Masahiro Tanaka and the possibility of an increased strikeout rate

(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 Baseball-Reference.com
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

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

In about an hour, the Yankees will (finally) introduce Masahiro Tanaka with a press conference on Yankee Stadium. As you may have already heard, he spent nearly $200k to charter a massive Boeing 787 from Tokyo to New York over the weekend, which the New York Post is already trying to turn into a controversy. If you’re not going to use your $155M contract to charter 787s around the globe, well then I just don’t get the point of it all. Here are some stray Tanaka links from around the web.

The Transition From NPB To MLB

Buster Olney (subs. req’d) had some really great stuff about the transition from NPB to MLB in his blog today. The whole thing is worth reading, but the most important takeaway is that Tanaka has already embraced the Yankees’ throwing program as he prepares to go from starting every seven days to every five days.

“This is not something unusual. It’s like a guy moving from the AL to the NL. He’s going from 20 to 25 starts to 32, and you’re forced to work and make adjustments,” said Brian Cashman. “You can’t make someone do something they’re not comfortable doing. That would be doomed for failure.”

We’ve already heard that Tanaka was using an MLB ball during his between-starts bullpen sessions last year, but Olney says teams were impressed with the quality of his splitter with the MLB ball during the World Baseball Classic last spring. Daisuke Matsuzaka had trouble throwing his splitter over here and it essentially took away his best pitch. Make sure you check out Olney’s post, it’s well worth the read.

Scouting Reports

Tim Dierkes polled several non-Yankees officials who have extensively scouted Tanaka, and in general they are very optimistic. More than I expected, really. They all agreed he has three better than average big league pitches — one evaluator said they like his slider more than his splitter — and an extra gear for his fastball in tight spots. At least one deemed him a number one starter.

“He pitches inside, he doesn’t pitch away from contact a lot,” said one evaluator. “Some guys in Japan, they’re not as aggressive. He has more of a Western style that he’s not afraid to go up and in, he’s not afraid to pitch inside. He pitches kind of with a little chip on his shoulder.”

He’s Not Kei Igawa

This goes without saying, but Jack Moore went through the trouble of writing it up anyway. Tanaka and Igawa have pretty much nothing in common outside of their nationally, as Tanaka was a considerably better pitcher in Japan with better stuff. There is no comparison statistically — Jack didn’t mention that Igawa’s inferior stats also came in Japan’s DH-less league — and the idea that Tanaka will be another Igawa is click bait at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. Tanaka might be a total bust, it could happen, but if he does, it won’t be for the same reason as Igawa, who simply lacked the stuff for the big leagues.

Some Quotes

Nothing really groundbreaking here, but the Japan Times has some quotes from Tanaka before he left for New York over the weekend. “I’ve heard that the New York media can be severe,” he joked, “but I don’t want to be overly concerned about what’s going on around me. I would rather focus on the things I need to do.”

Masahiro Tanaka press conference scheduled for Tuesday

Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka will be introduced at a 1pm ET press conference at Yankee Stadium next Tuesday, the Yankees announced. It will be broadcast live on YES. Tanaka recently secured his visa (thanks to Senator Schumer) and the team wanted to hold a press conference in New York before everyone went down to Tampa for the start of Spring Training late next week.

In other news, Joel Sherman reports that Tanaka’s contract stipulates that he can not be sent to the minors without his permission. It’s not really a big deal but obviously we should all hope the Yankees don’t even have to think about sending Tanaka to the minors at some point. They’ve basically given him all the rights of a player with 6+ years of service time, which is the norm these days. Japanese veterans are treated as Major League veterans as a courtesy even though they are technically rookies.

Tanaka-Themed Tuesday Night Open Thread

Next Monday at 7pm ET, the YES Network will air Masahiro Tanaka‘s June 9th start against the Yomiuri Giants in its entirety. John Flaherty, Ken Singleton, and Al Lieter reviewed the game (seven shutout innings) and provided their thoughts, which you can read right here. The video above is the pitch-by-pitch of that June 9th start, but Monday’s broadcast will be our first chance to see him pitch an actual game, not just some cut-up highlight video.

