Masahiro Tanaka was named the AL Pitcher of the Month for May, MLB announced. He had a 1.88 ERA (2.21 FIP) with a 42/6 K/BB in 43 innings across six starts last month, so it was very clearly deserved. Tanaka’s the first Yankee to be named Pitcher of the Month since … Ivan Nova last August. Two in the last four months. Neato.
Got eight questions for you this week, some with long-ish answers and some with short answers. If you want to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise, use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.
JoeyA asks: How much would TANAK get on the open market RIGHT NOW. My guess: more than 7/155.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure Masahiro Tanaka would fetch more than seven years and $155M right now. He’s legitimately pitching like an ace (2.17 ERA and 2.81 FIP) because he doesn’t walk anyone (1.09 BB/9 and 3.1 BB%) and he misses a ton of bats (10.24 K/9 and 29.5 K%). Tanaka’s been durable throughout his career, he’s adjusted to the different ball and five-day schedule just fine, and he’s only 25 years old. Plus he’s a stone cold killer on the mound. Absolutely nothing rattles him. He would be a seriously hot commodity on the open market now that he’s shown he can handle MLB.
Tanaka’s contract (not counting the release fee) is already the fourth largest pitching contract in baseball history. I don’t think he’d get Clayton Kershaw money (seven years, $215M) if he was a free agent right now, but Felix Hernandez (seven years, $175M) and Justin Verlander (seven years, $180M) money seems very doable. That said, none of those three were free agents, they all signed extensions. Tanaka would be able to create a bidding war, so maybe $200M isn’t out of the question. I think Max Scherzer’s headed for $200M this winter and he turns 30 in July. Wouldn’t you rather have Tanaka’s age 25-31 seasons over Scherzer’s age 30-36 seasons?
Stephen asks: CC Sabathia‘s xFIP is 3.14, good for 21st in the bigs. Since the purpose of xFIP is to normalize home run rates, do you see a large regression coming for the big guy? How is it possible for a guy with his peripherals to be this bad? Tanaka is actually leading the xFIP leaderboard, due to his bloated HR rate. Is it possible that he’s going to get even better as the season progresses?
I am absolutely not a fan of xFIP because it does normalize homer rates to the league average. Why are we doing that, exactly? We know pitchers give up homers at different rates so why would we expect them to regress back to the rest of the league? You’re better off comparing a pitcher’s homer rate to his recent performance.
For example, Sabathia has a 23.3% HR/FB rate this year, which is way higher than last season (13.0%) and the last three seasons (11.3% from 2011-13). At the same time, he’s given up some serious bombs this year — Hit Tracker says eight of Sabathia’s ten homers allowed were “no doubters” or had “plenty,” basically meaning they were crushed. One was “just enough” and barely got over the wall. The other was Wil Myers’ inside the park homer — and that indicates hitters are squaring him up well. The 23.3% HR/FB rate is insane (would be the highest in MLB history by a mile) and I would expect it come down some, but given the swings hitters are taking against him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a true talent 15-16% HR/FB guy now, especially in Yankee Stadium. The AL average is 9.4% this year and it feels like it would take a miracle for Sabathia to get his homer rate down that far at this point of his career. Long story short: I’m not an xFIP fan at all.
Spencer asks: I know it’s a tad premature, but how does the contract Yangervis Solarte has work? Does he become a free agent this year? Also, suppose he has the same slash line as he has now at the end of the season what would you sign him for?
This is the first time Solarte has been in the big leagues, so the Yankees still have his full six years of team control. Assuming he never goes back to the minors, he’ll earn something close to the league minimum from 2014-16, then go through arbitration from 2017-19. Solarte can not qualify for free agency until after the 2019 season at the earliest, when he will be 32 years old.
As for signing him long-term … I think it might be too early for that. Solarte’s been awesome, don’t get me wrong, but given his out of nowhere emergence from mediocre minor league journeyman to impact big leaguer, I think you need to see if he does it again next season before committing real money to him. If he’d agree to something like five years and $10M after the season (say $550k, $750k, $1.5M, $2.9M, $4.3M from 2015-19), then hell yeah, do it. He might jump at the guaranteed payday after toiling in the minors so long. At worst he’d be an expensive bench player four years down the line. The Yankees have a ton of money and can roll the dice by waiting a year to see if this is the real Solarte though.
Chris asks: Any thoughts at a run at Mike Moustakas? He’s off to an awful start and they are talking of sending him back to the minors.
