Masahiro Tanaka has now made two starts for the Yankees, and outside of a couple of home runs, he’s been ridiculous. He’s rung up 18 strikeouts while issuing just one walk, and he’s posted a 51% ground ball rate in the process, leaving him with a nifty 1.81 xFIP. His splitter is as good as advertised, and while it’s just two starts, it’s two starts that suggest that the hype was probably correct; Tanaka likely is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
But, a little more quietly, there is a pitcher in the National League that has put up a very similar line, and you probably won’t believe who it is.
First, let’s look at their raw totals through two starts.
Through two starts, our NL hurler has nearly the same K% as Tanaka — 31.1%, compared to the 32.1% from the Yankees new ace — while also limiting walks and getting ground balls, though not quite either to the same degree. Still, the basic conclusion of both performances is that they’ve dominated the strike zone, and their results have only been held back by giving up a couple of home runs. And things look even more similar at the plate discipline level.
Tanaka has gotten a ton of swings on pitches out of the zone, likely because of how hard it is to distinguish between his fastball and his splitter; he ranks 5th in MLB in O-Swing% after two starts. Our mystery hurler, however, ranks 2nd in O-Swing%, sandwiched squarely between Felix Hernandez and Jose Fernandez. That’s not bad company. And it actually gets a little better.
Getting hitters to chase is great, but what you really want is to get them to chase and miss. This is what Tanaka has done so well, getting hitters to chase 42% of his out-of-zone pitches while only making contact on 47% of those swings. The only other pitchers in baseball who have both O-Swing% and O-Contact% in the 40% range — which signals both very high chase and very low contact on chase rates — are Felix Hernandez and our as-yet-unnamed NL starter.
And while no one would say that our NL hurler has the same quality of stuff as Tanaka, the velocities are in the same general range, at least. Tanaka has sat about 91-92 with his fastball while throwing his splitter around 86 or so; NL guy has thrown about 90 and his change-up has sat around 84, but he has a history of throwing 91-92 and featuring an 85-86 mph change-up, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if he ticked up a bit as the season went on.
Okay, so, who is the NL pitcher doing a pretty decent impression of Tanaka in the other league?
Roberto Hernandez, nee Fausto Carmona, the guy the Phillies signed for $4.5 million as a free agent this winter. That’s the guy who is currently #3 in the Majors in xFIP-, behind only Jose Fernandez and Tanaka.
Which is, of course, a reminder of why 10 innings don’t really tell you that much at all. Even 10 really great innings. Last year, Ryan Dempster had an xFIP- of 71 in April; it ended up leading to his worst year since 2007 and his decision to walk away from the final year and $13 million left on his contract. And Dempster’s April covered 30 innings and 122 batters faced; with Hernandez, we’re currently talking about 10 innings and 45 batters faced. The conclusion, as always at this time of year, is to not get too carried away by the numbers.
So Hernandez’s similar results to Tanaka, through two starts, probably say more about what we should determine we know about Tanaka after two starts than it does about some kind of impending Roberto Hernandez Cy Young pursuit. There are reasons to think that Hernandez could be a quality pitcher for the Phillies this year — I did put him at #2 on my list of potential free agent bargains over the winter — because his poor results in Tampa Bay were almost entirely due to an unsustainable HR/FB rate, and his ability to miss bats and limit walks suggested that he had the potential to be a decent mid-to-back-end starter. However, Hernandez is a reminder that even decent mid-to-back-end starters can post dominant BB/K/GB numbers over a couple of starts.
Tanaka is probably very good. The projections loved him coming into the year, and obviously the Yankees scouts agreed, given how much money they gave him without ever seeing him pitch against MLB competition. The fact that he’s began his career with two dominating performances only reinforces what other sources have been telling us before the season began; Tanaka is legit. Hernandez is probably not legit, and we have a lot of evidence to suggest that he’s going to regress in a big way over the next five months.
But, for two starts, Hernandez and Tanaka haven’t been all that different. That’s probably a decent reason to not get too carried away by Tanaka’s first two starts, and also an okay reason for the Phillies to be a little optimistic about what they might have in the pitcher formerly known as Fausto.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.