Masahiro Tanaka: The Big If

Tanaka

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Why are major league teams salivating over Masahiro Tanaka? Why is one Japanese team frothing at the mouth? Why so much speculation, so many headlines, all the trans-Pacific negotiations over the posting system? If he goes, and it's still a big naraba, what will he go for?

Is Ma-Kun, as he is known in Japan, really worth it? The short answer is yes.

Imagine a charismatic 6-foot-2, 205-pound right-hander who just turned 25 and finished the regular season with a record of 24-0 and an ERA of 1.27. Actually, you don't have to imagine it because that is what Tanaka did before leading the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to the first Japan Series championship in their nine-year history.

His control has been compared to that of Greg Maddux, his fastball to that of Roger Clemens and his split-finger to that of Koji Uehara. As for his stamina, try Grover Cleveland Alexander.

He not only won his second Eiji Sawamura Award as Japan's best pitcher but also the Pacific League MVP with all 233 first-place votes -- the first unanimous selection since 1965. In seven seasons with the Eagles, his ERA is 2.30 and his WHIP is 1.108.

When he saved the Eagles' Game 7 victory over the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series -- a day after throwing 160 pitches in his only 2013 loss -- he lifted up not only the 25,249 faithful in Sendai's Kleenex Stadium but the entire Tohoku region that had been devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Eagles teammate Casey McGehee calls him a "friggin' rock star," and, in fact, Ma-Kun is married to Japanese pop star Mai Satoda. As for his own taste in music, he likes to enter games to a tune by the Funky Monkey Babys: " Ato Hitotsu" ("After One").

If a team needs a No. 1 or No. 2 starter for its rotation, Tanaka might be just the guy. His peer and countryman Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers just finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting.

And if a club is looking for a way to increase revenue, Tanaka offers all sorts of branding and marketing opportunities, not to mention a boost in local hospitality revenue as a result of the legion of Japanese media members who will be following him.

We're talking about someone who helped draw more than 200,000 people to the parade celebrating the Eagles' championship at the end of November.

Under the old math, it cost the Rangers a $51.7 million posting fee to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and then a six-year, $60 million contract to land Darvish after the 2011 season. But the posting system then in effect heavily favored large-market MLB clubs capable of throwing around money that would not count against the luxury tax while at the same time limiting the negotiation leverage for the players, who could sign only with the team that won the bid.

Now, under the agreement finalized earlier this week, the maximum posting bid is $20 million, and every MLB team that goes that high -- there are expected to be several for Tanaka -- has 30 days in which to entice a player. It's a much better deal for MLB teams and Japanese players but a bummer for the Japanese team that loses a player of Tanaka's potential. Rakuten would get $31.7 million less than the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters received for Darvish.

So there is still some question as to whether the Eagles will let him go. If they do, though, the bidding for his services will be fierce. Do we hear $100 million?

All Tanaka heard last spring, though, were whispers. A celebrity since he led his team to the championship of Summer Koshien (a national high school baseball tournament) as a junior back in 2005, Ma-Kun did not look good in the training camp for the World Baseball Classic. A lackluster appearance against Brazil had his coaches wondering what to do with him and Japanese fans worrying about their supposed ace. Their concerns seemed justified when he entered a first-round game against Cuba in the Fukuoka Dome, down 1-0 in the fourth inning, and promptly gave up two hits, including an RBI double, and then a third hit after a strikeout.

The Japanese have an expression: Jinsei wa naniga okoruka wakaranai, which, loosely translated, means "You never really know what's going to happen in life." Though Japan would eventually lose that WBC game to Cuba, Tanaka seemed to find himself after the rough beginning, trusting his off-speed pitches and striking out five straight batters swinging.

With each K, the electricity in the crowd built, and so did his confidence. Tanaka is usually demonstrative on the mound, fist-pumping and yelling after a big out, but after the fifth strikeout against Cuba, he walked off with a cool look of determination on his face, as if he had figured it out. The WBC would be a disappointment for Japan -- it lost to Puerto Rico in the semifinals -- but it would provide Tanaka with the epiphany that led to one of the best seasons a pitcher on either side of Pacific has ever had.

The 24-0 record and the 1.27 ERA are self-explanatory. He faced 822 batters and gave up only six home runs in a season when a rejuvenated ball (the specs had been secretly changed before the 2013 season to bump up offense) helped Wladimir Balentien of the Yakult Swallows hit 60 homers. He had a WHIP of 0.943, 183 strikeouts in 212 innings and eight complete games -- uh, eight more than Max Scherzer had in winning the 2013 AL Cy Young Award.