I think the Yankees should call and ask, sure. Moustakas is off to a dreadful start (53 wRC+ going into last night’s game) and he simply can’t hit lefties, either this year (.198 wOBA) or throughout his relatively short big league career (.267 wOBA), so he’s basically a platoon player. He does have left-handed pop and he’s made himself into a strong defender at the hot corner, plus he is only 25 and it wasn’t that long ago that he was considered one of the ten best prospects in baseball. Maybe hitting coach Kevin Long can help him take him to the next level like he did Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson (and Solarte?).
The Royals are not the cellar-dwellers they once were, or at least they aren’t acting like that anymore. They’re trying to win right now, this year, before James Shields leaves as a free agent. I don’t think they’ll trade their starting third baseman — they have some internal candidates to replace him, so trading Moustakas is not necessarily a crazy idea — for a handful of prospects. They’ll want help for the big league team in return. Kansas City could probably use another outfielder and another starting pitcher. There’s no way I’d give up Brett Gardner for Moose Tacos and I doubt Zoilo Almonte or Ichiro Suzuki would cut it. As for the pitching, hah. The Yankees have zero to spare. He’s worth a phone call but I’m not sure there’s a good trade fit at this moment.
Mike P. asks: Under the new replay system, let’s say the HQ in New York tells the umpires a batter is safe at first, but the umpires watch the scoreboard replay and think he’s out. Do they have to follow the call from NYC or can they make their own judgment?
It’s all done in the Midtown office, the reviews and the decision. They just relay the call through the headsets. I don’t believe the on-field umpires have the authority to make the call either once it goes to review, that would defeat the purpose.
Daniel asks: You mentioned being sort of iffy on the decision to give Tino Martinez a plaque. Are there any of the other plaques or retired numbers that you disagree with or that at least are strange to you?
Here’s the list of monuments, plaques, and retired numbers. None of them stand out to me as odd but most of those guys played or managed or whatever long before my time. I think there’s a “feel” element to this stuff. You can’t just set some arbitrary WAR threshold and say guys over this number get a plaque, guys over this number get their number retired, so on and so forth. The guy has to feel like he belongs in Monument Park. You know I mean. Tino was awesome for the Yankees for six years, but was he an all-time great Yankee? Not a chance. I think others like Willie Randolph, Bobby Murcer, and Joe Gordon (Hall of Famer!) are more deserving of plaques. That’s just my opinion though. Everyone is welcome to feel differently.
Dan asks: Do you think Peter O’Brien has reached his top level this season? He got a quick promotion. If he keeps hitting like he did in High-A could he make it to AAA this year?
O’Brien was promoted quickly because he spent the second half of last season in High-A as well, it wasn’t just a few weeks early this year. That said, yes I definitely think another promotion may come later this season. Not right away, O’Brien needs some time to catch his breath and get comfortable in Double-A, but in August or so? Sure, bump him up if he’s still raking. Guys like him — drafted as a college senior, ton of power, lots of strikeouts, never walks, still trying to find a position — are the ones teams should promote aggressively because you’re not going to know what you have until he gets to the highest levels of the minors. He’s not someone like, say, Luis Torrens, who is trying to learn to catch high-end velocity and get through the grind of a full season. Give O’Brien like two months in Double-A then see where he’s at.
Sanchez still needs to work on his catching and I mean just about everything. Footwork, receiving, throwing, the whole nine. I think they should let him focus on improving behind the plate because that is where he’s most valuable. Who’s to say McCann won’t be a full-time DH and Murphy won’t be a bust by time Sanchez is ready? We’re still a long way away from worrying how he fits onto the roster and I think the odds of him being traded are much higher than the odds of him wearing pinstripes for more than a few weeks. When he gets to Triple-A and it looks like he might be ready to help the MLB team, that’s when I’d worry about his position. For now, leave him behind the plate and let him learn.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
The Yankees and Red Sox do not play the final game of their four-game weekend series until tonight (8pm ET on ESPN), so here are some random links I have lying around to help pass the time. Most of them aren’t Yankees-related but they’re all worth reading. I wouldn’t link to them otherwise. Enjoy:
- Tom Verducci put together a great article on Masahiro Tanaka and it covers pretty much everything. His career in Japan, the pursuit from various MLB teams, blending into the clubhouse, the cultural differences — “The [toilet] washlet is a system in Japan where you press a button and water comes out and washes your ass. Not having that is a big difference,” he said — and a bunch of other stuff. It’s really good, so check it out.
