Masahiro Tanaka’s Extra Gear

Fan Confidence Poll: May 5th, 2014
5/5-5/7 Series Preview: Los Angeles Angels
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

I’ve been at this for a little while now, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is a friggin’ ton of bad information out there. The bad information outnumbers the good information by like, a factor of a hundred at this point. It’s terrible. Sorting through the nonsense is exhausting. It really is. What are you going to do though? It’s all in the game.

International players in particular fall victim to bad information because there isn’t much information out there to begin with. Even in this age of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, we still don’t know a whole lot about non-MLB players. The tiny little bit of information we have gets extrapolated out and before you know it, Yoenis Cespedes is a five-tool superstar when he’s more like a solid, two-tool everyday outfielder. It happens all the time.

To date, I don’t think we’ve seen anything out of Masahiro Tanaka that we didn’t hear about in the weeks and months leading up to his free agency. Actually, I guess I should say we haven’t seen Tanaka not do something he was said to be able to do in the weeks and months leading up to free agency. That make sense? We’re not waiting to see the gyroball or anything like that. Tanaka has been as advertised.

One thing that stood out to me before the Yankees signed Tanaka was this statement by Darrell Rasner, the former Yankee who was Tanaka’s teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles the last few years. Here’s what Rasner told Sweeny Murti back in January:

SM: When you say he has an extra gear, you mean an extra 3 or 4 miles per hour to get somebody out?

DR: I’m talking like an extra 10! I watch him pitch at 88-89 or 90-91, and then I’ll see him jump up to 98-99 when he needs it. I saw him do this (last) year, and there was one game that really stands out to me. I wanna say it was the eighth or ninth inning and he was 140 pitches in and he needed a strikeout, and he jumped it from that 90 to about 98-99 and punched the guy out. It’s just impressive watching the guy, his mentality and his know-how on pitching, especially being so young.

This sounds like a something that could be totally made up, right? We hear about guys cranking it up a notch in big situations quite a bit but it seems like few actually do it.

Anecdotally, I feel like I have seen Tanaka reach back and bring something extra in important spots during his first six starts, but this is 2014. Anecdotal evidence is for suckers. We can test this stuff. First, let’s keep it simple and look at Tanaka’s results. Here is how he’s fared in situations with varying degrees of pressure:

Bases Empty 109 .262 .275 .514 .318 .341 25.7% 1.8% 40.8% 4.20
Men On 59 .130 .203 .185 .250 .186 39.0% 6.8% 71.0% 2.30
RISP 32 .103 .188 .207 .143 .188 53.1% 6.3% 75.0% 1.75

First things first: take a second to soak in those numbers with runners in scoring position. Hitters had an 0-for-17 stretch against Tanaka in those spots until Ryan Hanigan slapped a ground ball off Kelly Johnson‘s glove on Saturday. When it comes to runners in scoring position, Tanaka is the Yankees’ offense of pitchers. I don’t even care that the performance came in a super small sample — the reason I didn’t use low/medium/high-leverage stats instead is because Tanaka has faced only nine batters in high-leverage spots — it happened and it’s amazing.

Anyway, Tanaka has performed much better with runners on base than he has with the bases empty to date. That isn’t proof that he kicks it into another gear in big spots, but it does support the theory. At least somewhat. Obviously Tanaka isn’t going to sustain a 53.1% strikeout rate and a 75.0% ground ball rate with men in scoring position (lol) because no one does that. I would expect him to be less effective in those spots going forward only because he couldn’t possibly be any better.

The results have been excellent, but when I think of a pitcher reaching back for something extra in big spots, I think of increased velocity. That’s what everything thinks, right? Rasner’s claim that Tanaka can reach back for “an extra 10!” is completely far-fetched — if a pitcher could really do that, he’s probably doing his team and himself a disservice by not doing it more often — but the idea that he throws harder when he really needs an out is not. There are a few guys around the league who can do it, with Justin Verlander jumping to mind.

Courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here is Tanaka’s pitch selection and average velocities in those same three situations:

Bases Empty 26.3% 91.4 23.0% 90.2 17.9% 86.1 18.1% 83.3
Men On 20.5% 92.2 23.0% 90.5 29.3% 86.3 19.2% 84.0
25.4% 92.6 14.3% 91.1 38.9% 86.9 21.2% 85.3

Those percentages do not add up to 100% simply because Tanaka throws too many different pitches and I didn’t include them all. PitchFX has recorded eight different pitches from Tanaka this season, though the four-seamer, sinker, splitter, and slider are his four main offerings. The others (cutter, two-seamer, changeup, curve) aren’t used nearly as often, so I’m leaving them out. It’s just too much information.

Across the board we see that Tanaka has indeed thrown harder with guys on base, especially when they’re in scoring position. The increase in the average velocity of his four-seamer, sinker, and splitter is roughly one mile an hour with men in scoring position while the slider jumps two full miles an hour. The increases with men on base in general are smaller but they still exist, especially with the fastball and slider. The average fastball velocity increase with men on base is only 0.2 mph across the league. It’s 0.4 mph with runners in scoring position. Tanaka’s fastball has jumped +0.8 mph with men on and +1.2 mph with men in scoring position. The other pitches have shown even smaller velocity increases around the league, so Tanaka is very much unique.

Tanaka has thrown ten pitches at 94+ mph this year and eight have come with men on base. The two exceptions were a pair of 2-2 fastballs to Brock Holt (95.2 mph) and Grady Sizemore (94.7 mph). Both were fouled off and they were Tanaka’s fastest and fourth fastest pitches of the season, respectively. Here’s the fun part: the pitch to Holt was in the seventh inning (96th pitch), the pitch to Sizemore in the eighth (103rd). Tanaka was really amped up in Boston — ten of his 12 fastest pitches of the season came against the Red Sox — and he was throwing his hardest when his pitch count was approaching or over 100. That qualifies as a guy who ramps it up in big spots to me.

Through his first six starts, Tanaka has shown signs of having that “extra gear” we heard so much about before he joined the Yankees. It is just six starts though, his first six in the big leagues. He admitted to being excited and nervous before both his first overall start and first home start, and I’m sure he felt a little something before his other four starts as well. If Tanaka continues to reach back for more in big situations later in the season, after he has some more innings under is belt and has had more time to adjust to the five-man rotation, then I think we’ll know this is a skill he actually possesses and not just a piece of bad misinformation we heard before Tanaka came over to MLB.

Fan Confidence Poll: May 5th, 2014
5/5-5/7 Series Preview: Los Angeles Angels
  • pat

    Long season. Hope we don’t run him into the ground too early.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    No, he’s not always going to be this good and the breaks won’t always go his way. However, he is an amazingly gifted pitcher and we are extremely lucky to have him, even if we’re paying him a small piece of Manhattan for at least the next five seasons.

    I always love ‘Naka Night.

    Great numbers here, Mike. Thanks. SSS for sure, but still fun to read.

    • Mark Teixeira – Ghostbuster (formerly Drew) RIP Egon

      A small piece of Manhattan? Shit, I lived on the Upper West Side and I think I paid that much a month in rent.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        Reason #345 why I’m moving out of Brooklyn.

  • Improbable Island’s Dirty Midget Whores (formerly RRR)

    Those RISP numbers are pretty frightening. I hope the correction isn’t too dramatic.

  • zach b

    Seeing him hit 96 or 97 in the hot summer months wouldn’t surprise me, 98 and 99 might be a little much tho

    • Mike HC

      We’ve already seen him hit mid 90’s, I’m pretty sure. I wouldn’t be that surprised if he could uncork a 98 mph once or twice if the situation really calls for it.

  • Mike HC

    Ichiro could hit 30 bombs this year if we wanted, but he prefers to hit .260 and be a fifth outfielder.

    • Mike HC

      *he wanted

  • Travis M. Nelson

    Interesting stuff, and awesome that you can test something like this. Clearly Rasner’s +10mph claim is ridiculous, but the extra oomph does not seem to be.

    The most notable thing to me in the numbers above is that with RISP, Tanaka basically abandons the sinker for the splitter, presumably going for the K instead of the GB, which is what you would expect any pitcher to do, if he can command them both.

  • Reggie C.