In other Tanaka news, just-released PECOTA (subs. req’d) projects him as a 180-inning, 3.45 ERA pitcher in 2014. The projected peripherals are very good (8.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 45% grounders) and the top comps are Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, and Mat Latos. I’ll take it. Projections don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but I’d rather see a good projection than a bad one, that’s for sure. Steven Marcus says the Yankees will try to have a press conference for Tanaka in New York before Spring Training starts next Friday, but that is still up in the air. He will definitely have one in Tampa if they can’t do one in the Bronx.

* * *

Here is your open thread for the night. The Rangers and Islanders are the only local teams in action, so talk about those games, Tanaka, or anything else right here. Enjoy.

Senator Schumer sped up visa paperwork for Masahiro Tanaka

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

It has been less than two weeks since the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year contract, and two weeks from today pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa. That doesn’t leave much time for Tanaka to get his affairs in order, including securing a visa.

In an effort to make sure their new pitcher arrives to camp in time, the Yankees enlisted the help of New York Senator Chuck Schumer to make sure the paperwork was taken care of properly. From Anthony McCarron:

“My office works tirelessly to help constituents every single day, but it’s not often you get a call from a constituent like the New York Yankees,” Schumer said. “You see, the Yankees called me a couple of days ago to say they were worried about Masahiro Tanaka getting to Spring Training on time due to the length of time it can take for foreign players to get a visa.

“Foreign baseball players apply for something called a P-visa and the whole process can take up to a month; but with pitchers and catchers reporting on February 14th, it was very possible he wasn’t going to make it. So I made sure we had someone go to the mailroom at USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), pull his application and get it processed quickly – something I have done in the past for the Mets as well, when they had a similar issue with Jose Reyes.”

“Now the Yankees’ star free agent will be able to join the team at spring training with everyone else,” Schumer added. “As a lifelong Yankee fan who is hoping for another World Series this year, I could not be happier.”

Imagine if the Yankees had spent all that time waiting for the posting system to be revised and negotiating with Tanaka only to have his debut be delayed by paperwork. Must be nice to have those kinda connections, eh?

(I’m leaving the comments open but I reserve the right to close them if things get too politicy.)

Mailbag: Tanaka, Mayberry, Betemit, Setup Man

Got 12 questions for you this week, but some of the answers are really short. Like two sentences short. I also trimmed some questions a bit. A few were pretty long. Send us anything via the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar at any time.

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

Paul asks: Does Masahiro Tanaka have a legit shot at Rookie of the Year this year? I’m still bitter about Hideki Matsui getting robbed.

Hey, you can make a case Matsui wasn’t robbed. He hit .287/.353/.435 (109 wRC+) with 16 homers as a bad fielding left fielder while Angel Berroa hit .287/.338/.451 (101 wRC+) with 17 homers as an average fielding shortstop. If you want to take fWAR/bWAR at face value (fine for something like this), Berroa edges Godzilla out (Berroa: 2.7/2.5, Matsui: 0.2/2.2).

Anyway, yes Tanaka has a legitimate shot at RoY this season. The last three RoY starting pitchers (Jose Fernandez, Jeremy Hellickson, Justin Verlander) averaged a 14-8 record with a 2.94 ERA (~143 ERA+) and 4.7 bWAR in 180-ish innings, if you want a performance benchmark. That’s doable but a sub-3.00 ERA in the AL East and at Yankee Stadium will probably take some luck. Tanaka is going to have some stiff competition in Xander Bogaerts and Jose Abreu (my early RoY pick), plus the voting has been skewed heavily in favor of position players these last ten years (13 position players, four closers, three starters).

