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Investing in the Japanese pitching market

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Since Daisuke Matsuzaka made the transition from the NPB to MLB in 2007, many have followed, but the success rate has not been good.

Yu Darvish has been the latest pitcher from Japan to fall to Tommy John surgery.
Yu Darvish has been the latest pitcher from Japan to fall to Tommy John surgery.
Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

With the recent news that Yu Darvish has been the latest to be claimed by the ghost of Tommy John’s UCL, and given the injury history of other Japanese pitchers, it’s become evident that investing in the Japanese pitching market may not be as rewarding as baseball executives once thought it was. Darvish is now set to miss the entire 2015 baseball season and will likely not see MLB action until May of 2016. With a total commitment of $111.7 million to Darvish, the Rangers now risk never seeing a return on a large portion of that investment. Therefore, with pitchers like Shohei Otani and Tomohiro Anraku being mentioned as the most sought after of the next serious wave of NPB pitchers expected to make the jump to MLB in the near future, it would behoove all front offices to assess more closely the risks in this market. Teams should begin by reviewing the recent history of others making the jump before investing hundreds of millions of dollars in them.

In late 2006, a new era of baseball began. The rumblings had been around for a considerable time by then, but on December 14th it became official. Daisuke Matsuzaka was a member of the Boston Red Sox for a total investment of $103.1 million dollars (a posting fee of $51.11 million and actual contract of $52 million). The expectations placed on the Japanese right-hander were sky high, and while his first two seasons produced at least a 3.4 fWAR each, they were also the peaks of his MLB career. Matsuzaka was extremely injury prone and eventually fell to Tommy John surgery.

As the expression goes, hindsight is 20/20, and if the Red Sox could do it all over again with the knowledge they have now, it’s likely that Matsuzaka would not have been a Red Sock. Unfortunately, with time travel still not possible, they can’t change the past and get their money back.

The table below lists every Japanese born pitcher who’s made the transition to MLB since Dice-K. As such, players like Hideki Okajima, who signed before him, or Hyun-jin Ryu, of South Korean descent, are omitted from this list. (*Signifies that the posting fee is included in the contract figure)

Player MLB Seasons G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP SIERA Total fWAR First contract
Yu Darvish 3 83 545.1 11.22 3.6 0.87 3.27 3.17 3.11 3.10 13.9 $111.7*
Kyuji Fujikawa 2 27 25.0 11.16 2.88 1.38 5.04 3.61 3.24 2.96 0.2 $9.5
Kazuo Fukumori 1 4 4.0 2.25 9.00 4.50 20.25 12.13 8.27 6.90 -0.2 $1.4
Ryota Igarashi 3 83 73.0 8.88 6.29 0.74 6.41 4.41 4.68 4.34 -0.4 $3.0
Kei Igawa 2 16 71.2 6.66 4.65 1.88 6.66 6.19 5.56 5.24 -0.2 $46.0*
Hisashi Iwakuma 3 91 524.0 7.56 1.82 1.06 3.07 3.59 3.24 3.32 7.7 $4.9
Kenshin Kawakami 2 50 243.2 6.06 3.29 0.92 4.32 4.26 4.49 4.58 2.4 $22.3
Masahide Kobayashi 2 67 65.1 5.37 2.48 1.38 5.10 4.84 4.30 4.06 -0.2 $6.25
Hiroki Kuroda 7 212 1319.0 6.73 1.99 0.88 3.45 3.61 3.61 3.64 22.6 $35.3
Masumi Kuwata 1 19 21.0 5.14 6.43 2.57 9.43 8.1 6.17 5.75 -0.8 MiLB Contract
Daisuke Matsuzaka 8 158 790.1 8.20 4.41 0.97 4.45 4.35 4.57 4.37 10.5 $103.1*
Hisanori Takahashi 4 168 243.1 8.17 3.11 1.07 3.99 3.84 3.87 3.55 1.9 MiLB Contract
Ken Takahashi 1 28 27.1 7.57 4.61 0.66 2.96 4.12 4.80 4.27 MiLB Contract
Masahiro Tanaka 1 20 136.1 9.31 1.39 0.99 2.77 3.04 2.58 2.67 3.2 $175.0*
Yoshinori Tateyama 2 53 61.0 9.00 2.51 1.77 5.75 4.54 3.59 3.02 0.2 $1.0
Junichi Tazawa 5 188 203.2 8.75 1.94 0.88 2.86 2.94 3.17 3.04 3.5 $3.0
Koji Uehara 5 294 350.1 10.58 1.18 1.08 2.44 2.69 2.77 2.16 10.1 $10.0
Tsuyoshi Wada 1 13 69.1 7.40 2.47 0.91 3.25 3.75 3.96 3.89 0.8 $8.14
Yasuhiko Yabuta 2 43 51.2 5.92 4.18 1.57 7.14 5.46 4.98 4.65 -0.2 $6.0
Chang-Yong Lim 1 6 5.0 9.00 12.6 0.00 5.40 5.85 6.39 6.50 -0.1 $5.0

