Worries About Masahiro Tanaka’s Workload Greatly Overblown
Major League Baseball received an early Christmas gift on December 24th, as Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka has been made eligible for the posting system and is now headed for North America. Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season, becomes the first high-profile Japanese player to go through the new posting system, which will allow him to negotiate with any team he wants. Many believe this will result in Tanaka receiving a multiyear contract somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.
But many MLB teams are very concerned about Tanaka's workload in Japan, and not without reason. Since entering the Nippon Professional Baseball league at the age of 18, Tanaka has thrown 1315 innings over the course of 172 starts - an unusually high workload for such a young arm. Tanaka is also a former participant in Japan's famed Koshien Tournament for high schoolers, in which he once threw a jaw-dropping 742 pitches over six pitching appearances.
Concerns were hardly eased by the way he ended last season, as Tanaka threw 160 pitches in Game 6 of the Japan Series, then followed it up with a 15-pitch relief appearance to close out Game 7.
For American clubs, still spooked by the diminished effectiveness of the likes of Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, this workload is sending up numerous red flags. However, this could be a case where MLB teams are blowing the issue way out of proportion.
For starters, the Nippon Professional League has a shorter season. They play only 140 games a year in Japan, which works out to 4-5 fewer starts a year per pitcher. Indeed, Tanaka has never exceeded 28 starts in a season, and only twice has he gone over 200 innings.
The nature of the schedule also tends to give starters more rest during the season, as pitchers rarely make more than one start a week.
Tanaka's workload at such a young age has also been overblown. Sports Illustrated's Verducci points out that no MLB pitcher has had such a workload at such a young age, and this is correct... if only MLB innings are counted. But it is silly to suggest that college and minor league workloads do not also have an impact, particularly since both tend to be accumulated at a younger age than MLB innings.
If college and minor leagues are included, the list of pitchers with similar workloads by the same age includes workhorses like Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, CC Sabathia, and Felix Hernandez.
Suddenly, the innings totals do not look quite so bad.
Of course, innings are a rather imprecise measure of workload to begin with. Innings measure the number of outs, not the number of pitches; a 3-pitch inning is counted the exact same way as a 30-pitch inning, even though the latter was clearly tougher on the arm than the former.
And there is little debate that Tanaka's pitch counts have not been monitored as closely as they would have been as an American pitcher.
However, you'd be hard-pressed to point out where this has been a serious issue. Tanaka has little history of arm or shoulder injuries, and he has never had fewer than 20 starts or 150 innings in a given year. While Tanaka has certainly cleared 130+ pitches in several games, but his strikeout and walk rates also suggest he is getting more efficient with his pitches as he gets older. He is also doing this without losing speed on his fastball, which is certainly a good sign for the future.
Not all pitchers are created equally. Perhaps Tanaka's arm and body are used to and designed to hold up to such a workload.
It is also important to remember that, as unnerving as Tanaka's 160-pitch count looked, it did happen in what could have been the final game of the season. His relief performance, meanwhile, was the last game of the season. In other words, he had the entire offseason ahead of him to rest his arm.
If there was ever a time to pull a Randy Johnson in the postseason, this was it.
Don't get me wrong: a long-term contract Masahiro Tanaka does come with significant risk. But the same could be said about every other pitcher that is up for a long-term contract - or a short-term deal, for that matter. Pitchers carry with them an inherent injury risk, and players who have far less mileage on their arms are hardly immune.
Tanaka's history suggests he is not a greater risk than any other pitcher. However, he could be a greater reward.
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