- Yasiel Puig might be the most polarizing player in baseball today. He’s insanely talented but prone to dumb plays (overthrown cutoff man, etc.) and dumb off-field decisions (speeding arrests, showing up late), and that makes him a popular target for the media. Dan Le Batard, who is a bit of a dope on television/radio but a brilliant columnist, penned this excellent piece on why it’s difficult for us to understand why Puig doesn’t just change. Culture, man.
- The Cardinals are the premier player development organization in baseball right now, and Derrick Goold wrote this article on their strategy for scouting and developing pitchers. They specifically look for guys with arm strength and athleticism, two traits that can not be taught. In the minors, they emphasize weak contact (not necessarily on the ground) and throwing all pitches to hitters on both sides of the plate. Patience as well. They don’t mind if players take five or six years in the minors to develop.
- With that in mind, here’s an article by Travis Sawchik on fastball velocity, the average of which continues to increase around the league. The recent emphasis on young players means more fresh arms who can really cut it loose. Velocity isn’t everything, obviously, but it sure does give a pitcher more margin for error. The Pirates, who have flame-throwing former Yankees first rounder Gerrit Cole, are one club that has placed more emphasis on pure heat.
- And finally, I enjoyed this post by Drew Fairservice about making advanced stats work for television. The Astros show stats like WAR and BABIP on their broadcasts, but most fans don’t care about that stuff and explaining it each time isn’t practical. I think less is more on television broadcasts.
I know it’s only Spring Training, but man oh man has Michael Pineda looked good. He looks healthy, his delivery is free and easy, his slider is still vicious, and his fastball gone from topping out at 92 mph in his first outing to topping out at 94 mph in his third. It has only been three games and a total of nine innings, but it’s hard not to be encouraged and excited by what Pineda’s done these last few weeks. He looks as good as we could have possibly hoped.
And yet, despite Pineda’s strong showing, he isn’t the big pitching story of the spring. Masahiro Tanaka has come over from the Rakuten Golden Eagles and after only a few weeks of camp, it feels like he’s been here for years. The transition has appeared to be seamless — I’m sure it’s been difficult for him, how could it not? — and his outings have matched the scouting reports. He throws strikes, has a wipeout splitter, and an underrated slider. When he’s gotten in jams, he’s cranked it up a notch, something we heard he’ll do long before he signed on the dotted line. As with Pineda, Tanaka has looked as good as we could have possibly hoped.
Flying under the radar this spring has been Ivan Nova, at least to some extent. Following yesterday’s outing he now has 21 strikeouts and two walks in 19.2 Grapefruit League innings, and I think the most impressive thing was the way he made adjustments mid-start and rebounded from a terrible first inning against the Astros a week or two ago. It was the kind of bad inning that used to spiral out of control, but instead Nova righted the ship and put together a good start. He’s been healthy and he’s been throwing the ball well. It’s been a strong spring for Ivan.
“I’ve seen a guy that’s come into spring training that, it seems like he realizes how good he can be,” Girardi said. “And I think that’s important. I think for all young players, there’s that doubt always a little bit, can I do this on a consistent basis? Can I do it start after start, or game after game if you’re a position player? Do I need to look over my starter? Is there someone always doubting what I can do? I think he’s realized that, you know what, I can be pretty good.”
Joe Girardi said that to Chad Jennings yesterday and was referring to Nova, but he could have easily been talking about Pineda or Tanaka. All three came to camp with something to prove and they’ve answered every question along the way. Just about everything has gone according to plan with these three and that’s pretty great. Usually when you’re talking about three pitchers — I guess this applies to any type of player, really — one will slip up somewhere along the lines. Two out of three is a pretty good success rate in baseball.
But all three guys have done everything they’ve needed to do in Spring Training and it’s really exciting. It’s really exciting for 2014 and for the Yankees going forward, because all three of these guys are young. Nova is the oldest and he just turned 27 in January. Pineda turned 25 that same month and Tanaka turned 25 back in November. The Yankees have an older roster in general and the other two members of the rotation are up there in age — Hiroki Kuroda just turned 39 and CC Sabathia is about 75 in pitching years given all the mileage on his arm — but these three fellas are all right smack in their prime or about the enter the prime of their careers. I’m going to use the word again: exciting.
This is Spring Training and the time of the year for overwhelming and occasionally irrational optimism. I don’t know how any Yankees fan could look at Pineda, Tanaka, and Nova these last few weeks and not start dreaming about a rotation built around their young power arms for the next few years. We know there are going to be bumps in the road, they’re inevitable, but right now everything is going right and that’s something the club needed in Spring Training. The pieces of the next great Yankees rotation are in place. We’ve know that because seen ’em with our own eyes these last few weeks.