Masahiro Tanaka and pitching unpredictably

Need for Stephen Drew more obvious than ever two weeks into the season
Francisco Cervelli has Grade II hamstring strain; Shane Greene to Triple-A
What pitch is coming next? Your guess is as good as mine. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
What pitch is coming next? Your guess is as good as mine. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Two games into his MLB career, Masahiro Tanaka looks very much like the number two starter he was expected to be when he left the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Yeah, he has shown a penchant for the long ball, but he has also struck out 18 of 56 batters faced (32.1%) while walking only one (1.8%). He leads the league in swing and miss rate (17.2%) and in getting hitters to chase out of the zone (43.9%), both by comfortable margins.

Obviously the element of surprise is working in Tanaka’s favor. Most MLB hitters have never faced him before, and while they can watch all the video and read all the scouting reports in the world, there’s no substitute for standing in the box and seeing him for yourself. Tanaka definitely has an advantage right now, but eventually that element of surprise will go away. That’s okay though! He’s not going to turn into Sidney Ponson once the book gets out. Or maybe he will. Who knows? Whatever.

Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed about Tanaka in his two starts is that he is very unpredictable. I don’t mean his performance, I mean his pitch selection. It seems like he will throw almost anything in any count, but that’s just what I’ve seen, or at least what I think I’ve seen. I always think back to this whenever I’m writing about anecdotal stuff. PitchFX can tell us more about Tanaka’s pitch selection than my memory, so with a big assist from Brooks Baseball, here is how he has pitched in various situations in his two starts:

Total Pitches FB% SNK% SLD% SPL% CB% CUT%
Count Even 87 21.8% 21.8% 21.8% 18.4% 12.6% 2.3%
Tanaka Ahead 64 17.2% 20.3% 23.4% 35.9% 1.6% 0.0%
Batter Ahead 47 25.5% 44.7% 10.6% 14.9% 0.0% 4.3%
ALL 198 21.20% 26.80% 19.70% 23.20% 6.60% 2.50%

I was originally planning to include a table with the pitch selection breakdown by count, but that was a mess of numbers and in some cases the sample was only a handful of pitches. It was too much information. Breaking it down like I did above works much better, trust me. (If you must see the individual count info, you can do it via the Brooks link above.)

The first thing that stands out to me is how Tanaka has pitched with the count even. The cutter is his clear sixth pitch but otherwise he will throw his four-seamer, sinker, slider, and splitter interchangeably in those situations. The curveball lags behind slightly. How do you prepare for that if you’re a hitter? You can’t sit on a pitch with the count even. You can get lucky and guess right, sure, but there’s no pattern there. You’re just as likely to see a straight four-seamer as you are his trademark splitter.

When he gets ahead in the count, Tanaka tends to lean on his slider and especially his splitter, understandably. Those are his out pitches and when you’re ahead, you try to finish hitters off. He still throws plenty of fastballs in those counts, enough to keep hitters honest. When he’s behind, it tends to be mostly fastballs, which is pretty common. Tanaka has still thrown at least four different pitches at least 10% of the time regardless of whether he’s ahead in the count, behind in the count, or even.

So yeah, my memory didn’t lie. Tanaka has been very unpredictable with his pitch selection in his two starts. That doesn’t mean he will pitch this way forever, but that’s what has happened so far. I tend to think unpredictability is a good thing when it comes to pitching, but there is also an argument to be made that Tanaka’s splitter is so good that he shouldn’t bother screwing around with his other pitches in certain situations. Here’s a quote from one scout, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus (no subs. req’d):

“Without a doubt the splitter is a difference maker; it could very well be the best in the game. But I have concerns about the way he nibbles at the plate and drives up his pitch counts at times. He also gets a little too reliant on the fastball as well, using it instead of the splitter too often when he’s ahead of the count. He does have velocity, but it’s not nearly the same caliber of putaway pitch as the splitter. Why eat ground chuck when you’ve got filet in the fridge?”

Tanaka has averaged only 3.54 pitches per plate appearance in his two starts, the 79th lowest among 93 qualified starters. The first two innings of his two starts have been rough, but he’s averaged 3.43 pitches per plate appearance in the first and second inning. It’s 3.60 pitches per plate appearances from the third inning onward. This does not necessarily mean the scout is wrong. Tanaka has had some extended at-bats (like everyone else) and perhaps he could cut down on those by emphasizing the splitter.

