It’s rare to remember where you were when a team acquired a player. For me, one of those cases — one of two, the other being Mark Teixeira — is Masahiro Tanaka. On that January morning, I was on a back road in Stamford, Connecticut, on my way to work at Weston High School. It was sunny and there was snow on the ground, so there must’ve been a delayed opening. The signing was announced on WFAN and I think I broke traffic laws and checked something on Twitter from Ken Rosenthal; that part I’m not sure of, but the rest I am.
Five years and seasons later and I’m still just as excited each time Tanaka takes the mound as I was back then. He’s a pitcher for whom back-to-back games rarely look the same and is capable of using both his slider and splitter as out pitches, depending on whom he’s facing. Pressure has always been high on him to perform — the posting fee, the salary, the hype — and he’s mostly done that, pitching to a 118 career ERA+. He has always been expected to perform like an ace, but with the emergence of Luis Severino and the acquisition of James Paxton, Tanaka will be in the limelight a little less this season. Before we get into performance and results, let’s look at some process stuff real quick.
Here are a few things that stood out to me while looking at the difference in Tanaka’s pitch usage between 2017 and 2018.
- Increased 4-seam usage about 10%
- Decreased sinker usage about 12%
- Increased slider usage about 2%
- Increased splitter usage about 6%
Despite the team-wide edict of minimizing fastballs, Tanaka used his more often, eschewing his sinker/2-seamer for it. We’ll have to watch to see if he continues that in 2019, ditto for the uppings in splitter and slider, his two out-pitches. Tanaka is at his best when his splitter and sinker are doing their respective dives; hopefully, he can continue to get batters to chase and whiff on those.
As for future results, the most obvious way to look at how we think Tanaka might do in 2019 is to look at his different projections, listed below with a few selected stats:
|Average||159||150||38||152||24||3.89||3.89||2.9 (fWAR only)|
The general trends are pretty familiar for Tanaka. He doesn’t project to have a high innings total because he does tend to spend at least one bit of time per season on the injured list. Additionally, we see his trademark control and near-one-an-inning strikeout numbers. All in all, nothing is too surprising here for a guy entering his sixth season as a Major League pitcher.
While each system projects Tanaka around the same (take the non ZiPS calculations for FIP with a grain of salt since I did them by hand, assuming the FIP constant of 3.161 from the FG Guts section), ZiPS likes him best in terms of ERA, FIP, and WAR. Interestingly enough, two of the four see him with a lower FIP than ERA, which would be odd, given his proclivity for giving up homers. Again, take those with a grain of salt; there’s a reason I’m an English teacher and not a math teacher.
All together, this paints the picture of an above average pitcher, which is perfect for where Tanaka will slot in the rotation at the number three spot. Tanaka, of course, has the stuff to be more than a number three pitcher. His talent and arsenal give him a leg up and on any given day, he can have no-hit stuff. There aren’t a ton of number three starters who can match Tanaka’s stuff or pure talent and that will serve the Yankees well come playoff time. A top-three of Severino, Paxton, and Tanaka will be hard to beat in a short or long series.
Another way we can get a glimpse as to how he might do is to take a look at similar pitchers to Tanaka as they headed into their age 30 seasons. First, let’s take a look at the late Cory Lidle, Tanaka’s ZiPS comparable player. Lidle’s age 30 season was 2002, when he was with Oakland. In that year, he threw 192 innings with a low strikeout rate (bad), a low walk rate (good), and ERA/FIP marks that look a lot like Tanaka’s projections: 3.89 and 3.66, good for a 3.7 fWAR and 3.5 bWAR. He may’ve done it in a slightly different way than we’d expect Tanaka to do it, but I’d take those WAR marks from him without hesitation.
Through age 29, Tanaka’s five most comparable pitchers are Lance Lynn, Jake Arrieta, Jaime Garcia, Adam Wainwright, and Dallas Keuchel. Let’s take a look at how they did from age 29-30, looking at increases and decreases in some key stats.
* Lynn missed his age 29 season with injury, so we’re going from 28 to 30.
^ Arrieta’s age 30 season was the season after his dominant, Cy Young winning age 29 season. He had big dropoffs because of how good age 29 was, not how bad age 30 was.
** Garcia played for three teams in his age 30 season, including the Yankees, in 2017.
^^ Wainwright also missed his age 29 season, so we’re going from 28 to 30. He also had 9 (!) unearned runs against him that year.
Generally, these pitchers performed worse in their age 30 seasons than they did in their previous seasons. The average for bWAR change gets way thrown off by Wainwright’s weird bWAR year in 2012; using the median, the drop is only -0.1, which seems a bit more reasonable. It could be pinstripe blinders, or my tendency to Stan for Tanaka, but I think he can outperform more or less all of these “indicators,” given his aforementioned talent-level and raw stuff.
Masahiro Tanaka is a pitcher I find incredibly fun to watch. He approaches each game differently and can beat opponents in multiple ways. Each time he pitches, there’s a chance something special happens. Sure, there’s also a chance he gives up a bunch of homers, but at least they’re usually solo homers, right? Regardless, I always expect the best from him and will expect the same from him in 2019.