How Masahiro Tanaka Could Affect the Rangers


The Rangers signed Shin-soo Choo and in doing so took themselves out of the Masahiro Tanaka equation. The Angels, however, are still in play.

Though the Angels have been burned badly on their last two free agent acquisitions (Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols), they apparently are quite serious about their interest in the Japanese hurler.

Dec 11, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana (right) walks through the lobby during the MLB Winter Meetings at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. Tachibana has not decided whether or not to allow Masahiro Tanaka (not pictured) to sign with a MLB team now that Nippon Professional Baseball and the MLB have agreed on a $20 Million maximum posting bid. Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

It’s probably fair to say that most people expect the Angels to finish third in their division or, depending on how lucky the Mariners get, even fourth. While saying one player will turn a middling squad into a playoff contender is, in every non-Mike Trout case, a stretch, Tanaka could put a middling AL West team (in other words a potentially fringe-playoff team) over the top.

Tanaka is projected to be, roughly, a number two starter. Since Joe Blanton has even a small shot at the Angel’s rotation, they obviously could use a final piece. Tanaka won’t solve all of the Angels problems, but he could solidify a rotation that, depending on the growth of Tyler Skaggs, the recovery of Jered Weaver, and the continued success of C.J. Wilson, could be an above average unit. Projecting Tanaka, however, is difficult. This Baseball America article gives him a 70 splitter, 60 slider and what sounds like a plus fastball that is rather flat. I’ll call it average, but it could be slightly above or below.

*A quick note on Tanaka’s splitter: even though the same author of the previously linked article was quoted as saying (via Grantland) that Tanaka possessed “arguably the best splitter in the world,” he still gave the pitch a 70 {out of 80). Why that is, I don’t know. 

Anyway, so he has a 50ish/60/70 repetoire, which sounds similar to (off the top of my head) Hyun-Jin Ryu (switch out the slider for an occasional curveball) and Hiroki Kuroda. (You could make a case for Anibal Sanchez but he won’t be included. He has a better fastball than either Ryu or Kuroda and a worse secondary offering (though it is a nice offering in its own right, especially when he subtracts 18mph)).

Let’s look at those two pitchers. Ryu and Kuroda both posted a K/9 around 7 , and had a similar xFIP (3.46 vs. 3.60). They also threw around 200 innings and posted WARs (no idea if WAR can be used as a plural) over 3. While they aren’t the exact same pitcher, their results do have some similarities, and their repertoire’s match both Tanaka’s (especially Kuroda) closely enough that I’m comfortable using them.

So based on my extremely unscientific guesstimation, let’s say that Tanaka accounts for roughly 200 innings, a 3.30 ERA and a 3.55 xFIP (totally pulling those numbers out of my ass but whatever.) Using only those three numbers would make him somewhat close to: Ubaldo Jimenez, Ryu (obviously), and Gio Gonzalez. It would make him barely close to: Jordan Zimmerman (off on innings pitched), Mike Leake (xFIP), C.J. Wilson (.10 off on ERA, xFIP) and John Lackey (ERA). Other than Leake, those pitchers all posted WARs over 3 and many around 3.5.

So, based on asinine “research”, a Masahiro Tanaka who maximizes his potential could reach a 3-3.5 WAR peak.

Jul 22, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels starter Joe Blanton (55) delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The real question is: how much better is that than Garrett Richards or Joe Blanton? Tanaka would be 1.6-2.1 WAR better than Blanton (projected with Steamer) and 1.4-1.9 WAR better than Richards. That requires one to trust either projection system. While the results they have for Richards seem fair, the ones for Blanton are (in my opinion) grossly optimistic. He hasn’t posted an ERA below 4.8 since 2009, and hasn’t posted an HR/9 rate below 1.00 since 2007. While both of those numbers are known to fluctuate and usually shouldn’t be used to predict future success/failure, the fact that both of these numbers have been consistently poor for so long implies that they probably won’t significantly better any time soon.

All of this means that we should be exchanging Tanaka for Richards and moving on from there. But, surprising considering his bizarrely low strikeout rate, Richards has an excellent fastball that routinely hits in the mid-to-high nineties. With his arm action, it is entirely possible that he could be sent to the bullpen (assuming Blanton has at least a competent Spring Training) and Tanaka could actually replace Blanton, who profiles worse in the bullpen due to his average-at-best fastball.

Assume  Blanton is replaced. Also, let’s give Blanton a new projection in an attempt to correct Steamer’s grossly optimistic one. Let’s say that he posts a WAR of 0. That is, he is a replacement level pitcher. He has pitched like one for at least the last three years and arguably four.  The last two seasons, the Angels were expected to be one of the top teams in baseball, and in both years, they obviously weren’t. With the degradation of Pujols and Hamilton seemingly underway, a realistic expectation would (especially with an improved rotation) be a fringe playoff contender. Adding 3-4 wins from Tanaka (giving him the most generous projection), the Angels could go from 84-87 game winners to 87-91 game winners, which should at least let

September 23, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Garrett Richards (43) pitches during the second inning against the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

them compete for a wild-card spot.

The real question is whether or not the Angels are actually fringe-playoff contenders. I’m frankly inclined to say they aren’t, but their rotation is so vastly improved compared to last year that, without Tanaka, it wouldn’t be a truly wild idea. Considering they have interest in dropping 120m to sign another free agent to a long-term deal, it appears they think they are. Or at least their GM Jerry DiPoto, in a walk year, wants to do something to convince owner Arte Moreno that they are.

In a piece of ground-breaking analysis, I’m going to venture that adding another team to the wild-card fray will make it less likely that the Rangers reach the playoffs. On a smaller level, a three game series featuring Weaver, Wilson, and Tanaka could end up deciding the AL West or second wild-card slot. Still, I think the Rangers and A’s battle it out for the West/Wildcard 1 while Los Angeles stays home, even if they do get Tanaka. The Yankees are considerably improved and could eat a slot, while the Rays will still be there. The Indians and (to a lesser extent) the Royals will be battling too. Essentially, there are so many horses in the race that a solid Angels team still has a low chance of actually making the cut.