The early inning struggles have been annoying, but Tanaka has pitched very well overall against two tough lineups in his two starts. Hitters haven’t seen him and that’s a distinct advantage, and the fact that he mixes pitches and uses his arsenal so well makes him even more unpredictable. Even though he is only 25 years old, Tanaka definitely has a “crafty veteran” element to his pitching style, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

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Need for Stephen Drew more obvious than ever two weeks into the season
Francisco Cervelli has Grade II hamstring strain; Shane Greene to Triple-A
  • Mike HC

    I see what the scout is saying, but Tanaka and the Yanks look like they know what they are doing out there. You can’t eat filet for every meal! When the split does come, it is even more unhittable/tough to lay off, because hitters haven’t seen it all day every time they have two strikes on em.

    • jjyank

      “You can’t eat filet for every meal!”

      God, do I wish I could though.

      In seriousness, I’m not sure who I agree with on this one. I understand both sides. I’m sure there’s a happy medium between being splitter-happy and mixing pitch selection too much.

      • John with the Rubber Nips not Rubber Lips

        Once the books out on him, he toast. He will be lucky to be a Number 4 starter next year. Looks good now, but the gloss will wear off. Stats don’t lie.

        • pat

          What stats in particular?

          • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

            The stats that this guy won’t tell us about as he’s done commenting for now, his weak attempt at trolling finished.

        • jjyank

          This is some real weak trolling. We have higher standards than this here at RAB.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

          Oh OK

        • Mike HC

          I almost confused you for Rubber Lips John if you hadn’t said something.

        • The Great Gonzo

          Obv troll is obv… Thanks for playing

      • Looser Trader Droids Kenobi FotD™

        Filet with a couple of fried eggs for breakfast please.

  • mark

    Really interesting post

  • stuckey

    “The early inning struggles have been annoying, but Tanaka has pitched very well overall against two tough lineups in his two starts.”

    I’ll sign up for 28 to 30 more of the first two starts verbatim right now.

    • Looser Trader Droids Kenobi FotD™

      +1

  • Brandon

    I’m really worried that his lack of movement of his fastball could leave him homer-prone, but I’m mostly impressed by his adjustments in-game. His splitter is everything and his slider is also very good.

    • mitch

      He’s going to give up his share of HRs. I don’t see him ever being toward the top of the league in limiting HRs. Fortunately, plenty of homer-prone pitchers have been successful. The key is keeping guys off the bases, and Tanaka seems like he’ll excel in that area. As long as he doesn’t turn into Phil Hughes he’ll be fine.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      I think he’s trying to get some hittable pitches through some not-so-great hitters. I can’t recall right now whether there was a homer other than the Melky and Schoop ones, but I think he’s going to learn other ways to fool hitters like that. I actually think those numbers will improve.

  • Tony

    Lets not discount that is also unfamiliar with the hitters he is facing and their tendencies.

    • Mikhel

      On top of that McCann is also not familiar with the hitters they are facing, maybe vs the Cubs he’ll be better since McCann already knows most of the cubbies hitters and knows how to call vs them (I think, i have not checked the ERA vs McCann as C vs the Cubs).

  • Tony

    That he is unfamiliar

  • jjyank

    Great post, Mike.

    There’s a common perception that new players to the league (especially international players) have an advantage due do the aforementioned element of surprise. Let’s hope that Tanaka’s “unpredictability” will help in preventing the league from catching up to him as he starts to face line ups multiple times.

  • will

    2015 pen? 7th monty, Burawa 8th , 9th Betances? If the AAA guys keep the stats up there and they have so far, when do you bring them up? Essentially scranton is playing a 7inning game right now. With Monty + Bur

    • pat

      What does this have to do with Tanaka?

    • jjyank
      • Preston

        So you’re saying you don’t want to discuss the merits of signing Stephen Drew?

        • Yan Solo

          I think what he’s saying is that Stephen Drew is barely relevant for a post about Stephen Drew, let alone one about a completely unrelated player.

        • The Great Gonzo

          Kendrys Morales to teh pullbenz!

  • Frank

    I think he’ll be a decent mid-rotation starter moving forward, but I’m certainly not wowed by him like some are. He’s certainly not overpowering; he has a great splitter and an assortment of good, not great,other pitches.

    • Preston

      He leads the league in swing and miss rate, what is your definition or overpowering?

    • mitch

      One great pitch and an assortment of good, not great, pitches (all with good command) is definitely the recipe for something better than a mid-rotation starter.