Craig asks: How about John Mayberry Jr.? He could double as the fourth/fifth outfielder and first base back-up. If they are looking for a lefty we could eat Ichiro Suzuki‘s contract or send Brett Gardner and get some bullpen help.

Mayberry, 30, had that huge season in 2011, hitting .306/.358/.595 (157 wRC+) against lefties with a 132 wRC+ overall. He hasn’t hit much since then, just .259/.309/.481 (111 wRC+) against lefties and an 86 wRC+ overall. There was talk the Phillies might non-tender him earlier this winter, but they kept him for $1.59M instead. Mayberry can play first and the two outfield corners, but he’s a net negative on defense. His only redeeming quality is his power against lefties. There’s no way I’d trade Gardner for him — the Phillies have been looking for bullpen help all winter, so I doubt they’d kick in a reliever, and I’d need a great reliever to even out a Gardner-for-Mayberry swap — but a straight up Ichiro-for-Mayberry deal would make some sense given the current roster. You’d wind up the same replacement level-ish extra outfielder, just instead of doing it with defense, he’d do it with power.

Billy asks: What are your thoughts on Brendan Ryan coming in for Derek Jeter defensively in save situations? Obviously it should be done but does Joe Girardi actually do it?

Should this happen? Yes, absolutely. Will it? I don’t think there’s any chance unless Jeter shows he is completely immobile following the leg injuries. If that happens, the team will have a bigger problem to worry about other than simply replacing Jeter for defense in the late innings. If he’s not used a defensive replacement, I’m not sure how the team will use Ryan this year aside from giving Jeter and Brian Roberts the occasional day off.

Can't find a Betemit. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Can’t find a Betemit. (Rob Carr/Getty)

Roy asks: Should the Yankees take a look at Wilson Betemit as insurance for Mark Teixeira? Can Betemit stabilize the infield better than Scott Sizemore, Russ Canzler or Eduardo Nunez?

Did you know Betemit is still only 32 years old? He just turned 32 in November too. I figured he would 35 or 36 by now. Anyway, he missed almost the entire 2013 season due to a knee injury, and he only has 81 games and 515.1 innings worth of experience at first base in his career. Betemit has played a ton of third but the defensive stats crush him there, and he’s a switch-hitter who should be a platoon bat because he punishes righties (127 wRC+ since 2011) but can’t touch lefties (36 wRC+). As a bench bat who backs up first and plays third base in an emergency, the 24th or 25th man on the roster, yeah it might work. It would be worth bringing Betemit to camp as a non-roster player, but I’m not sure he’s clearly better than Sizemore, Nunez, Canzler, or whoever else at this point.

UPDATE: Betemit agreed to a minor league contract with the Rays this morning, according to Jon Heyman. So scratch that idea.

Eric asks: Can and should the Yankees employ a six-man rotation this year or at least for part of it? You can lighten the load on Hiroki Kuroda and CC Sabathia, help Tanaka transition from pitching every seven days in Japan, and give the young arms a better look other than just Spring Training.

I feel like the six-man rotation idea comes up every offseason around this time. The obvious question is this: do the Yankees even have six starters worthy of a rotation spot? Do they even have four at this point? No one really knows what to expect out of Sabathia, Tanaka, and Ivan Nova in 2014. Taking starts away from your top guys for someone like Vidal Nuno isn’t a luxury a team like the Yankees can afford. They’re going to have to fight for a playoff spot, remember. Kuroda’s and Tanaka’s (and Michael Pineda‘s) workloads are going to have to be monitored, no doubt about it, but I don’t think a straight six-man rotation is the answer. It sounds so good on the paper, but successfully pulling it off is so difficult.

Michael asks: I’m trying to find out what Tanaka’s nickname “Ma-kun” translates to English as, but i’m not having any luck. Do you know what it means?

