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Let's be honest for a moment: If Masahiro Tanaka were American, there would've long ago been riots within the baseball world about the manifold abuses on his right arm. Managers would've been under fire, biomechanical experts would've screamed limbicide and the prevailing story about his free agency wouldn't be the massive bidding war it is currently inspiring. It would focus on just how many years the club that signs him will get before his elbow or shoulder cry uncle.
Inside front offices around baseball, Tanaka-mania is brewing and almost certain to wind up with the 25-year-old right-hander landing a $100 million contract on top of the $20 million posting fee due his team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles. The fervor is not entirely contagious. A number of executives surveyed by Yahoo Sports copped to a mild case of fear borne of what we think we know, which is that a lot of pitches do not bode well for the long-term health of an arm. Granted, our actual knowledge of the arm remains in its embryonic stages, and the whole what-we-think-we-know thing may turn out to be complete bunk.
Still, that is what guides the market today, and so here is the reality about Tanaka on the minds of teams interested and not: Over the last five years, he has averaged more pitches per start, 113.3, than any pitcher in the major leagues. The closest is Justin Verlander at 112.9 and Felix Hernandez ranks second at 106.5. And it's not just the per-game haul. Some of the individual outings Tanaka has logged horrify the pitch-count phobes.
There were the 742 pitches Tanaka threw over six starts in a two-week span as a 17-year-old at the national high school baseball tournament. And the back-to-back 137- and 142-pitch starts at 20 years old. The coup de grace came during the Japan Series this season, in which Tanaka went 160 pitches during a Game 6 loss, then came back the next day and threw another 15 in relief to close out Rakuten's championship victory.
Lauded in Japan for his courage and tenacity, Tanaka came off to judicious front offices as reckless.
"It worries me a lot," one NL executive said.
"Not ideal," one general manager said.
"There is definitely reason for concern," another GM said.
Since 2009, only Edwin Jackson and Tim Lincecum have exceeded 140 pitches in MLB, and those were in no-hitters. Tanaka topped 140 three times. He went 130 or more in 15 of 123 starts. In 24,300 starts over the last five years, all major league pitchers have gone 130-plus a combined 23 times. Tanaka has nearly twice the 125-plus-pitch starts of the next-highest pitcher (31 to Verlander's 18) and his 50 120-plus outings tops Verlander's 45.
"Unless he's an outlier," one of the GMs said, "just a tough thing to bet on."
He acknowledged a simple truth, however, that applies to Tanaka, or any high-impact free agent, really: Interested teams, even smart ones, suspend rational thought in pursuit of diamonds that may well have large and visible inclusions. Every team in baseball loves Tanaka's stuff, and that blinds many to the other stuff like wear and tear on his arm. His 91-mph fastball plays up because of the command. His split-fingered fastball may well be the best in the world. As blogger Clint Hulsey showed, Tanaka's arsenal is wide and deep, enough to inspire the rare cross-cultural comparison: prime Dan Haren, who was a high-strikeout, low-walk, innings-eating workhorse.
Enough confusion remains about the Japanese way of rearing arms that nobody is quite sure how they'll hold up. When Daisuke Matsuzaka, like Tanaka a high-volume monster, arrived in the United States, the Red Sox had him undergo an MRI, and his shoulder was clean. Two years later, when he went into the machine again, his shoulder showed damage, and eventually his elbow bore the brunt of it with a torn ligament.
Does Japan know something MLB doesn't? Was it just time for Matsuzaka's arm to go, like so many believe it is, an eventuality that happens to all but the truly lucky? Did the change from pitching every seven days, as starters in Japan usually do, to four days' rest damage him irrevocably? These are questions to which nobody knows the answer.
Perhaps there is a physiological difference with Japanese pitchers. Executives who have seen medicals for some Japanese pitchers who have arrived within the last decade said ones that have raised red flags proved durable as can be. Of course, every Japanese pitcher does not go through the exact same training regimen, and cultural similarities run only so far, and to lump them all together, even when there's a pattern, tends not to be the preferred way to run a ballclub.
Just think of it this way: There was a pitcher in recent years whose usage patterns were just as bad, if not worse, than Tanaka's. He didn't throw as large a number of pitches in high school, nor were his teenage years riddled with innings like Tanaka, who went 359 innings in his ages 18 and 19 seasons. This pitcher did average 121 pitches per game in his three years before coming to MLB, however, and over those seasons he did crack the 130-pitch mark 24 times, the 140-pitch mark 10 and hit 150 and 156 in consecutive starts as a 23-year-old, according to data at NPB Tracker .
His name: Yu Darvish. And he finished second in AL Cy Young voting this season.
"He's also much bigger and stronger than Tanaka," the NL executive said, and he's not wrong. Darvish is a 6-foot-5 beast. Tanaka is listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. Then again, nobody knows for sure that size breeds durability. It is one of those mysteries that time and science may solve, which doesn't exactly help those who are preparing nine-figure investments in someone about whom one of the GMs says: "He might be 25 years old, but his arm is not."
Whichever team signs him will ignore that and point to Darvish, or Hiroki Kuroda, or Hisashi Iwakuma, or any of the other great successes from Japan who have emboldened teams to spend after investments in Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa cratered. This is not a market that cares to sweat the details like 160-pitch outings followed by more the next day. That splitter is just too beautiful for it to matter.