    Efficiency is king. If Tanaka is into the 8ht with only 103 pitches, then we’re just fine even if Tanaka is hitting “only” 92 on the gun as opposed to 96. That said, its nice to see 96.

  • TWTR

    A wide assortment of pitches while also possessing pitchability. Too bad we can’t clone him.

  • Vern Sneaker

    Hooray for modern stats. That’s just fascinating stuff. Thanks, Mike.

  • cooolbreeez

    what, no gyro ball? I demand a refund.

    Seriously, this guy knows how to pitch and pace himself. Now we just need the other starters to at least be respectable.

  • Jason

    Ichiro needs to be in games more often. Yes Beltran has a 45 million$ contract but if he’s not producing, Joe has to put someone in who is effective. The Yankees have a guy who has 200 hit seasons 10 consecutive times and hitting above .350 this season and also iirc the most recent person who has hit close to .400.

    Plus imagine an outfield with Gardy, Ellsbury and Ichiro. One has to hit the jackpot for a fly ball to land for a hit out there.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Dear God almighty, they’re clamoring for more Ichiro playing time.

    • TWTR

      Ichiro is coming off of three seasons of significant decline so I think there is a real risk of diminishing returns if Ichiro gets too many PA. The idea that he can still be a 200 hit a season player is just not supported by anything close to recent data.

      • Darren (TM)

        If you were playing rotisserie ball, it would be reasonable to say Ichiro, at least for now, should be taking some of Beltran’s
        at bats away from him, especially with how Beltran has looked recently. However, in real life, no way is Girardi gonna start sitting Beltran unless Beltran has some kind of injury that Joe can blame it on. Beltran’s here for another 2+ years.

        • Mike HC

          Disagree there too. You don’t bench Beltran, who hasn’t exactly been useless with 5 homers already, for an aging slap hitter who has a high avg in limited at bats and three years worth of stats to say he isn’t a good hitter anymore. I understand you are saying to ride the hot hand, but even with that philosophy, there is a limit. And benching Beltran for Ichiro is that limit. Although I do think Beltran is not going to be as good as he has been the past few years, but still a good player.

          • Mike HC

            (Just realized this is getting way off topic, my bad)

          • Jorge Steinbrenner

            Thank you.

    • OldYanksFan

      Dude – Please get in your Delorean and set the Way-Back-Ometer for 2014.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        I used to love day-long roto drafts.

    • Bo Knows

      The fuck does this have to do with Tanaka?

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    Rasner also likes to tell people on the streets of Japan that he was once the ace of the Yankees.

    I swear there was one season where he started EVERY game I went to.

    • TWTR

      I think he just means that he is better than CC at this point….

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        I really, really wanted Rasner to be something for a while.

  • Baked McBride

    My schwantz has an extra gear

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Can Darrell Rasner confirm that?

  • vicki

    this one goes to eleven.

  • King of Fruitless Hypotheticals

    The 10mph claim isn’t accurate…it was lost in translation from Japanese and English and standard and metric. This chart actually proves what Rasner said.

  • Looser trader droids FotD™

    It’s sort of weird but he may very well be my favorite current Yankee. I mean yeah Jeter for the memories and all, but if I’m buying a jersey today, it’s Tanaka’s. Second is…Ellsbury?

    It’s all very disconcerting. I’m highly vexed.

  • mikhel

    Last season JoeG decided to give Vernon Wells a lot of playing time when he was not producing, he only hit what? 5 extrabases from May 15th to the end of the season?

    No way JoeG will bench Beltrán in favor of the guy who is hitting more, getting on base more and fields better, that is not how things work in Girardi’s world.

    I say definitevely give Ichiro a chance to be productive until he can not produce, maybe his bat will get cold in a few games, maybe it will carry on, recent history shows he will fall, but until that happens, he should play.

  • mikhel

    It could be, 1 mile is 1.6 kilometers. 10 kilometers are a bit more than 6 miles.

    Maybe Rassner saw Tanaka throwing 144 km/hr (90 mph) and later throwing at 154 km/hr (a bit over 96 mph).

    I am sure I saw Tanaka throwing 97 mph in a WBC. But was toying with MLB hitters (was vs USA) throwing them 90-92 mph, reached back and threw fire.