      • jjyank

        Right? That sounds like he’s describing a very good #2 starter, if not a borderline ace.

        • Yan Solo

          You mean, something like, oh… I don’t know… this guy?!
          http://goo.gl/olLRHL

          • vicki

            omigod, yan solo. so cool.

          • Cool Lester Smooth

            Except we get his 25-28 (and hopefully more) seasons, rather than his 38-40 seasons.

            It’s gon’ be sick.

    • stuckey

      5th in the ML in K rate. 2nd in the ML in K/BB ratio. Lowest P/PA of anyone in that group.

      C’mon Frank don’t leave us hanging?

      What’s “overpowering”?

  • RetroRob

    Based on that chart, I’m not quite sure how MLB hitters are going to adjust to Tanaka. He’s not giving them a clear idea of what he’ll throw in given situations. Even the splitter is only coming in roughly a third of the time when he’s ahead of the batter.

    I thought for sure that Tanaka would reduce the number of different type of pitches he throws going from the Japanese leagues to MLB. Most pitchers can’t throw that many variations. Now after seeing him, I’m not so sure. He could be a David Cone or Mike Mussina type in variety of pitches, although unlike Cone he doesn’t vary his release point.

    I’m sure my opinion is heavily influenced by being a Yankee fan and wanting Tanaka to succeed, but I think the second and third times around the league, as the hitters adjust to Tanaka, he’ll be adjusting to them even more.

    • Mike HC

      If I remember correctly, Matsuzaka also had a kitchen sink approach early in his MLB career, but over time, eventually settled on a more US-traditional pitch selection … not that I would draw any conclusions from that at all, just a thought I had.

  • Yan Solo

    Yes, but Adam Jones already blasted his big mouth off about how “nothing special” Tanaka is…
    Somehow that didn’t put all the debate surrounding his skills, game, and effectiveness to rest?! Get right out of town!!!

  • vicki

    rock paper scissors lizard spock.

  • Looser Trader Droids Kenobi FotD™

    What is the fewest walks ever given up in a full season (call it 200IP?) by a starting pitcher?

    Too lazy for google foo right now.

    • Preston

      For pitchers that threw at least 162 innings in a season

      The all time record is 6 by Cherokee Fisher in 229 1/3 innings of the 1876 Cincinnati Reds and George Bradley in 196 innings of the 1880 Providence Grays.

      The modern record is 9 in 188 1/3 innings by Carlos Silva of the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals.

  • And in merrie olde England

    “Even though he is only 25 years old, Tanaka definitely has a “crafty veteran” element to his pitching style”

    I’m pretty sure I read yesterday (From the link dump article?) that Tanaka has pitched more professional innings than any active pitcher aside from Mark Buehrle. If that’s true I’m really not surprised how well he’s transitioning any more or surprised that he’s pitching like he has a plan.

    • Preston

      No, Sabathia has pitched nearly twice the innings in MLB as Tanaka. Even if that were true it would be biased, because why would you count Tanaka’s Japanese innings as professional experience but completely discount an MLB players Minor League innings. He definitely has more innings at a higher level of competition than the average 25 yo.

      • Mikhel

        The level of competition in the NPB is way higher than AAA in the USA, you can even say it is a Major League considering how they have been really hard to beat in the WBC while the US team has had a hard time beating… Mexico, and Mexican leagues are nowhere near AAA, at most the summer league is a AA and the winter league is close to AAA.

        When Tanaka debuted in the NPB he faced veterans with 8-10 or more years of experience at that level, when a young pitcher debuts in the US minor leagues he is facing mostly young kids as inexperienced as him.

    • vicki

      that was kuroda. in the verducci piece.

  • vin

    I’d like to see a similar study done for other pitchers – probably using the entire previous season as the sample size. Any volunteers can form a line to the right. It would be a worthwhile study.

  • Mikhel

    Darvish

    Vs LHB
    B ahead / Even / P ahead

    Fastball 29% / 26% / 20%
    Sinker 12% / 11% / 13%
    Cutter 30% / 26% / 14%
    Slider 19% / 16% / 13%
    Curve 4% / 6% / 17%
    Splitter 1% / 4% / 11%

    Vs RHB
    B ahead / Even / P ahead
    Fastball 37% / 38% / 36%
    Sinker 13% / 15% / 13%
    Cutter 10% / 8% / 9%
    Slider 33% / 30% / 28%
    Curve 4% / 4% / 4%
    Splitter 1% / 2% / 6%

    Those are his career MLB stats counting 2014