According to Jim Baumbach, “Ma” is simply short for Masahiro while “kun” is a familiar way to address an equal. Wikipedia says it is an old high school nickname that stuck.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Jason asks: If I remember correctly, prior to being injured, there was an advantage to keeping Pineda in Triple-A until at least mid-May to push back his arbitration clock. Does that benefit still exist if the Yankees did that this year?

Pineda was the on the DL until the team activated him and sent him to Triple-A in early-July last year. He was down long enough to both delay his free agency and arbitration clock one year. Pineda will be a Super Two now (four years of arbitration rather than three), but they get to keep him for another season (through 2017) and that’s the important thing. They’ve already received the benefit and would have to keep him in the minors pretty much all season to push things back another year. If Pineda goes yet another year without pitching in the big leagues, it would be close to time to write him off completely.

Adam asks: When a player gets a non-roster invitation to Spring Training, what compensation does he receive?

Non-roster players don’t get paid anything during Spring Training. They get meal money and some kind of housing arrangement/allowance. That’s all. Guys on minor league contracts get paid a salary during the regular season only.

Dylan asks: Can you give an explanation for why pre-arbitration players don’t get exactly league minimum (i.e. J.R. Murphy‘s extra $2,700 on top of $500,000)? Thanks!

Most teams have a sliding salary scale based on service time for pre-arbitration players. Murphy was in the big leagues for a month, hence the extra $2,700. Teams can simply renew a pre-arb player’s contract for any salary as long as it is at least 80% of the previous year’s salary, but that’s a good way to get your players to hate you. A sliding scale based on service time (with adjustments for awards, All-Star Games, etc.) makes it nice and easy.

Anonymous asks: Would you guess Shawn Kelley is Opening Day setup man on this current Yankee roster?

Yeah, that’s the safe bet, but I wouldn’t count on him holding the job all summer. We’ve been spoiled these last few years by David Robertson. Here’s a quick recap of the team’s primary eighth inning guys from 2007-11, the five years before Robertson emerged.

Opening Day Setup Man End of Season Setup Man
2011 Rafael Soriano David Robertson
2010 Joba Chamberlain Kerry Wood
2009 Brian Bruney Phil Hughes
2008 Joba Chamberlain Joba Chamberlain
2007 Kyle Farnsworth Joba Chamberlain

Remember, Joba moved into the rotation at midseason in 2008. He only wound up in the bullpen late in the season after hurting his shoulder. Farnsworth took over as the primary setup man when Joba gave the starting thing a shot. Point is: don’t sweat who holds what bullpen role on Opening Day. They’ll all change. They almost always do.

Mike asks: Assuming it was allowed, how would you look at a Robinson CanoJacoby Ellsbury trade before the season starts? Would Ellsbury fit better with Seattle and would Cano fit better with NY than the way things stand now? Would either NY or Seattle have to throw in a player or pay part of a contract?

I completely understand why the Yankees didn’t match the Mariners’ offer to Cano, but there’s no doubt Robbie makes more sense for the current roster than Ellsbury. The team could go with an Alfonso Soriano-Gardner-Carlos Beltran outfield with Cano at second and a low-cost DH (or an expensive one like Kendrys Morales). The Mariners are going to let Dustin Ackley sink or swim in center this year while Nick Franklin slides into a utility role thanks to Cano, so they need the outfielder and not the infielder. Cano makes more sense for the Yankees, Ellsbury makes more sense for Seattle. I assume the Yankees would have to add another player to facilitate a trade (despite the salary difference) because Cano is the considerably better player.

Unlike Igawa, Yankees did their homework before going all in on Tanaka

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

By any measure, Kei Igawa was one of the biggest busts in Yankees history. The team spent a total of $46M to acquire him ($26M posting fee and then a five-year, $20M contract) during the 2006-07 offseason, and in return they received a 68 ERA+ in 71.2 big league innings. Igawa made his final appearance in pinstripes in June 2008 and spent most of those five years in the minors.

