How Japanese Phenom Masahiro Tanaka Would Impact Dodgers Rotation
If history is any indication, the Los Angeles Dodgers are going to push hard for another international star to get them over the hump in the National League: Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
As Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times pondered in a recent article, the Dodgers and Tanaka would appear to be a perfect match given the team's recent history of big-money signings, finding success with the likes of Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu and based on the recent $28 million expenditure for Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero.
The Dodgers have been unusually open in their interest in signing Tanaka. At that infamous season wrap-up press conference, General Manager Ned Colletti was asked about the team’s interest.
“We've scouted him a lot, we're very much aware of him,” said Colletti. “We saw him as recently as two days ago.”
While the bidding process will be a story of its own, Tanaka's potential and upside are what we want to focus on. Specifically, what will the soon-to-be 25-year-old will do for the Dodgers' starting rotation?
To answer the question of what Tanaka can be as an MLB pitcher, we must first build a scouting report to determine what his upside (and ceiling) is, as well as the likelihood he reaches it.
Listed at 6'2", 205 pounds, Tanaka fits the ideal mold of what you want from a right-handed starter.
The only pitching I have seen from Tanaka is YouTube videos, hardly the best source to scout a player. One thing I have noticed in going over his mechanics is the fastball is very straight. It is also thrown on a flat plane because he crouches down in his delivery.
Ideally, you want a pitcher to throw the fastball on a downward plane because it is harder for hitters to elevate and most of the time they will pound it into the ground. With little movement and no plane, MLB hitters will have an easier time squaring the heater up.
As far as velocity goes, I will turn things over to Ben Badler of Baseball America. He wrote about Tanaka's impending free agency and potential changes to the posting system while also including a brief scouting report stating Tanaka's heater sits in the low 90s and "can touch 96 mph."
Badler's report also notes some scouts see Tanaka as a "potential No. 2 starter" with the ability to step into an MLB rotation right away.
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Tanaka's off-speed pitches look outstanding. He throws a slider, splitter and curveball. The latter is the worst of the group, featuring good shape and sharp bite when it is on but not enough consistent control to be a serious weapon against MLB hitters.
Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara has dominated this postseason thanks to a devastating splitter that drops off the table close to the plate. I won't tell you Tanaka's that good yet, but the one he throws at the 33-second mark in the embedded video is close to what Uehara operates with.
The pitch immediately shown after the splitter is Tanaka's slider. It drops right off the table as it gets to the plate, looking like a potential plus-plus pitch with excellent tilt and late movement that make it impossible to drive even if you make contact.
However, going back to scouting a video, all we are seeing is the best Tanaka has to offer. He may have generated headlines for going 24-0 in 27 starts this year, but the news was not all good.
It is at least a little concerning that a pitcher whose stuff grades out well has seen his strikeout and strikeout-to-walk rate against Japanese hitting—NPB is a high-quality professional league, but it's not at the level of MLB—decline the last two years.
That's not to say Tanaka won't get back to his old ways upon arriving in America, but typically, teams want to see a player in a lesser league continue to dominate with rate stats when the stuff is as good as his can be.
He is better than Darvish because he is a strike thrower. Overall, Darvish’s stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch. He is like Kuroda, he has a lot of guts. He throws four pitches but when it gets to [stone]-cutting time, it’s fastball and splitter.
I have to throw the caveat out there again that I haven't seen Tanaka except on video, though I remember watching Yu Darvish's scouting videos and can say with absolute certainty that, based on pure stuff and mechanics, Tanaka doesn't compare.
That's not a knock on Tanaka so much as it is a testament to how good and rare Darvish is. Darvish is three inches taller than Tanaka, allowing him to throw his fastball on a steeper downward angle. Darvish does suffer at times from the same problem that plagues Tanaka in his delivery, where his body gets so low that the fastball comes into the zone on a flat plane.
Darvish also has a more explosive fastball, not just the overall velocity but in terms of movement. Nothing Darvish throws is ever straight, while Tanaka can throw frozen ropes that quality MLB hitters will launch.
What Tanaka Would Offer the Dodgers
Looking at the scouting report, it is time to settle the debate about what Tanaka can bring to Los Angeles if the Dodgers are inclined to make a hard push for his services, as Dilbeck's article suggests they could.
The Dodgers are already set at the top of the rotation for 2014, with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke forming a dynamic one-two punch. Ryu will also play a prominent role after a solid debut season.
After the top three, the Dodgers have a lot of questions. Ricky Nolasco, a free agent this offseason, became a forgotten man in the postseason after a dreadful September. Do the Dodgers want to give him a four- or five-year deal?
Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley combined to throw 55.1 innings in 2013. Will the Dodgers get anything from one or both of them next year?
Chris Capuano is a back-end guy, at best, who is probably best suited for a long-relief role. Edinson Volquez, another impending free agent, doesn't throw strikes.
The Dodgers might need Tanaka just to fill out a starting rotation next year, though his upside is clearly greater than just a back-end starter. I envision him as a pitcher with the ceiling of a No. 2 starter, though more likely a No. 3 because of concerns about the fastball, mechanics and declining strikeout rates in Japan.
If Tanaka turns into that guy, the Dodgers could slot him in between Greinke and Ryu. That would work better for the rotation, because I think Ryu is going to take a step back next season now that the league has gotten a look at him, not to mention the fact his stuff doesn't scream front-line starter.
With Kershaw and Greinke at the front of a rotation, the Dodgers wouldn't need Tanaka to be great in order to move past the National League Championship Series next year.
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