This winter as many as ten Major League Baseball teams are engaged in a frenzied bidding war for the services of Masahiro Tanaka, a can’t-miss pitcher who went 24-0 last season in the Japan Pacific League. It’s expected that the overall cost of acquiring Tanaka will exceed $100 million.
Sound familiar? Seven years ago the Red Sox won a similarly high-profile pursuit of a different Japanese pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka. He was rumored to throw a mythic pitch, the “gyroball,” cost $103 million to sign, and came to Boston with expectations that he’d develop into an ace.
We know how that turned out. Matsuzaka pitched a couple of solid seasons, just enough to tantalize. But he proved to be interminable on the mound—you could cook dinner in the time it took Dice-K to walk the leadoff hitter—and prone to long, inexplicable stretches on the disabled list. When he finally left town in 2012, Red Sox fans could only say good riddance.
But what about Matsuzaka’s financial impact? When the Red Sox splashed out to sign Dice-K, it was widely assumed that his on-field contributions would be just part of his value. Conventional wisdom had it that Matsuzaka was a smart investment—an entrée into baseball-mad Japan who’d draw overseas sponsors and tourists into the Fenway empire and return many times his $52 million contract.
Well, it appears that Dice-K was a failure there, too. This past fall a pair of researchers at Harvard—Stephen Greyser of the business school and Isao Okada, a former visiting scholar—released a working paper that analyzed the economic impact of five Japanese players who’ve signed in the major leagues: Hideo Nomo (Dodgers), Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners), Hideki Matsui (Yankees), Matsuzaka, and Kosuke Fukudome (Cubs).
Ignoring Fukodome, who wasn’t a star in Japan and was never expected to be one here, Matsuzaka is the only player in the study who didn’t turn out to be a good investment. The researchers found that “Nomomania” surely gave the Dodgers a boost in revenue from ticket sales, Japanese tourism packages, and Japanese corporate sponsorships that exceeded Nomo’s salary. Meanwhile, they estimate that the “Ichiro effect” brought in as much as $55 million a year to the Mariners, while Matsui’s economic impact on the New York area is estimated to have been around $100 million a year.
Yet in a 2008 interview, Red Sox executive Sam Kennedy admitted (as quoted in the study) that with Matsuzaka, “Unfortunately, we have not had as much commercial success.”
So why did those other players turn into cash cows while Matsuzaka was a bust? The Harvard researchers don't put a number on the amount of money Matsuzaka brought in, but they think it was low mainly because Matsuzaka was a pitcher rather than a position player, and so was on the field only once every five games, which made TV sponsorships and ballpark signage less appealing to Japanese companies. (They consider Nomo an exception to the pitchers-don’t-pay rule because he was the first big Japanese signing and generated tremendous buzz as a result.) Other factors that diminished Matsuzaka’s financial punch, they suggest, are that the Red Sox were already selling out all their games anyway, so there was no room for him to boost ticket sales, that Boston isn’t an especially popular destination for Japanese tourists, and that Boston has a much smaller Japanese American population than New York, Los Angeles, or the Pacific Northwest, where Matsui, Nomo, and Ichiro played respectively.
At this point it feels a little like piling on to further enumerate the ways Dice-K failed the Red Sox. But his tenure in Boston—and the Harvard study—should sound a note of caution for the teams chasing Tanaka—if they sign him, it should probably only be for his splitter.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.