Masahiro Tanaka and the possibility of an increased strikeout rate

Masahiro Tanaka Links: Transition, Scouting Report, Igawa, Quotes
Video: Masahiro Tanaka's Press Conference
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

Regardless of what Brian Cashman says during radio interviews, the Yankees have very high hopes for Masahiro Tanaka. No team spends $155M on a guy unless they expect him to be an impact player. Sure, there may be an initial adjustment period coming over from Japan, but the Yankees are expecting Tanaka to slot in near the top of their rotation for at least the next four years.

Just about every scouting report we’ve seen these last few weeks says Tanaka owns a swing-and-miss splitter, arguably the best split-finger fastball in the world. That’s the pitch that separates him from the Kei Igawas and Kaz Ishiis of the pitching world and has everyone thinking he’ll be a number two-ish starter long-term. Despite that out-pitch splitter, Tanaka’s strikeout rate hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years:

Year Age Tm IP K/9 K%
2011 22 Rakuten 226.1 9.6 27.8
2012 23 Rakuten 173.0 8.8 24.3
2013 24 Rakuten 212.0 7.8 22.3
Provided by
Generated 2/10/2014.

The big league average was 7.6 K/9 and 19.9 K% last season, so striking out fewer than one-quarter of batters faced in NPB doesn’t exactly scream “ready to dominate MLB,” especially considering the downward trend in Tanaka’s strikeout rate. Having a swing-and-miss splitter that is racking up fewer and fewer strikeouts is a red flag, no doubt. We do have some explanation for the dropping strikeout rate though, courtesy of Keith Law (subs. req’d):

Tanaka used to pitch away from contact, but in the past two years, he has become more aggressive within the zone with his fastball, and his splitter is a solid 60 on the 20-80 scale.

According to Law, Tanaka essentially started pitching to contact these last few years. The hitters in Japan are not all that great, and it seems like he realized he didn’t need to nibble on the edges to succeed, he could simply pound the zone. That approach won’t work in MLB, or at least it won’t work as well. Tanaka will have to go back to living on the corners, and by all indications, he can do that.

Sticking to the edges of the plate should help increase Tanaka’s strikeout rate naturally — he is bound to get some favorable calls on borderline pitches, especially since Brian McCann and Frankie Cervelli are better than average pitch-framers — but other factors will work in his favor as well. First and foremost is the general hitting style around the league. Here’s something Buster Olney (subs. req’d) wrote a few weeks ago, with an assist from former Yankee Casey McGehee, who was Tanaka teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013:

McGehee believes that Tanaka will continue to improve pitching in the major leagues because the style of play suits Tanaka. The bottom of the lineups in Japan, McGehee said, are often rounded out with hitters whose goal is merely to fend off the forthcoming pitch. They’ll shorten their swing, foul the ball off, and survive to see another pitch. Hitters in the majors, McGehee noted, are more apt to look to do damage — to take bigger and more aggressive swings, in turn having plate appearances with few pitches.

The league average strikeout rate in Japan last year was 6.7 K/9 and 17.5 K%, so a large portion of the hitters definitely focused on simply making contract. The idea of hitters “whose goal is merely to fend off the forthcoming pitch” is not a thing that exists in MLB. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all trying to make contact, but the emphasis is on hard contact. Strikeouts are generally more accepted these days, as long as the trade-off involves a higher on-base percentage and more power.

The idea of a pitcher coming over from Japan and improving his strikout rate in MLB seems kinda silly — the competition level in NPB is clearly not the same as is in the big leagues — but it’s hardly unprecedented. Here are how the five most recent NPB imports fared after coming over to the States:

MLB K% Final NPB Season K% Final Three NPB Seasons K%
Yu Darvish 30.1% 31.2% 27.8%
Hisashi Iwakuma 20.6% 19.1% 18.2%
Hiroki Kuroda 18.2% 16.7% 18.5%
Wei-Yin Chen 18.6% 14.3% 18.9%
Daisuke Matsuzaka 20.8% 27.7% 25.2%

Chen is from Taiwan but he did pitch for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan from 2005-11 before signing with the Orioles. Anyway, aside from Dice-K, recent Japanese starters have maintained if not improved their strikeout rate after coming over to MLB. The hitters over here are better than the hitters in Japan, but they will also sell out for power and strike out more often. Furthermore, the bottom of the zone has expanded in recent years (as Jon Roegele recently explained), which should help Tanaka and his diving splitter.

