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How Masahiro Tanaka's Stuff Will Play Against MLB Hitters

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How Masahiro Tanaka's Stuff Will Play Against MLB Hitters
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images
Masahiro Tanaka has emerged as the most sought after pitcher on the free-agent market.

The bidding war for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is on hold after Major League Baseball and Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball were unable to reach an agreement on a new posting system.

However, despite the recent news, the market for the 25-year-old right-hander is alive and well.

Considered by many as the top pitcher in this year’s free-agent class, Tanaka had a historic season pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the NPB, registering a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA during the regular season. He also put together an impressive 30-game unbeaten streak, dating back to his final start of 2012 in the postseason.

Tanaka’s ridiculous streak came to an end on Nov. 2, as the Golden Eagles’ ace was saddled with his first loss in over a year. Starting Game 6 of the NPB title series, the right-hander threw 160 pitches in a 4-2 complete-game loss to the Yomiuri Giants. However, he did return to the mound the next day to pick up the save in the series-deciding Game 7.

Given Tanaka’s overwhelming success this past season in Japan, it’s easy to assume the 25-year-old will make an immediate impact in the major leagues—whenever he finally arrives.

At 6’2” and 200 pounds, Tanaka typically throws his fastball in the low 90s but can reach back for 94-95 mph when necessary. The right-hander also demonstrates a feel for manipulating the pitch through his use of a cutter and two-seam fastball, and his knowledge of how to effectively mix the pitches stands out.

While Tanaka’s fastball velocity isn’t anything special, the pitch plays up thanks a combination of late movement and his ability to paint the outside corners against both left- and right-handed hitters. However, he’ll need to learn to pitch inside more effectively against major league hitters, and it’s likely that his overall command of the offering will be challenged—at least initially. 

Screen shot courtesy of MLB Advanced Media (via MLB.com)
Example of Masahiro Tanaka's head tilt.

Perhaps the biggest knock against Tanaka pertains to the lack of downhill plane on his fastball. After collapsing his back side and dropping low to the ground during his stride, Tanaka’s inconsistent upper-body posture—specifically, his head tilt—prevents him from getting on top of the ball, which, in turn, affects both his velocity and command. And with only average velocity to begin with, he simply can’t afford to linger up in the zone with the pitch against left-handed hitters.

However, Tanaka’s pitching up in the zone is mostly by design and vital to his overall approach—not to mention a major reason he was the top pitcher in the NPB for the last few years.

You see, the right-hander is all about changing hitters’ eye levels. So when he can effectively command the top of the zone with his fastball, it theoretically makes his assortment of breaking and sinking secondary offerings more attractive. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Tanaka’s best pitch arguably is a plus splitter (or forkball) that is flat-out nasty and features a devastating late tumbling action, causing it to drop off the table and induce ugly swings from opposing hitters. The slider is his go-to breaking ball, thrown with considerable velocity in the mid-80s with tight spin and sharp break—and he throws the pitch a lot, especially to right-handed hitters. When he’s at his best, Tanaka can spot the offering to both sides of the plate and generally avoids making mistakes. 

The right-hander also threw his curveball more this past season, though it projects as more of a show-me pitch in the major leagues given it’s lack of velocity and slow, loopy shape. Tanaka rounds out his arsenal with a changeup that offers a different look in typical slider-splitter counts, but his use of the pitch has decreased in recent years, according to NPBtracker.com, and it’s unlikely to be a weapon in the major leagues.

Because Tanaka relies primarily on a fastball-slider-splitter combination, the popular comparison to Hiroki Kuroda is actually dead-on.

As Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs notes:

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 percent splitters. Just 11 more have thrown at least 10 percent 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.

Clint Hulsey of I R Fast also supports the comparison:

The easiest comp for Tanaka in the Majors is Hiroki Kuroda since they have somewhat similar fastballs, and rely a lot on splits (assuming you call Tanaka's "forkball" a split) and sliders. Obviously they are at totally different moments in their careers (though Kuroda is pitching as effectively, if not more effectively, than he even has), and Kuroda was throwing quite a bit harder at Tanaka's age (he was averaging over 92 MPH in 2008 with the Dodgers at age 33).

Even though Tanaka is the top pitcher in the NPB and poised to land a monster free-agent contract, that doesn’t mean he’s a flawless, finished product ready to dominate. 

Since the start of the 2011 season, the right-hander's strikeouts-per-nine-innings (K/9) rate has dropped from 9.6 to 7.8. Meanwhile, his walks-per-nine-innings (BB/9) rate has quietly climbed from 1.1 to 1.4.

Along those same lines, there is sure to be ongoing concern and endless second-guessing regarding the impact of his heavy workload—his high school is also notorious for dangerously high pitch counts—in Japan on his long-term success in the major leagues. 

But if we’ve learned anything over the years about Japanese pitchers that go through the posting process and sign with a major league team, it’s that stateside success tends to vary case by case.

Will Masahiro Tanaka's stuff play in the major leagues?

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While one team may view Tanaka as too great a risk for the presumed final price tag due to his workload and mechanics, another organization may believe he’s healthy and primed for a great career in the major leagues. 

The reality is that there’s no way to predict exactly how Tanaka’s body will age. So, while his numbers in Japan don’t necessarily reflect his potential in the major leagues, there’s not much else to go on right now.

Like every pitcher, Tanaka is a risk. However, there’s no question that he has the stuff and feel for pitching to get major league hitters out.

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