Masahiro Tanaka’s Non-Secret Weapon

Two things, both from Wednesday. Before the first game of a Yankees/Cubs doubleheader, the YES Network broadcast was profiling scheduled starter Masahiro Tanaka. They, of course, had very positive things to say, and at one point, Al Leiter remarked, “what I like is that he’s attacking the zone.” No nibbling, with that guy. Aggressive, polished rookie.

Later, Wednesday night, I got an email from Dave Cameron, asking if hitters should just stand there with their bats on their shoulders, since Tanaka doesn’t throw strikes. Why not force him to come into the zone? Is he even able to come into the zone often enough?

Two analyses by two analysts of one pitcher on one day, arriving at basically opposite conclusions. Leiter said Tanaka attacks the zone. Dave said Tanaka doesn’t attack the zone. What’s going on here? It’s time to gush some more about Masahiro Tanaka.

Here’s a graph. You know what are closely related? Strike rate and zone rate. That shouldn’t surprise you at all. Below, you’ll see split-season data from 2008-2013, for all pitcher-seasons of at least 100 innings. I’ve also, on the same graph, included a couple data points from 2014, to give you some frame of reference.


In the early going, we have a couple outliers. Felix Hernandez has thrown about 42% of pitches in the zone, and he’s thrown about 69% strikes. Masahiro Tanaka has thrown about 42% of pitches in the zone, and he’s thrown about 70% strikes. Felix is interesting, but known — we’re aware he’s one of the world’s greatest pitchers. Tanaka’s still new, and the early results couldn’t really be much more encouraging.

Supporting Dave’s argument: Tanaka’s really low zone rate. Supporting Leiter’s argument: Tanaka’s really high strike rate. Tanaka’s basically running a Cliff Lee strike rate and a Francisco Liriano contact rate with a Francisco Liriano zone rate. In other words, he’s Liriano with more strikes. In other words, he’s damned near perfect. And recall that he only just started here a couple weeks ago.

Any sort of outlier, naturally, needs to be regressed, especially this early on, but we can still pause and acknowledge what Tanaka has done to this point. Between 2008-2013, there were 25 pitcher-seasons in which a guy threw at least 68% strikes over at least 100 innings. The lowest zone rate was about 52%. Flipped around, there were 36 pitcher-seasons in which a guy threw no better than 45% of pitches in the zone over at least 100 innings. The highest strike rate was about 64%. Driving this is that Tanaka’s gotten swings out of the zone. He’s gotten more than almost anybody else.

A map of swings and non-swings against Tanaka thus far:


And you know what’s in large part responsible for that? Tanaka’s splitter, the pitch that everyone simultaneously feared and lauded even before it came over to the continent.


Among pitches thrown by starters at least 50 times this season, batters have swung most often at Juan Nicasio’s slider. They’ve swung at 67% of sliders, while 41% of them have been in the zone. The runner-up: batters have swung at 65% of Tanaka’s splitters, even though just 32% of them have been in the zone. Tanaka’s splitter benefits from his other weapons, and it’s not like he never makes a mistake with it — he allowed that leadoff home run to Melky Cabrera with it. Tanaka’s success isn’t all about his splitter. But that’s been his most successful pitch, and that’s what pretty much everybody expected. Tanaka’s scouting report highlighted that pitch, and despite the awareness, batters have been almost helpless against it.

What makes the equation so difficult is that Tanaka is armed with seemingly well above-average command. Watch him work a game and he’s constantly pitching around or to his target. And he has that command of his splitter, which can be a tremendously difficult pitch to locate. Watch him get ahead of Mike Olt with a splitter on the edge of the zone:


Watch him then put Olt away with a splitter at the feet:


Olt came up again, and again faced a two-strike count. He would’ve remembered that Tanaka put him away earlier with a splitter out of the zone. So watch Tanaka counter Olt’s counter:


Instead of a 1-and-2 splitter in the dirt, Tanaka spotted a 1-and-2 splitter at the knees. So Olt was caught in between, and Tanaka demonstrated that he can throw that pitch for a strike — he just seldom has to, because he can often throw it for a strike by throwing it for a ball.

Just in the interest of balance, here’s a mistake that Tanaka made with his splitter, against Luis Valbuena:


Instead of a lower splitter, Tanaka hung one inside nearer to the belt, and Valbuena hit the pitch both hard and foul. We have seen Tanaka hang some splitters, and we have seen some of them get drilled. But this is a rarity, and no pitcher’s immune to the occasional mistake. Tanaka makes fewer of them than the average, and his stuff also gives him a margin of error.

To this point, Tanaka’s thrown a lot of strikes while throwing a lot of balls. It should be noted that he’s faced the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Cubs, and perhaps those hitters, collectively, are more aggressive than most. So there are necessary regressions and adjustments, and odds are Tanaka will look a little more normal come August or September. But he has stuff that hitters chase, and he has stuff that he can move around almost at will. Which means, while his zone rate suggests it might be better to wait him out, Tanaka’s probably capable of pitching well within the zone, and then when you decide to start swinging again, Tanaka can adjust back to splitters and sliders down or away. I’m not sure what I’d recommend for a hitter set to face Tanaka. Probably counseling.

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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Dan Rozenson
9 years ago

Tanaka has also developed a counter-measure to sitting on first-pitch fastballs (in the interest of avoiding the splitter): throw a first-pitch curveball. 17 of his 20 curveballs have been the first pitch of the at-bat.