There have been 20 players, including Dice-K, to make the jump from Nippon Professional Baseball and record at least one out in the Majors since late 2006. Of those 20, seventeen have been for contracts worth at least one million dollars in terms of guaranteed money with three receiving only minor league contracts. While most of these pitchers have come and gone with little fanfare, there are eight who are standouts, be it for the dollar amounts attached to their names, or for their performances.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

Dice-K was the first major experiment in the posting process, and fair or not will always be seen as the leader of the new wave of Japanese pitchers who left their home country for the comparatively outsized challenges and rewards of MLB. Much of the hope and hype placed on Dice-K was tied to his famed gyroball, which turned out to be more myth than reality. His best season came in 2008, but even then, his peripherals were not good, and he finished his career with an FIP of 4.35 and a SIERA of 4.37.

Matsuzaka was incredibly injury prone, spending a total of 491 days on the 15 and 60-day disabled lists. He threw just 83 innings for the Red Sox in the final two years of his contract, producing only a 0.1 fWAR. If the posting fee is considered a part of the overall contract investment (which it absolutely should but is sometimes left out), the Red Sox spent $103.1 million on Dice-K for a contract length of six years. That averages out to an annual value of $17.18 million, meaning that the Red Sox essentially never saw a return on $34.36 million of that contract over his final two seasons. The reality is that the Red Sox missed out on much more with the amount of time Dice-K spent on the DL, but his final two years with the team saw the biggest loss of their investment.

Matsuzaka eventually moved on to the Cleveland Indians and New York Mets but was never able to pitch a full season again. From 2011-2014, he mustered only a 0.2 fWAR, and rather than stick around as a middling starter/reliever in the majors, he signed a contract with the Softbank Hawks to return to the NPB.

Kei Igawa

After losing out on Dice-K, just two days later the Yankees won the rights to negotiate with Hanshin Tigers lefthander Kei Igawa. While not as highly sought after or regarded as Dice-K, Igawa had proven valuable during his career in the NPB’s Central League. The Yankees shelled out $26 million in posting fees and an additional $20 million for Igawa’s 5-year contract. While Dice-K is seen overall as a failure, Igawa is viewed as a disaster. He threw only 71.2 innings in MLB, which including the posting fee amounts to a jaw-dropping $1.54 million per inning pitched. Igawa produced a fWAR of -0.2 during those innings, and in 2012 found himself back in the NPB pitching for the Orix Buffaloes.

Hiroki Kuroda

Hiroki Kuroda came to the majors with much less fanfare than the previous two pitchers. He avoided the posting system altogether, coming as a free agent with the right to negotiate with all 30 MLB teams. On December 12th, 2007, Kuroda and the Dodgers announced a three-year contract worth $35.3 million. Over the course of his career in the majors, Kuroda proved to be one of the most durable pitchers in baseball, throwing at least 196 innings from 2010 through his final season in 2014. He never boasted high strikeout figures, but his career BB/9 of 1.99, FIP of 3.61, and SIERA of 3.72 tell the real story. His total fWAR amounted to 22.6 with his career earnings reaching just over $88 million. Of the new wave, Kuroda was the first to prove to be worth the money and likely alleviated some concerns among MLB GMs about investing in the Japanese pitching market. While his MLB career is now over, Kuroda signed a one-year contract to return to Japan with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

Kenshin Kawakami

On January 13th, 2009, Kenshin Kawakami agreed to a three-year deal with the Atlanta Braves worth just over $22 million. While his first season with the Braves wasn’t a disaster on the level of Igawa, he managed only a 1.5 fWAR along with 4.21 FIP and 4.60 SIERA. His next season was even worse, as Kawakami threw only 87.1 innings at the major league level and produced a 0.9 fWAR at a cost of $7.33 million. In 2011, this ugly trend worsened, and Kawakami didn’t even throw a pitch for the Braves. He spent 83 days on the disabled list in the minor leagues and only mustered 43.2 innings between rookie ball and Double-A, after which he returned to Japan.  There, he was able to make only 12 starts from 2012-2013 due to shoulder pain.

Koji Uehara

Koji Uehara signed on the same day as Kawakami, agreeing to a 2-year contract with Baltimore worth $10 million. Uehara produced a 2.0 fWAR as a starting pitcher in his first season. Then in 2010, having been moved to the bullpen, he dramatically improved his peripherals. Uehara’s best season was undoubtedly in 2013, when he produced a 3.3 fWAR along with a 1.61 FIP and a SIERA of 1.85. He helped lock down a World Series title for the Boston Red Sox while also posting a career high 12.23 K/9. His 10.1 career fWAR thus far places him fourth overall for Japanese pitchers since 2007, and he will likely pass Dice-K on that list during the 2015 season. While Uehara missed significant time in 2009, 2010, and 2012, he’s remained mostly healthy since the beginning of the 2013 season, missing only six games. Uehara has earned $26.25 million since 2009, and with a 10.1 fWAR has clearly been worth the money.

