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Monday, January 20, 2014
A closer look at Masahiro Tanaka

By David Schoenfield

By now, you probably know that Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan's Pacific League. His unbeaten streak of 30 games ended with a loss in Game 6 of the Japan Series -- a game in which he threw 160 pitches -- but he came back the next day to get the save as Rakuten won its first championship.

The deadline to sign Tanaka is Friday, and since all medicals will have to be finished by then, the 25-year-old right-hander will probably have to make a decision by Wednesday in order to complete a physical.

Masahiro Tanaka
Masahiro Tanaka pitched 1,315 innings in seven seasons (2007-13) in Japan's Pacific League.
The final contract is expected to approach, if not exceed, $100 million for six years, with some reports estimating a deal around $120 million. A report from Nikkan Sports in Japan listed the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox and Diamondbacks as the five unofficial finalists.

Considering the success of Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda -- Darvish and Iwakuma finished second and third in the American League Cy Young voting last season -- expectations will certainly be high once he does sign.

What kind of pitcher is Tanaka? Thanks to this magical thing called the Internet, it's pretty easy to head over to YouTube and watch some highlights. Here is a quick clip of Tanaka pitching against Cuba in the World Baseball Classic last spring. He pitched two innings and gave up a run but recorded all six outs via strikeout.

From that clip, we see Tanaka's main weapons. He got strikeouts with a fastball, slider and splitter. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he is not as physically imposing as the 6-5 Darvish and is built more along the lines of Iwakuma. He has an unusual hook or wrap with the ball at the back of his delivery, although not as severe as, say, Tommy Hanson's. It looks like he hides the ball well behind his body with the delivery, however, and his Japan statistics certainly point to a pitcher who has been successful at limiting hits. Like a lot of the Japanese pitchers, he has a hesitation in his delivery from the full windup.

In watching other highlights of Tanaka -- here and here, for example -- one thing is clear: He's not Darvish.

But that's not really fair. Darvish has as good stuff as any starter in the majors. What Tanaka has, however, is a full arsenal of pitches.

Fastball: 91 to 94 mph, although it can look straight at times.

Splitter: 85 to 89 mph, with excellent downward bite and the ability to command it to both sides of the plate. It appears Tanaka throws his a little harder than Iwakuma or Kuroda, both of whom have made a nice living with their splitters. Iwakuma runs his from 81 to 89 mph, averaging 85.3. Kuroda averaged 86.3 mph on his splitter in 2013. You can see how effective that pitch was for those two:

Iwakuma: .184/.210/.268, 4 HR
Kuroda: .178/.195/.227, 0 HR

What makes the splitter such a great pitch is that it serves as an equalizer against left-handed batters. Iwakuma and Kuroda both locate it down or down and away from lefties. Unless you hang one, there just isn't much a lefty batter can do against it. That's what Tanaka will have to do as well.

Slider: 83 to 86 mph. This looks like another plus offering, a potential put-away pitch against right-handed batters. Again, we compare to Kuroda and Iwakuma. Kuroda uses his slider more than Iwakuma -- throwing it 853 times in 2013 to 557 for Iwakuma -- and since Tanaka's slider is harder and compares favorably to Kuroda, I would expect him to feature it quite regularly. When Michael Eder looked at some Pitchf/x data on Tanaka, in terms of movement and velocity he compared his slider to Zack Greinke's. That's pretty good.

Curveball: I saw some big, slow hooks in the 72 mph range. Not sure how often he throws this pitch, but it's really more of a change of pace than anything and changes the eye level of the batter since his other pitches are usually down in the zone. Iwakuma possesses a similar curve and threw it about six times a game, mostly to left-handed batters.

Cutter: Upper 80s. Darvish throws one as well, although it was his least effective pitch in 2013 as batters hit .271 and slugged .500 off it.

You can see that Tanaka has a pretty typical Japanese repertoire of pitches -- in other words, just about everything. U.S. pitching coaches like to see their pitchers consolidate their pitches, so I could see Tanaka junking the cutter.

I think you can certainly understand the anticipation of his arrival. He's kind of a younger version of Kuroda, but with maybe a little better command. Or he matches the command of Iwakuma while throwing a little harder.

There are a few red flags on Tanaka. His strikeout rate dipped from 9.6 per nine innings in 2011 to 7.8 in 2013. I'm not sure if he consciously pitched to more contact, but it's worth noting. He did suffer from an undisclosed injury in the spring of 2012 and missed a few starts and threw 186 innings at age 18 and 172 at age 19, so even with the shorter Japanese seasons he's logged more than 1,300 career innings through age 24. (Darvish, who came over at the same age, had 1,268.) Compare that to, say, Clayton Kershaw, who had 1,164 innings in the minors and majors through age 24.

One last note. Here are the stats for the big-name Japanese starters to come over in recent years, with their stats in Japan in their final season compared to the league average that year. (I used 2010 for Iwakuma, who missed time in 2011 with an injury.)

 


Pitcher R/9 H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
Tanaka, 2013 1.49 7.1 0.3 1.4 7.8 5.7
4.02 8.7 0.7 3.2 6.7 2.1

Darvish, 2011 1.63 6.1 0.2 1.4 10.7 7.7
3.25 8.3 0.5 2.3 6.7 2.9

Iwakuma, 2010 3.04 8.2 0.5 1.6 6.9 4.3
4.29 9.1 0.8 3.0 7.2 2.4

Kuroda, 2007 3.91 8.8 1.0 2.1 6.2 2.9
4.16 9.1 0.9 2.9 7.0 2.0

Matsuzaka, 2006 2.42 6.7 0.6 1.6 9.7 5.9
4.00 8.9 0.8 2.8 6.6 2.4


I think the biggest test for Tanaka will be the command on his fastball. In Japan, you don't face the power hitters on a consistent basis like you do here, so it's easier to rear back and challenge hitters with your fastball if you fall behind in the count. Matsuzaka showed good command in Japan but was a notorious nibbler over here, seemingly afraid to challenge hitters. Even Darvish, who averaged 2.4 walks per nine in Japan and 1.4 his final year there, will get into the bad habit of nibbling and falling behind. He walked 3.4 batters per nine innings last year, a big jump from his Japanese totals.

But Darvish can get away with the walks because of his devastating array of knockout pitches. Tanaka doesn't have Darvish's raw stuff, so he'll need to go after hitters like Iwakuma has done. This may result in more home runs than he allowed in Japan -- just six in 2013 -- especially if he's pitching in Yankee Stadium, but that's the tradeoff that worked for so well for Iwakuma in 2013.