Before he lost Game 6 of the Japan Series, Tanaka had won 30 straight starts over two seasons -- six more than the major league record set by Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants in 1936-37. He also saved one game in the regular season, one in the playoffs and Game 7 of the Series. Oh, and he won his third straight Gold Glove.

If his numbers aren't convincing enough, try these endorsements:

McGehee, who played five seasons in the majors before joining the Eagles last season: "He's a competitor, and that's the thing everybody likes most about him. The bigger the situation, the bigger jam he's in, he seems to always have another gear. You forget that he's only 25 -- he's wise beyond his years … If I was in a situation to have him on a team, I'd take him any day, anywhere, any time."

Marty Kuehnert, the American who serves as a senior adviser for the Eagles after signing Tanaka when he was the club's GM: "The first thing we could see when we got him was that he was much more mature than your average high school player. He just had that presence on the mound, like he was just in control from the get-go. Since then, he's gotten even more confident. And he's gotten bigger. He's gained a lot of muscle, kind of like Darvish, and he's getting an awful lot smarter."

Eagles pitcher and eight-year major league veteran Brandon Duckworth: "First and foremost, he throws pretty hard. Then, there's the split-finger, which he throws with the same arm speed so that it comes out just like a fastball. It's crazy because that thing just falls off the table."

Craig Brazell, the Chiba Lotte first baseman who had cups of coffee with the Mets and Royals: "His split is one of the best I have ever seen. When facing him this year, you just had to hope he made a mistake over the plate, and he did not make many of them."

A Japanese baseball writer, patting his chest for emphasis: "He's so strong in his heart."

Former Lotte Orions (now the Lotte Marines) pitcher Choji Murata, a 215-game winner: "While there was the fuss about the ball, he didn't back away from anyone. You rarely find that kind of performance anywhere in the world."

Eagles pitcher Jim Heuser: "It's been a lot of fun watching him kick it in gear, watching him just flip the switch when he needs to. Just from watching him last year, you see how he's grown. You can tell if he goes to the States, he's gonna be a good weapon for whatever team."

An unnamed MLB scout: "You can't really say for sure, but he's got the stuff, the ability and the mentality to be as good as anybody who's gone over."

The long (and getting longer) list of Japanese pitchers in the majors seems equally divided between seikou (Darvish, Uehara, Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda) and shitsubou ( Hideki Irabu, Kazuhito Tadano, Kei Igawa, Daisuke Matsuzaka. But Tanaka seems as sure a thing as Darvish was when he was signed at the age of 25, coming off an 18-6 season with the Fighters.

There are differences, though. Darvish has a relatively smooth delivery that belies the velocity of his pitches, while Tanaka seems to pause over his right leg before uncoiling his arm with a force that produces tremendous speed and/or spin.

Darvish is shy and businesslike, which makes the softer light in Texas a good fit for him. Tanaka is more approachable and personable -- the bigger fishbowls in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago should not be a problem for him.

Tanaka also likes to have a little fun. When the Eagles won the Japan Series, they did not forget Darrell Rasner, their American reliever who had gone home to the States for Tommy John surgery toward the end of the season. Reliever Koji Aoyama brought a cardboard cutout of Rasner onto the field, and Tanaka posed for pictures with his two-dimensional American friend. After the Eagles won the Pacific League pennant, Aoyama put on Rasner's uniform, which cracked Tanaka up when he saw it near the mound during the celebration. Tanaka turned Aoyama around and took a picture with him so that Rasner's name was showing on the uniform next to Ma-Kun.

Tanaka should also do just fine with American hitters, at least according to Tony Barnette, a pitcher with the Yakult Swallows. "The team that gets him will have to hold his hand a little bit in spring training to make sure he's comfortable and confident in the American game, but I don't see too many adjustments needing to be made. He and Darvish are both smart guys with a lot of confidence. And in America, they can throw their power stuff at the bottom of the strike zone, which just drives guys crazy."

There is one skeptic, however. After the season, Yu Darvish was asked on Twitter about Tanaka's MLB prospects. "You can't really say about any player," he tweeted, "but you never know until you actually go over there."

In other words, Jinsei wa naniga okoruka wakaranai.

If seeing is believing, then this might up the bidding.