There is one other thing to consider, and that is pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Rothschild came to the Yankees with a reputation for improving strikeout rates and that has held true during his time in pinstripes: Yankees pitchers had a 7.38 K/9 (19.2 K%) during the three years before Rothschild and a 7.80 K/9 (20.5 K%) in the three years with Rothschild. Obviously personnel has something to do with that, but veteran guys like CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have seen their strikeout rate improve under Rothschild. Tanaka may do the same.

It’s pretty obvious why strikeouts are good, right? Nothing bad can happen when the ball is not put in play, and that is especially true for the Yankees, who could have a pretty ugly infield defense this year. Tanaka’s strikeout rate with Rakuten last year wasn’t anything special, but there are a number of reasons why he might whiff more batters in MLB going forward. His pitching approach, more aggressive hitters, the expanding zone, Rothschild, all of that and more can work to his advantage. Tanaka doesn’t necessarily need to strike a ton of guys out to be effective, but the more strikeouts he records, the better off he and the Yankees will be.

Masahiro Tanaka Links: Transition, Scouting Report, Igawa, Quotes
Video: Masahiro Tanaka's Press Conference
  • dkidd

    tanaka seems like a fiery guy

    it will be tough not to show emotion when routine ground balls to short turn into hits

  • Derek Jeter

    We can only hope…

    • jjyank

      What are you doing here? I heard you were out of gift baskets! Get your ass to the store.

      • Derek Jeter

        I don’t by my own gift baskets … I have a guy for that!

      • The Great Gonzo

        He’s got people for that.

        • vicki

          depending on how good your agent is, you can get the yanks to pay for your gift baskets. but they count against the luxury tax, like translators.

  • BrianMcCannon

    I think its inevitable he experiences a few hiccups during the first few months, but something like a 8.0 K/9 seems entirely possible. Looking forward to watching him.

  • Chip Rodriguez

    Nothing bad can happen when the ball is not in play… as long as you don’t have Chris Stewart doing this and conceding runs on a called strike.

    • dkidd

      last season sucked ass

      • Now Batting

        Thank you for that insightful contribution to the thread.

        • FIPster Doofus

          Well, he’s right.

        • Bo Knows

          Last season deserves just as much honestly, anything more and we are just wasting breath

  • Yankee$ (Formerly Pseudoyanks)

    Strikeouts are over rated. Groundballs are more democratic.
    -Crash Davis Paraphrased

    IIRC, the aforementioned Kei Igawa led the Japanese league in K’s the year before he came over.

    • ALZ

      Really depends on situation. Strikouts are king when you have people on bases. Weak hit balls are easier way to preserve the pitch count when nobody is on.

      • The Great Gonzo

        Give me 115 pitches with 10ks through 5 over 8ip with 3ks any day. Better chance of those batted balls turning into base runners turning into runs.

        • Algernon Blackwood

          You must have LOVED jaret wright.

          • Jorge Steinbrenner

            I’ve never seen both in the same room together.

        • ALZ

          And then we can have Betances/????/???? pitch those 3 innings. Not all contact is bad, just like not all fly-balls are bad. I’d rather Tanaka go deeper than have to watch that bullpen an extra 3 innings.

  • Dropped Third

    I think Tanaka will strike out quite a bit of hitters for a few reasons. He will be facing hitters who have not seen his stuff and delivery, he will be pitching to miss heavy swings instead of pitching to contact, and he has 2 possible strike out pitches with his slider and splitter. I can’t wait to see him pitch in pin stripes.

    • lightSABR

      I’m so sick of the offseason that I can’t wait to see anyone pitch in pinstripes. I’m considering dressing my wife up in a Sabathia jersey and putting her on a mound.

  • Holy Ghost

    Hands down the most exciting addition to the Yankees this offseason