starters was considered unwise at the time, but to this point these Japanese starting pitchers have worked out in a big way. Neither of these signings were mistakes though, because Tanaka and Darvish are the cream of the crop among professional starting pitchers to develop in the Nippon Professional Baseball League. In 2012 the Mariners signed Hisashi Iwakuma as a 30 year old starting pitcher out of Japan, and they were able to acquire him at a very affordable rate on a one year contract. Signing the younger stars out of Nippon Professional Baseball, has proven to be very costly, but signing some of the pitchers in their mid to late 20s may not be nearly as costly. The failure of Daisuke Matsuzaka in Boston, brings the potential negative side of things to the surface when teams are considering signing a Japanese star pitcher.
So far this season, both Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka are both striking out more than nine batters per nine innings. This is significant because pitchers who strike out a batter per inning or more, generally have a significant amount of success if they are not putting many runners on base via walks. Baseball reference shows that early on this season, Tanaka is striking out 10.1 batters per nine innings while only walking 1.4 batters per nine innings. He has only hit two batters on the season, so his early success appears sustainable if he keeps up the strong command to go along with his great deception with the splitter. Yu Darvish has always had a very strong strikeout per nine rate, but in his first season in 2012, he walked 4.2 batters per nine innings. This walk rate resulted in the highest earned runs average of his career at 3.90. In 2013 Darvish was able to decrease his walk per nine rate to 3.4, and so far this season he has decreased it to 2.7 walks per nine. His earned runs average has followed the decrease in walk rate, as it was 2.83 in 2013 and is 2.08 so far in 2014. Last season Darvish was able to strike out 11.9 batters per nine innings, and this season to this point he is striking out 10.8 batters per nine innings. The impressive strikeout rates in the Major Leagues for these two former Nippon stars, is a huge key to their success at the highest level of professional baseball.
So far this season, Masahiro Tanaka's ability to avoid walking batters has allowed him to average over seven innings in the eleven starts he has made. For Yu Darvish this season, he is averaging almost seven innings per start, and has reached the 200 inning mark for a single season, already in his young Major League career. In 2013 he passed that 200 inning mark in a fall season's worth of work, while averaging 6.6 innings per start. Going all the way back to his rookie season in the big leagues in 2012, he also averaged 6.6 innings per start and pitched over 191 innings in 29 starts. The ability of these two star pitchers to put away batters quickly, plays a huge role in their efficiency as innings eaters. While both Texas and New York paid market value for these ace pitchers at the time, so far they have proved to be well worth it because their performance so far is everything a Major League team looks for in an ace starter. A look at other starters to come over from Nippon Professional Baseball will give a better idea of what type of investment is required by Major League teams in order to see good returns on their investment.
Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma and Daisuke Matsuzaka
Hiroki Kuroda has been a dependable middle of the rotation starter for years now, ever since the Dodgers signed him out of Nippon Professional Baseball before the 2008 season. Every full season that Kuroda has played in the big leagues, he has posted an earned runs average below four and that is with him being age 33 or older in every season he has played in the majors. Hisashi Iwakuma is another pitcher who came to the states and started a Major League career at age 30. As a long time Nippon Baseball star, Iwakuma was a very good investment for the Mariners and has put together solid seasons in each of his first two years with Seattle. In 2013 Iwakuma was an American League Cy Young contender who threw nearly 220 innings with an earned runs average of 2.66. While Iwakuma does not have the strikeout rates that Darvish and Tanaka have, he is very stingy with the walks and his strikeout rates are still solid. Daisuke Matsuzaka is the interesting name in this group, because he is largely regarded as an expensive failure because of his time with the Red Sox. Matsuzaka has shown flashes of his ability over the years with the Red Sox and now with the Mets. Overall, his contract with the Red Sox was never lived up to and his major league career has been a disappointment. Daisuke is the only one of the recent Nippon Baseball stars to disappoint in his chance at the big league level.
More Major League Teams should be targeting Japanese pitchers who decide to enter the Major League Baseball free agent talent pool. Not every pitcher from Japan is guaranteed to have success in the majors, not even the stars, but the recent success by Nippon stars suggest that it is a wise investment. Baseball in Japan has progressed enough recently that these pitchers who are stars over there can be middle of the rotation fixtures or even ace pitchers at the highest level of professional baseball. While the young stars from Japan are going to be more pricey, teams without large revenue streams can target some of the older stars from Japan in order to negotiate more affordable contracts. Overall the pitching talent in Japan is very strong, and this becomes evident every few years when the World Baseball Classic is played before the start of the Major League Baseball season.