It's the middle of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series. The day before, Tanaka had thrown 160 pitches in a 4-2 loss to the Giants. But now the Eagles, who had never been in the Series before, have a 3-0 lead over a franchise that has won 22 of them. And Ma-Kun is warming up in the bullpen of Kleenex Stadium, which had been damaged by the flooding that followed the quake.

A light rain has begun to fall. You see the Eagles manager, Senichi Hoshino, talking to the plate umpire and smiling. (The last manager to ask his best pitcher to do such a thing was Rogers Hornsby of the Cardinals in 1926, when he called on Grover Alexander to close out the Yankees in Game 7.)

The Japanese play-by-play announcer says, " Tanaka Masahiro desu!" ("It's Masahiro Tanaka!") The color man responds, " Sugoi na!" ("Amazing!")

As No. 18 warms up, the fans begin to sing along to the Funky Monkey Babys song while clapping their orange thunder sticks. As the camera pans over the faces, one of whom is the beautiful Mai Satoda in a hooded red raincoat, you can see just how much this game, and the pitcher on the mound, means to them. This very stadium had been damaged in the earthquake, and the region is still in recovery.

Tanaka gives up a single on a ground ball that just gets by shortstop Kaz Matsui. (Sorry, Mets fans.) After a strikeout, he gets Giants outfielder John Bowker to ground out to first, moving the runner to second. Then, he gives up a single to right, putting runners on first and third and bringing the tying run to the plate.

In this crucial moment, you see what makes Ma-Kun special. Facing Kenji Yano, a .358 pinch hitter during the regular season, he gets ahead 1-and-2 and then throws an outrageous splitter that would have fooled any batter in either major league. Tanaka roars in triumph, and the fans release white victory balloons. As the Eagles begin to gather on the field -- mixing daps with ceremonial bows -- the speakers blare a Japanese cover of "We Are The Champions." At one point in the celebration, manager Hoshino succumbs to the Japanese tradition of doage -- he lies back to be thrown into the air once, twice … eight times.

The fact that there isn't a dry eye in Kleenex Stadium has nothing to do with the rain.

After the game, and just before the traditional Japanese beer celebration in a tent next to the indoor practice facility, Hoshino expressed his trepidation about using Ma-Kun, saying, "Tanaka is a human being, not a god, at the end of the day. I had a bad feeling, but it was Tanaka who gave us a chance to be here."

Tanaka admitted, "It wasn't easy, but I thought I had to do it. I didn't have much gas left."

And Darvish tweeted after Game 7, "I bet major league scouts are worried."

But on the victory tour in the days and weeks after the game, Tanaka said he has fully recovered: "I am doing fine now, as you can see, so I've got no worries."

He accompanied the Eagles to the Asia Series in Taiwan to thank the Taiwanese for their help in the earthquake recovery, but he did not pitch.

Since then, Tanaka has been necessarily cagey about his plans, finally saying earlier this week that he wants to move to MLB in 2014. Wherever he pitches, those plans include another title. After the Nov. 24 parade, he said, "I didn't expect that a parade would be that much fun. Hopefully, I will be able to have another one during the rest of my life in baseball."

Where the rest of that life plays out is still a matter of conjecture. Just over a week ago, Eagles president Yozo Tachibana expressed his disappointment over the new posting system in an impromptu news conference in the lobby of the Dolphin Hotel at baseball's winter meetings in Walt Disney World, and owner Hiroshi Mikitani is said to be furious with the other 11 Japanese team owners for agreeing to the new system. There is even a rumor that the other clubs will sweeten the posting deal to: (1) appease Mikitani and (2) get Tanaka out of NPB.

But Rakuten is an e-commerce company similar to Amazon, so Mikitani, a Harvard MBA, is not hurting for money. And even if he holds on to Tanaka, the Eagles could lose him to international free agency after the 2015 season.

In the end, Mikitani may accede to the wishes of both Tanaka, who can't really top what he's done in Japan, and the Japanese public. As beloved as Ma-Kun is in Japan, many of his fans there would welcome the chance to see how he does in America. One male fan from Sendai put it this way: "If he goes now, he can play over there at his peak. So it is what it is, and we wish him well."

And a woman from Morioka said, "I can understand that he wants to go over there and be successful. We'd definitely miss him, but I want to say, 'Good luck!'"

Good luck, too, to his suitors.

Do we hear $125 million?

Jason Coskrey is a sports writer for the Japan Times in Tokyo whose primary focus is Japanese baseball.

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