Masahiro Tanaka: The Market’s Best Starter

Some people, surely, are being racist when they draw comparisons between Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda. Some other people, surely, are being not racist, but lazy, failing to look much beyond country of origin. But it is neither automatically racist nor automatically lazy to compare the two starters, because it turns out the comparison is a pretty good one. Masahiro Tanaka has a lot in common with Hiroki Kuroda, and Kuroda has been quite good from the get-go, and Tanaka is entering an offseason in which he might stand to have a higher price tag than Yu Darvish.

What Tanaka doesn’t have is Darvish’s raw stuff. On top of that, he hasn’t put up quite the same numbers in Japan, so there’s a reason people aren’t talking about him as potentially the next best starting pitcher on the planet. But there’s more money in baseball now than there was then, even though “then” wasn’t long ago, and among the teams looking to land an impact starter are some of the richest teams in the league. This isn’t going to be the offseason of Masahiro Tanaka, but it’s going to be the offseason with Masahiro Tanaka, and he ought to be the kind of pitcher who can alter a playoff race.

In a good way, for the team with Tanaka on it. Should’ve made that more clear. There’s always this air of mystery when it comes to international players, because they haven’t yet succeeded or failed as American pros. They represent limitless possibilities, and people naturally shift their attention toward the positive extreme. As a consequence, international players can end up a bit overhyped, but here’s something we can say with a high degree of certainty: Tanaka’s an extraordinarily talented pitcher. He throws multiple pitches, he’s established his own track record of durability, and he’s succeeded at one of the highest levels in the world. Tanaka’s a risk, just like every pitcher, but there’s no question he possesses stuff that can get big leaguers out. That’s why he’ll command a high posting fee, and that’s why he’ll subsequently command a big long-term deal.

The comparison between Tanaka and Kuroda goes beyond just the Japanese thing. Both are right-handed starters. Both have fastballs around the low 90s. Both throw a lot of sliders, both are known for their command, and most importantly, both feature a frequent splitter. There just haven’t been that many splitters among big-league starting pitchers lately, which is one reason why the Kuroda comparison isn’t as lazy as it can seem. Since 2002, just seven starters have thrown at least 20% splitters. Just 11 more have thrown at least 10% splitters. Included are names like Kuroda, Hideo Nomo, Kenshin Kawakami, and Hisashi Iwakuma. The splitter is a popular pitch in Japan, so Japanese pitchers frequently make for easy comparisons for Japanese pitchers.

Ben Badler has referred to Tanaka’s splitter as being one of the best splitters in all of baseball, everywhere, and there are indications that even by just throwing a splitter pretty frequently, Tanaka could have an advantage in the majors. Since 2002, those 18 starters who have thrown at least 10% splitters have averaged a 100 ERA- and a 99 FIP-. Everybody else has averaged a 106 ERA- and a 104 FIP-. The splitter pitchers have generated more strikeouts and issued slightly fewer walks. Obviously, there have been good splitter pitchers and worse splitter pitchers, but it’s a valuable pitch against hitters from both sides if you can command it and keep from getting hurt by it.

Maybe you’d like to see some visuals of Tanaka’s stuff. Here are a few clips from the World Baseball Classic in March, and in this game Tanaka threw two innings against Cuba, striking out six.





The fastball, the slider, the splitter — the weapons are all in there, and while a highlight package could make Edinson Volquez look good, it isn’t difficult to reconcile Tanaka’s stuff with Tanaka’s numbers. What he lacks in overpowering velocity, he makes up for with movement, location, and what the seasoned pros like to call pitchability. Also he can run it up to 96 or 97 if he wants.

There is one concern about Tanaka’s fastball — that it arrives on a flat plane, making it particularly hittable when it’s left up. This is in large part a consequence of Tanaka’s delivery, in which he drops down pretty far before release:


He ends up with the release point of a shorter pitcher, so Tanaka’s fastball doesn’t feel like it’s being thrown downhill. But, Tanaka doesn’t look to be a success because he has a league-best heater. He looks to be a success because he could have a league-best split, with a heater that’s fine and a slider that’s better than that. Koji Uehara doesn’t have an awesome fastball, himself. It just seems awesome when hitters have to worry about an unhittable splitter that tumbles out of the zone.

