Must Read: The Story of Masahiro Tanaka’s Splitter

The somewhat complicated infield rotation
Monday Night Open Thread

In his worst start of the season last night, Masahiro Tanaka struck out eleven and held the best offense in baseball (by runs per game) to two runs in 6.1 innings. He did that thanks in large part to his trademark splitter, which has generated an insane 58.02% swing-and-miss rate so far. That’s unreal. Johan Santana’s changeup peaked at a 50.86% whiff rate in 2007, for comparison.

How did Tanaka learn that splitter? Jorge Castillo looked into the pitch’s history and it turns out a magazine article about a journeyman American-born pitcher you’ve probably never heard of was the inspiration. I don’t want to give away too much (read the article!), but Tanaka modified the forkball he had been throwing into his current splitter and his career took off. “I probably might not even be here,” he said when asked what would have happened had he never seen the magazine. Here’s the link again. Make sure you check it out. Castillo’s article comes with RAB’s highest recommendation.

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The somewhat complicated infield rotation
Monday Night Open Thread
  • Yankee$

    Very Cool!

  • ropeadope

    Enjoyable read, Mike. When can we sign Brian Falkenborg?

  • nsalem

    Throughout his time overseas, he has been among the highest-paid players in the league — a product of Japanese personnel executives valuing relievers more than their counterparts in Major League Baseball.

  • nycsportzfan

    Sounds like Falkenborg should get into coaching pitchers in some capacity after his careers over. Maybe MT should send em alittle compensation pay?lol

  • Greg c

    I remember that guy. He was a high pick of my closest MLB team, and I saw him pitch in A. I wouldn’t be surprised if I knew someone who dated him. So maybe I wouldn’t have heard of him otherwise, but with parts of 6 seasons in MLB, I’d like to think so.

  • Bo Knows

    I’m really curious where the notion the splitter puts a ton of stress on the arm originates, it doesn’t logically make all that much sense considering the only difference between a splitter and the fastball is the finger positioning, because there is no special pronation or wrist snap to make the pitch do anything extra.

    But like have the things that happen in baseball I’m guessing it might have been pulled out of someone’s ass

    • hogsmog

      Yeah, very anecdotal, but the pitchers they mentioned who had success with the splitter (Clemens, Morris, and Stewart) all pitched into their late 30s.

      • RetroRob

        Add on that pretty much every pitcher in Japan is taught the splitter, and the most successful right now in the Majors with the pitch are all from Japan: Tanaka, Kuroda and Iwakuma. Yet, the Japanese pitchers don’t seem to have the arm issues we do in MLB.

        With the swing-from-the-heels approach of MLB hitters, it’s a great weapon. I’d be teaching it more over here again since the evidence of it hurting arms doesn’t seem that strong.

        One pitch that does hurt the elbow is the screwball, which has disappeared from the game. Yet, if I was a fringy pitcher trying to make the Majors, I’d learn it. If I got a few good years before my arm blew out, so be it.

        • ropeadope

          If I got a few good years before my arm blew out, so be it.

          Agreed. It’s not like we need our primary arm for any other strenuous tasks. Oh wait.

  • CashmanNinja

    That was a great article. Falkenborg seems incredibly humble. I like that some of the $$ that Tanaka’s team got from the posting fee went to sign Falkenborg. It’s kind of poetic in a way. And I just find it so damn fascinating how someone can take a pitch and do the simplest tweak…and reinvent the pitch. Tanaka did that with this splitter and Mariano did it to the cutter. The smallest change can make the biggest difference.

    • RetroRob

      It can, although I suspect just like Mariano could never teach anyone his cutter (meaning to throw it as effectively as he did), Tanaka can’t do that with his splitter either. It’s probably something about his hands, fingers, delivery, etc. that gives it just a little extra compared to others.

      It seems that Falkenborg taught himself that pitch after he left MLB. He’d probably be very effective if he came back here.

  • qwerty

    If Tanaka’s splitter is so deadly why wasn’t he striking out inferior hitters in japan left and right?

    • RetroRob

      There is more of an attempt to make contact. They don’t swing for the fences, especially with two strikes. It’s one reason why strike out rates have increased over the years. It’s pretty common for Japanese pitchers to have higher strikeout rates here in MLB.

      • CashmanNinja

        They are much more about technique and being fundamentally sound over there. They’d rather have a guy who hits .330 with 10 homers than a guy who hits .250 with 40. They swing for contact. And they’re also very good at fouling off 2 strike pitches.

      • Bo Knows

        Its that and the fact Tanaka pretty much stopped trying to strike everyone out because he didn’t need too

      • qwerty

        That’s one explanation. However, when looking at the stats of just about every other japanese pitcher who has come over the strikeout rates here are fairly consistent with what they did in japan.

        • CashmanNinja

          Maybe Tanaka was holding back and didn’t want to show everything he had to offer since he knew he’d be coming to the U.S. (and being paid big bucks anyway). Or maybe he’s just relishing the opportunity to pitch against the best.

  • wilcymoore27

    Great article!