“It was a disaster. We failed,” said Brian Cashman to Bill Pennington in July 2011 when asked to evaluated the southpaw’s tenure with the team. According to NPB Tracker, Igawa told the Japanese version of the Wall Street Journal that Cashman and the team’s coaching staff had to ask him what his best pitch was during their first meeting. It became clear then and is obvious now the Yankees didn’t do their homework before investing $46M in the lefty. Failed might be an understatement.

For the first time since the Igawa fiasco, the Yankees finally dipped back into the Japanese talent pool last week, signing right-hander Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year contract worth $155M. The $20M release fee means the total investment is $175M, or nearly four times what they put into Igawa. Tanaka is younger and has been statistically better than Igawa was when the team signed him, but, more importantly, the Yankees made sure not to repeat their mistake and actually did their homework this time.

“We started evaluating [Tanaka] back in 2007,” said Cashman to reporters (including Andy McCullough) during a conference call last week. “So clearly we’ve been scouting over in Japan for quite some time. The evaluations on him started on him back in 2007. Certainly paid attention to him back in the 2009 WBC, when we were first able to evaluate him with a Major League baseball, against Major League hitters. This year we were at 15 of his games, including the WBC, and we sent a Major League scout from the U.S. to evaluate him in the playoffs as well.”

Tanaka was an 18-year-old rookie with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2007, so the Yankees have essentially watched him grow from a just-graduated high schooler into the best pitcher in the world who wasn’t employed by a Major League team. “By 2009, the Yankees were drooling over Tanaka and imagining what it would be like to have him in their rotation,” wrote Jack Curry following the deal. Here’s some more from his post:

Across the last few seasons, the Yankees have studied Tanaka’s impressive exploits on the mound and have seen a fierce competitor, someone that reminds them of CC Sabathia. The Yankees interviewed Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee and Darrell Rasner, former Yankees who all were teammates with Tanaka, and heard superb reports about his demeanor and toughness. By the time the Yankees made their offer to Tanaka, they had 11 different scouting evaluations from members of their organization.

When that many people evaluate a player, there are bound to be differences of opinion. It’s no surprise then that we heard one unnamed team official recently say: “Just because he had great success over there doesn’t mean he’s going to be lights out here. We’ll find out soon enough, but it’s not like he’s a sure-fire thing. I’d like to think so, but I’m not convinced.” Those differences of opinion are a good thing. There should always be someone challenging the popular opinion and forcing them to look deeper, especially when talking about a deal of this magnitude.

(AP/Kyodo News)
(AP/Kyodo News)

“We made a determined effort to put ourselves in the position to know as much as we possibly could, in the event that he was ever posted,” added Cashman. “So this has been a long, drawn-out process, not just from the financial negotiating standpoint that’s taken since he was posted. But obviously making sure that we were in a position that in the event a talent such as his became available that we were able to make recommendations accordingly, based on the scouting assessments.”

Based on various reports, several other clubs had interest in Tanaka and were offering contracts in excess of $100M, including the pitching-wise Dodgers, White Sox and Diamondbacks. The Cubs supposedly made an offer similar to the Yankees’ but refused to include the opt-out clause after the fourth year, which is why they lost out. They aren’t ready to contend immediately and didn’t want to lose him right as their window opened. Those teams all spent time scouting Tanaka and thought enough of him to make significant offers, so the Yankees aren’t the only team to consider him an impact starter. (Just FYI: The next highest bid for Igawa was $15M by the Mets.)

It’s entirely possible Tanaka will be a bust like Igawa, just way more expensive. No one can truly know how he will handle the big leagues until he gets up on a mound in games that mean something. If Tanaka does flame out or merely settles in as a number four or five starter rather than the number two he is widely considered, it won’t be because the Yankees didn’t do their homework. They’ve been on him for years and were one of several teams to think highly of his combination or age, ability, and stuff. Igawa was a disaster, no doubt about it, but the Yankees seem to have learned from that experience. They won’t be caught with too little information again.