Hisashi Iwakuma

Hisashi Iwakuma signed with the Seattle Mariners prior to the 2012 season, and while he wasn’t very valuable that year (.5 fWAR), his next two seasons were far better. In 2013 and 2014, Iwakuma produced fWARs of 4.0 and 3.2, respectively, while making just $6.5 million each year. Any GM would leap at the chance to secure a starting pitcher as valuable as Iwakuma has been at just $1.66 million per win (in terms of fWAR). While he was on the disabled list for 43 days in 2014, his time there was due to a middle finger tendon injury rather than something more worrying like shoulder fatigue or elbow stiffness. With Seattle looking like a real contender in 2015, Iwakuma will be critically important for the Mariners along with Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker.

Yu Darvish

Yu Darvish was the most heralded pitcher to leave Japan since Matsuzaka in 2007 and came with considerably more hype than we’d previously seen for a pitcher making this transition. Teams and scouts everywhere salivated over Darvish, especially due to his overall build, which was nothing like Matsuzaka. While Dice-K stood at just 6 feet tall, Darvish was built much more like the prototypical American pitcher, standing at 6’5". Then Rangers president, Nolan Ryan, commented that "[Darvish] was built like a pitcher" and wasn’t concerned with him making the jump to a 5-man rotation. Because of this, the Rangers had no qualms about putting forth a bid of $51.7 million and later a contract worth $56 million. For the first two seasons of his MLB career, Darvish looked and performed like a Cy Young caliber pitcher, posting fWARs of 4.8 and 5.0 in 2012 and 2013.

While 2014 was set to be another fantastic season overall, Darvish began to show signs of mortality. He made only 22 starts and spent 50 days on the disabled list due to "right elbow inflammation", which is code for red level freak out in today’s pitching environment. Heading into 2015, it appeared early on as though Darvish was fully healthy and ready to go. However on March 7th the Rangers announced that he had a sprain of his UCL and Tommy John surgery was a strong possibility. That possibility turned into a grim reality on March 13th. It’s now set in stone that he will miss the entire 2015 season and likely a decent amount of 2016 due to the recovery time from this injury. Factoring in the posting fee, the Rangers have essentially lost $18.61 million (the cost of one year of Darvish when including his personal contract and the posting fee), not including the 10 missed starts from 2014 or his future games lost in 2016.

Masahiro Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka was the first pitcher to benefit from the new posting system, which places a cap of $20 million on the posting fee. Consequently he was able to negotiate with more than just one team as though he were a free agent. For days, GMs and high-ranking baseball executives made their pitch to Tanaka personally, trying to convince him that their team was the right choice. When all was said and done, Tanaka signed with the Yankees for a record 7-year $155 million contract (and a cost of $175 million to the Yankees), the most ever for a Japanese pitcher.

His first season, while fantastic from a statistical standpoint, wasn’t all good news. Tanaka spent 74 days on the disabled list with a partially torn UCL in 2014. He will be scrutinized constantly heading into 2015. Every wince, shake of his arm, or pitch that sails away will cause fans to wonder how much longer his elbow can hold up. Seldom has rehabbing a UCL injury worked, but with Tanaka still able to pitch, surgery is not on the table as of this moment. If Tanaka does become a victim of Tommy John surgery at any point in his MLB career, there will be a significant financial repercussion. His contract pays $22 million in years 1-6 and $23 million in year 7. If he were to go under the knife, he would likely spend at least 1 (and perhaps more) very expensive year on the DL.

Of the eight players highlighted, only two have had what could be considered great careers. Neither Kuroda nor Iwakuma has succumbed to significant injuries, but each has seen time spent on the DL. Both came at relatively cheap salary commitments when compared to their peers. With the recent change in posting fees, the personal contracts are likely to increase dramatically, as evidenced by the nearly $100 million dollar increase in salary from Darvish to Tanaka.

As Otani, Anraku, and others start testing the waters through either the posting system or free agency in general, teams must take into account the overall success rate that pitchers have experienced in their transition from NPB to MLB. Of the 20 players since 2006, 11 of those players have posted sub-one fWARs.  Perhaps more ominously, their histories may indicate a high risk of arm trouble in the future. Otani and Anraku have been subjected to the notoriously heavy pitch count workloads seen in Japan and could eventually find themselves as future Tommy John surgery victims. The sample is admittedly small since 2006, but the results are clear-cut, and should be, at the very least, a flashing caution sign to the GMs who may want to invest in the next wave of Japanese pitching talent.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphsBaseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference.

Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.