It’s probably about time to peek at what Tanaka has done over there. Kuroda, Kawakami, Darvish, and Iwakuma are the recent imports to make plenty of big-league starts. Here’s a table comparing them to Tanaka, focusing on strikeouts and walks, covering their last three seasons in Japan, and adjusting for league:

Pitcher BB% K% lgBB% lgK% BB%ratio K%ratio
Darvish 6.1% 28% 8.4% 18% 73% 153%
Iwakuma 6.0% 18% 8.4% 18% 71% 100%
Kawakami 4.8% 23% 7.7% 18% 62% 126%
Kuroda 4.9% 19% 7.8% 18% 63% 102%
Tanaka 3.7% 25% 8.1% 17% 46% 144%

The last three years, Tanaka’s walk rate has been less than half the league-average walk rate. The others haven’t come real close to that, and only Darvish has approached and surpassed Tanaka’s strikeout numbers. I chose not to include home-run numbers, since the samples are all pretty limited, but Tanaka has unsurprisingly done a fine job of keeping the ball in the park. Homers in Japan, also, are less common than they used to be.

If there is one troubling thing for Tanaka, it’s in here:

Season BB% K% lgBB% lgK% BB%ratio K%ratio
2011 3.7% 28% 7.5% 18% 49% 154%
2012 3.0% 24% 7.7% 16% 39% 148%
2013 4.3% 22% 9.2% 17% 46% 128%

The last three years, Tanaka’s walks have remained stable. But he just lost a chunk out of his strikeout rate, even as the league numbers increased. On the one hand, that’s always cause for further investigation. On the other hand, Tanaka still struck out a lot of guys, and it’s not like he lost any of his overall effectiveness. Look back at the table above this most recent table. Neither Iwakuma nor Kuroda struck out a ton of batters in Japan, and in the majors they’ve been highly effective, with few speed bumps.

The question is whether Tanaka lost strikeouts as a consequence of his aggressive workload. Just the other day, people were talking about a start in which he threw 160 pitches, subsequently throwing another 15 pitches in relief the next day. Tanaka wouldn’t face that kind of workload in the States, but people wonder what toll it might have taken on his body. If his numbers suggest anything, it’s that he’s just fine. Japanese pitchers, also, start less frequently than major-league pitchers do, so workload comparisons aren’t perfect.

We have two facts:

  1. Tanaka has been worked hard
  2. Tanaka is great!

No team can just ignore fact no. 1, but the more important of the facts is no. 2. Yu Darvish dealt with a high workload, and he’s still pitching strong. Daisuke Matsuzaka dealt with a high workload, and he started to come apart. Hisashi Iwakuma had shoulder problems in his last year in Japan, and last season he threw 220 innings, ending with an extended scoreless streak. The question’s always going to be there with any Japanese pitcher who’s pitched a lot, but at the end of the day, unless there are other obvious warning signs, it’s probably best to just assume a pitcher is a pitcher and pitchers get hurt sometimes. You pay for talent and hope for durability. Tanaka isn’t to be considered some kind of Rich Harden.

Here’s the funny thing about international-player mystery: you can take all the fun out of it if you just look at the basic numbers. Tanaka will pitch in the major leagues next season, presumably. What will matter is his ability to prevent the other team from scoring runs. Forget all the details. If he can prevent runs by 30% better than average, he’ll pitch like Clayton Kershaw. If 20% better than average, he’s Matt Cain. If 10% better than average, he’s Mark Buehrle. If average, he’s Edwin Jackson. If worse, he’s worse. It all comes down to runs per inning, and innings. Tanaka will follow his own unique path toward numbers that other people have posted before.

But all Hiroki Kuroda has done since arriving in the majors is post an 85 ERA- that ranks him with guys like Jon Lester and Tim Hudson. Tanaka has Kuroda’s splitter, and he has Kuroda’s location, so there are reasons to expect him to have something like Kuroda’s success. It just so happens that Hiroki Kuroda is one of baseball’s very most underrated starting pitchers. Masahiro Tanaka probably isn’t going to fly under the same radar.

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.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments