Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dr. Kei

The Yankees have won the rights to sign Hanshin Tigers lefthander Kei Igawa, nicknamed "Dr. Kei" in Japan. As the name suggests, Igawa has been a strikeout pitcher for the Tigers, leading the Nippon League's Central League in strikeouts three out of the last six seasons, including this past season. In 2003, he was the Central Leagues' Cy Young and MVP. He's the ace of his team, one of the best pitchers in Japan, and he's 27 years old, so he should be in his prime.

Those are the positives. Igawa reportedly posted for $26 million; or roughly half of what the Red Sox paid to secure Daisuke Matsuzaka's negotiating rights. But Matsuzaka was considered one of those special talents--the guys who are all the way on the righthand side of the bell curve: a Roger Clemens, or Pedro Martinez, or Johan Santana. They're worth a premium. Igawa isn't considered half the talent that Matsuzaka is, even if he has enough talent to be a top performer in Japan. The scouting description of Igawa's pitches: high 80s-low 90s fastball (looks like he throws both a four-seamer and a two-seamer), plus change, average slider, curve he only shows to lefties--this is not an incredibly rare combination. Sure, there's more to pitching than velocity, and the assesment of Igawa is based mainly on his appearance in the MLB/Japan All-Star matchup earlier this month--an exhibition in which Igawa pitched after a six-week layoff.

The comparison I've seen most often is David Wells, but wells never profiled as a big strikeout guy, and Igawa doesn't look to have David's pinpoint control. Say the fact, no one comes to mind that really resembles him--you don't see many lefties get big strikeout numbers who can't crank the fastball into the 90s, and most of the successful lefties starters don't throw up in the zone as much as Igawa does. Pitchers that came to mind when I was watching him were guys like Doug Davis, Jim Abbott, or maybe Andy Pettitte.

Anyway, the Yanks' high bid for Igawa sounds like a "me, too" move, after the Red Sox won the bidding on Matsuzaka. They've now got the second-best pitcher available, but a guy who is probably not in the first-best pitcher's league, and they've paid as much to get these negotiating rights as most people figured that Matsuzaka's negotiating rights would go for. It could be that this is the new market for pitching--contracts are getting more expensive, so it's worth more to acquire exclusive rights to negotiate with a given player.

Or it could be that the Yanks are higher on Igawa than the scouting report would suggest--in the 2004 Baseball Prospectus annual, Clay Davenport translated Igawa's performance to a 4.08 ERA--comparable to the 3.93 translated ERA he got for Matsuzaka. Still, even that comparison saw Matsuzaka as one baserunner per nine innings and one strikeout per nine better than Igawa--and the trend lines have diverged substantially since then.

The last option is that the Yanks panicked, were purely in a defensive mode, put back on their heels after misjudging the market for Matsuzaka by some $20 million. This makes some sense, but it's important to remember that this money is not worth the same to the Yankees as it is to other teams because of the luxury tax. Since for every dollar of salary the Yankees pick up, they have to pay $0.40 to the Major League Central Fund, every non-taxable dollar the Yankees spend on player acquisitions is really only worth about $0.71. So that $26 million posting feeis the same as a $18.6 million contract expenditure for the Yankees--this is closer in line with the Mets' reported bid of $15 million (the Mets are unlikely to have to pay any luxury tax this season, so they don't get a discount). The Yanks expect to sign Igawa for far less than the eight figure-per-year salary Scott Boras is looking to get D-Mat--some are reporting it could be as little as $4.5 million per season over four years. Under those terms, the Yankees' outlay would be in line with a four-year, $31 million contract.

So the key is to keep expectations low. Despite his nickname, we're not looking at a Dwight Gooden-type phenom, here. The hope is a competent back-of-the-rotation starter, someone who can give you innings. Someone better than Ted Lilly. Because if we get our hopes farther up than that, Igawa might need to show his second nickname: Iron Nerves.

  • You'll notice I wasn't talking about the Yankees receiving a kickback from Hanshin. That's because major league baseball has carefully spelled out that there's no kickbacks allowed. Now, the fact that kickbacks aren't allowed doesn't stop it from happening in a number of other real-world industries and contexts, but for now, we'll take MLB at its word and hope that the Yanks and Red Sox don't try to cheat on their posting bids.
  • Speaking of the Red Sox, I'm quoted in Maury Brown's Biz of Baseball website with regard to the negotiation strategy of Scott Boras. Here's a link, and here's a blurb:
My contention is that it is in the Lions' best interest to get this deal done. It also is in Scott Boras’ best interest, as well, as this year sees a shallow free agency pool, and the aforementioned spike in salary figures. Next off-season sees a far deeper pool of talent, and it may well be that the giddy nature of owners, coupled with clubs like the Cubs driving values up, dissipating. Sending Matsuzaka back to the Lions would be embarrassing for Matsuzaka, and would bring up all kinds of questions about the entire posting process.

That is a case if Boras is just thinking of the Matsuzaka deal in a vacuum.

Derek Jacques, another one of my Baseball Prospectus colleagues plays devil’s advocate when it comes to Boras. It may be that Barry Zito, another Boras client, fits into the equation, as well.

Jacques counters my point by saying:

I don't know if it's in Boras's best interests to make this fly. Boras's M.O. has been to use his clients to set new salary standards--which then benefit his other clients, and by association, his bottom line. He's done this to the point of occasionally sacrificing a particular client rather than missing an opportunity to set the market. I presume it wouldn't fit into this strategy if part of Matsuzaka's compensation were hidden through Seibu--if he takes a below-market bid on Matsuzaka, he can't use that contract to get the Mets to bid up on Barry Zito. It might be better for Boras if Matsuzaka hits the free agent market next off-season, so he can get a bidding war going without the posting fee complicating things.

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