To The Highest Bidder: Masahiro Tanaka
If you haven’t been living under the proverbial baseball rock, you’ve most likely heard the name Masahiro Tanaka by now and judging by what you’you’ve heard or where you’ve heard from, you’re probably aware that Masahiro is unbeaten in Japan and contains an invincible “magic pitch” in his repertoire which pretty much makes him infallible…okay, I’m joking but for as much as we know about Tanaka, he’s pretty much shrouded in the same mystique than surrounded Daisuke Matsuzaka a couple years ago when he was to be posted. It wasn’t until a couple years later that we learned there was no such “gyroball” and that Matsuzaka, while great, wasn’t the superstar he was billed to be. So while I’m just as big a fan as the next self-proclaimed Masahiro Tanaka superfan out there, here’s the unabridged, unadulterated and completely unbiased (but maybe just a little), look at Masahiro Tanaka, or Ma-Kun as he is known in Japan.
At age 24, the 6’2 205lbs Tanaka is so young, he isn’t even remotely close to reaching his prime yet. Nonetheless, having pitched 7 seasons in the in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) he’s already well on his way to that grizzled veteran status, especially if you consider the fact that Tanaka has already took home more hardware than every player on his team combined. Tanaka is a two time winner of the Sawamura Eiji Award (the equivalent of the MLB Cy Young), a 5x NPB All Star and just this past season, added a championship ring to his collection.
As if this weren’t enough, Tanaka has also delivered a pretty ethereal stat line of 2.3ERA, 8.5 SO/9, 1.108WHIP throughout his career, which sort of resembles that video game stat line you might have had when you decided to play MLB the Show under the easy difficulty. Oh…and yes, i nearly forgot to mention, Tanaka went unbeaten last year going 24-0 in what would decidedly be his last year in the NPB.
Bottom line? Tanaka is Awesome. But I hope you realize that there is no such thing as a perfect pitcher, because there’s more…
Now we get past the general fan-boying to the nitty gritty aspects of Tanaka’s pitching. Tanaka’s pitching repertoire is made apparent to us thanks to a rival NPB team’s GM.
“Tanaka can throw five pitches — splitter, fastball, slider, changeup, curve — with good command. But the splitter just disappears. That’s why batters can’t hit it.”
We’ll get to the split finger in a second but let’s dissect Tanaka’s pitch repertoire first. Thanks to NPBtracker.com, we are able to see that Tanaka’s fastball velocity has sat around 90-91mph his whole career; though Tanaka is able to reach back and hit the mid-90s when he needs to. Tanaka’s fastball isn’t overpowering by any means, but it’s not slow either, which means he will and should be able to set up his secondary offerings effectively with the fastball.
Tanaka’s slider looks a bit like a “show-me” secondary offering and judging by it’s high usage rate, which is second only to the fastball, it is Tanaka’s secondary offering of choice. The pitch, which tails away and sinks a little on righties seems to be quite effective against right handed batters of the NPB, though it does seem to be a pitch players at the MLB level could sit on and drive if overused and left up in the strike-zone. Nonetheless, the slider does flash “plus” potential; it is interesting to note that NPBtracker has recorded Tanaka throwing his slider around the 85-87 MPH range at times, which would put him pretty close to some of the harder throwers in the MLB like Samardjiza and Brandon Morrow, to name a few.
At the 00:57 mark in this video, you can see Tanaka’s curveball, which is a slow curve similar to the one Darvish has been throwing in the MLB. The slow curve is a pitch designed to be swung at in the hopes of messing up the batters timing and not a pitch with frequent usage rate in the MLB.
Finally we have Tanaka’s splitter which NPBTracker labels as a “forkball”. As you can see here, the splitter generates some pretty ugly swings and misses and is Tanaka’s outpitch. The splitter hovers around 84-86MPH and has a nasty downward and cutting movement on batters. Tanaka throws his splitter to batters on both sides of the plate but uses it more against left-handed batters. The splitter just seems to fall right off the table against batters and should project to be a true “plus-pitch” in the MLB. Left handed batters beware.
Tanaka is a true power pitcher in every sense of the word, he likes to elevate his fastball, run his slider out of the strike zone and bottom out his splitter on hitters, which means he is definitely not trying to pitch to contact. There is really no good comparison for Tanaka in the MLB right now. As much as everyone would like to believe, he is not Yu Darvish. He simply lacks the overpowering velocity and movement to be at Darvish’s level. A more accurate comparison would be in the Kuroda/Iwakuma mold, though he throws about 5 mph harder than Iwakuma and does project to generate more K’s than Kuroda.
There needs to be an agreement on the new posting system before Tanaka can join the MLB, but the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers have been the most vocal about Tanaka so far. Other interested teams may include the Mets, Blue Jays, Angels, Red Sox and the Rangers. I would also not count out the Mariners just based on the strong ties they have to Japan.
No doubt, Tanaka will get every opportunity to show he can be a front line starting pitcher in the Majors when he does get signed. Having thrown 200 IPs twice over the past three years, Tanaka will not need to be stretched out or restricted in his Innings. When the time comes, one lucky team will be counting on Tanaka to anchor their staff.
Tanaka looks to project as #2-3 starter and top 35 starting pitcher in the big leagues and that’s a bit of an understatement given Tanaka’s age and his ability to develop into the staff ace if he keeps developing his secondary offerings and control. Tanaka understands that he needs to pitch and not throw, something many power pitchers have trouble understanding at the big league level.
NOMProjections which is a site dedicated to projecting how NPB players will translate into the big leagues using advanced metrics had this to say about Tanaka:
[quote]”The current projections have him set to produce an FIP of around 3, and an xFIP of around 3.5 (xFIP projection needs a small amount of tweaking to update to a 2013 average home run rate, but should be fairly close). As far as FIP is concerned, that would put him in a tie with David Price as the tenth best starter in the league. Depending on innings pitch, that would make him a 4-5 win pitcher. By xFIP, that puts Tanaka about level with Mat Latos or Kris Medlen, which would be around 30th in the league, and a 3-4 win pitcher….But most importantly, has the makings of an ace and a 4-5 win, top 20 pitcher, and he should be coming this season ~ NOMProjections”[/quote]
There is no doubt that Tanaka has the makings of a good pitcher in the MLB, but we will all have to wait and see before we know just how good Ma-Kun can get.