Masahiro Tanaka Is Beyond McCullersing

I wrote last week about how, based on the early evidence, Patrick Corbin is McCullersing. That is, of course, a reference to Lance McCullers Jr., who has taught us that, if you have a really good pitch, you should just throw it a whole bunch more. McCullers has a great curveball, so he throws a lot of his curveball. Corbin has a great slider, so he’s started to throw a lot more of his slider. It’s a strategy that’s almost stupidly obvious, but it’s taken a while to catch on. Such is the power of baseball tradition.

There’s another way to think about this. You can throw more of a good pitch, but then, all the pitch rates have to add up to 100%. So if you’re throwing more of one thing, that has to come at the expense of something else. Typically, what we see is more secondary stuff, at the expense of fastballs. And this is how we get to talking about Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka already pitches for a team that’s opted to de-emphasize the heater. But even within that context, Tanaka is extraordinary. Tanaka is working away from his hard stuff. He’s been doing this for a while already, but he’s gotten to the point where he’s throwing hard pitches as if he were a knuckleballer without a knuckleball.

Since arriving in the majors, Tanaka has thrown six different pitches: a four-seamer, a sinker, a cutter, a curveball, a slider, and a splitter. The four-seamer, he’s thrown about 15% of the time. The sinker, about 20%. The cutter, about 8%. These are Tanaka’s three hardest pitches. They’re basically different types of fastballs.

Tanaka has started twice so far in 2018. Of his pitches, 16% have been four-seamers, which is fairly normal. And yet he’s thrown only six sinkers. Even more, he’s thrown only one single cutter. Tanaka, to this point, has been particularly slider- and splitter-heavy, continuing a trend from later last season. Over Tanaka’s last five games, only 27% of his pitches have been the three hard types. It’s even more stark when you split 2018 away. Here’s a familiar-looking plot from Brooks Baseball.

Barely 20% of Tanaka’s offerings have been hard pitches. In terms of single-game hard-pitch rate, Tanaka has achieved two of his three lowest career rates in his most recent two starts. The other of the three came last October. Looking at this year’s starting pitchers, the average stands at about 60% hard pitches. The name nearest to Tanaka is teammate Jordan Montgomery, at 32%. Tanaka has the lowest hard-pitch rate by a full 12 percentage points. Even McCullers himself is at 36%.

We have some half-decent pitch-type information stretching all the way back to 2002. I split by season and looked at every single starting pitcher with at least ten innings thrown. That gave me a sample of more than 4,200 pitcher-seasons. Tanaka has some particular company. The only names with lower rates of hard pitches thrown: Jared Fernandez, Charlie Haeger, Tim Wakefield, Steven Wright, R.A. Dickey, and Steve Sparks. Those are the only pitchers who have come even close to Tanaka’s low hard-pitch rate in a season, and they all threw a knuckleball. Tanaka doesn’t have one of those, but, so what?

This season, Tanaka has thrown nine pitches in a 1-and-0 count. None of them have been fastballs or cutters. He’s thrown another nine pitches in a 2-and-1 count. None of them have been fastballs or cutters. He’s thrown five out of 21 hard pitches in 1-and-1 counts. He’s thrown 14 out of 43 hard pitches in 0-and-0 counts. Tanaka simply refuses to give in, insisting on pitching backward, because backward is his forward. Against the Orioles the other day, Tanaka threw a total of 13 pitches with at least one more ball than strike. These are, conventionally, fastball counts. Tanaka didn’t throw a hard pitch until pitch number nine. Here’s how Tim Beckham handled it.

The next time Beckham came up, the count ran to 2-and-2. Beckham swung.

Credit to Beckham — he stayed on the pitch and wound up with an opposite-field single. But you can see how Beckham clearly cut down on his swing, even compared to earlier swings in the same game. Beckham appears to have been ready for something offspeed, and then he just threw the bat out when he saw a heater. The fastball caught him off guard, because, at this point, when you’re facing Masahiro Tanaka, a fastball is a secondary pitch. Maybe even a tertiary pitch, if you want to be pedantic.

The thinking here is the same as ever. Over his big-league career, Tanaka has not thrown successful hard pitches. He’s thrown very successful “soft” pitches. Tanaka arrived in 2014, so I went back to then and looked at every starter with at least 300 innings. For every pitch type, I calculated the run value per 200 innings. Here are Tanaka’s various percentile ranks.

Very ineffective four-seam fastball. Very ineffective sinker. Pretty ineffective cutter. Incredibly effective splitter, and greatly effective slider. Grouping all hard pitches, Tanaka has ranked in the 11th percentile among starters. Grouping everything else, Tanaka has ranked in the 98th percentile among starters. The only starters with more effective soft stuff have been Clayton Kershaw and Carlos Carrasco. More importantly, the only starter with a bigger difference between hard and soft stuff has been Jhoulys Chacin. Chacin’s soft stuff has been better than his hard stuff by 41 runs per 200 innings. Then there’s Tanaka, with a difference of 40 runs. In third place, none other than McCullers, with a difference of 36 runs. These are all pitchers who could stand to throw fewer hard pitches. Tanaka is taking it to the extreme.

McCullers has dropped his own hard-pitch rate in 2018, throwing even more curveballs. But he’s got nothing on Tanaka’s approach. It’s as if Tanaka is searching for the lower limit, the threshold at which his repertoire is optimized. Tanaka shouldn’t go all the way to 0% hard pitches. He should mix in the occasional fastballs and cutter. But maybe 20% is better than 30%. It seems like 30% was better than 40%. And what if, I don’t know, 10% might be better than 20%? There’s some room to explore here, but even if it sounds kind of crazy, why should it? Tanaka’s slider is terrific. His splitter is terrific. Might be the best splitter in the world, pending more Shohei Ohtani data. Why shouldn’t Tanaka lean on those pitches ever more heavily? Every single batter can hit a fastball. Every single batter expects to see fastballs in fastball counts. Every single batter likes fastballs, when they’re around the zone. Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t thrown a good fastball. He hasn’t thrown good hard pitches, perhaps because hitters have been specifically looking for them. There’s zero reason for Tanaka to cave. He knows his own strengths.

Tanaka is now a knuckleball pitcher, only with a splitter and a slider instead. McCullers’ approach makes all the sense in the world. It’s a very good curveball, right? Tanaka’s approach is no different. It’s just, instead of one best pitch, he has two of them, along with a few clear worst pitches. Tanaka is here to get hitters out. If you don’t need to throw many hard pitches, why force them? At the end of the day, that’s exactly what the hitters all want.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

So if more [starting] pitchers start pitching like relievers who throw tons of breaking stuff and [starting] pitchers are throwing harder than ever and getting less outs than ever… the inevitable pitching [near] singularity actually much closer than we realize?

Can SP go just as deep into games as they otherwise would throwing pitch mixes like this? Would fatigue be worse per pitch all else being equal? Would TTO penalties be worse?

These cases fascinate me; thanks for the great read!

Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago
Reply to  scotman144

It’s going to be fascinating to see if injuries change… up or down.