Masahiro Tanaka has finally made a decision, one that has been expected since before he was posted. He agreed to a massive seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees, according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal.
With the drama surrounding Tanaka's decision now over, it is time to finally start evaluating how his game will translate to Major League Baseball.
The Yankees are certainly paying Tanaka to be a stalwart in their rotation for a long time, but will they get their money's worth?
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild spoke glowingly about Tanaka on Wednesday, in both a physical sense and his mental makeup, via MLB.com's Bryan Hoch and Adam Berry:
Larry Rothschild scouting Tanaka: "He's fastball, slider, split, throws a cutter and shows arm strength. He showed tenacity on the mound."— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) January 22, 2014
#Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild on Tanaka: "The personality, from all accounts and what I've seen, is good. He's competitive."— Adam Berry (@adamdberry) January 22, 2014
Rothschild, who was part of the #Yankees group that met with Tanaka: "You can tell he's on top of what he wants and what he wants to do."— Adam Berry (@adamdberry) January 22, 2014
Let's take a look at what the video scouting report shows, as well as at some comparisons to previous high-profile Japanese pitchers.
The Body and Mechanics
While he does have a solid pitcher's frame, Tanaka isn't an imposing physical presence on the mound. According to Baseball-Reference, he's listed at 6'2" and 205 pounds, a very good size and weight for any starting pitcher.
Tanaka compares physically to fellow Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda. Tanaka is one inch taller, but both right-handers are listed at 205 pounds. The newest Yankee pitcher can't touch Yu Darvish physically, though he does laps around Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Darvish has tremendous size at 6'5" and 225 pounds. He uses his long limbs, particularly his legs, to release the ball close to the plate. When you combine that with elite velocity and movement on every pitch he throws, the Texas Rangers ace has the total package.
Matsuzaka is a slight 6'0" and 185 pounds. He had to rely on deception in his delivery because his smaller frame didn't allow him to really push the ball toward the plate.
Now let's examine the way Tanaka uses his body and how his mechanics will translate to Major League Baseball.
The first thing that jumps out at me is how high Tanaka raises his hands above his head. He does repeat the delivery well, but with so much movement even before coming to the plate, command figures to be a problem. So much excess movement can lead to problems with the release point.
I like the deception Tanaka gets out of his wind-up by slowing everything down. If you go to the 47-second mark, you see it takes nearly five seconds before the ball comes to the plate.
That kind of delivery is going to test the patience of hitters, who tend to get anxious when they see a pitcher start to the plate. Hitting is timing, and Tanaka does a great job of keeping hitters on edge.
What's interesting about Tanaka's mechanics is the way they combine elements of both Matsuzaka's and Darvish's deliveries, as you will see in the embedded videos.
Matsuzaka is very deliberate at the plate, nearly boring hitters to death before delivering the ball. He starts his hands high above his head, rocking back and forth before coming toward the plate. It helped him deceive the hitter but also gave him control problems because he wasn't athletic enough to repeat it from pitch to pitch.
Darvish pitches almost exclusively out of the stretch. He was struggling with control early in his MLB career, so quieting his mechanics has helped him throw more strikes. He's similar to Tanaka in that they both take such a huge stride toward the plate, limiting reaction times for hitters.
One thing that scares me about Tanaka's delivery is the way he crouches at the end. Doing so limits his ability to stay on top of the fastball and throw it on a downhill plane. Taller pitchers, such as Darvish, can get away with this, but Tanaka has to walk a fine line so the pitch doesn't stay in the zone where MLB hitters can elevate it.
When evaluating pitchers, the first pitch you want to know about is their fastball.
Tanaka certainly has an excellent one. At its best, I see the heater as a 60-grade (plus) pitch. The velocity on the four-seamer is excellent, usually between 91 mph and 94 mph, touching 97 mph when he needs it. If you want to be a front-line starter, having velocity is essential.
It's not a perfect fastball, though.
I don't like the lack of movement or how often Tanaka pitches in the zone with it.
Having velocity on a pitch is great, but if it's straight, MLB hitters can get to it. We've seen a number of pitchers who can throw 100 mph flame out because their fastballs are as straight as an arrow.
Tanaka's not going to flame out, but he does have to learn how to keep the ball down in the zone to prevent hitters from driving it in the air.
A lot of the Tanaka videos you see online—even when they show a hitter striking out—are of fastballs thrown at or above the belt.
He must work on that against MLB hitters who will either hit the ball in the air or take it for a ball.
Projection: 55 present, 60 future
All good pitchers have what I like to call a "money" pitch. It's the one they will turn to in the biggest spot of a game when they need to get a big out, like Clayton Kershaw's curveball or Justin Verlander's fastball.
Tanaka's bread-and-butter pitch is a devastating split-finger fastball. It doesn't get thrown a lot anymore because it's so hard to control and get velocity on, but no one throws it better than Boston closer Koji Uehara.
If you go to the 32-second mark in the video embedded above, you can see how devastating Tanaka's splitter is. The ball starts at the hitter's knee and dies right in front of the plate. I don't care how good of a hitter you are, that pitch is going to destroy you.
Now take a look at the video of Uehara's splitter from the 2013 American League Championship Series against Detroit.
There really isn't much separating the two offerings.
If anything, Tanaka's splitter has more movement because he's able to throw it harder, which should tell you how good the pitch will be.
For Tanaka to have success against MLB hitters, he must establish fastball command. If he can't throw the heater for strikes to get ahead, players at this level aren't going to swing at the splitter.
Uehara has been so successful because he commands the fastball as well as any reliever in the game, which allows him to throw the splitter whenever he wants. Hitters have to respect the fastball.
This is an absolute monster pitch for Tanaka, and he shows tremendous feel for it. I see no reason it won't be one of the best pitches in the game very soon.
Projection: 65 present, 70 future
Who will be New York's best starting pitcher in 2014?
Even though Tanaka has a curveball in his arsenal, it's more of a show-me pitch than one he trusts implicitly. His best breaking ball is a hard slider that has tremendous potential, though it's still lacking in certain areas.
If you want to see Tanaka's slider at its best, go to the 35-second mark of the video embedded above. An effective slider will have a hard, sharp, two-plane break and stay in the strike zone long enough to get a hitter to commit.
You can see from the video that Tanaka keeps the ball on the outer half of the plate just above the knees, throwing it with enough velocity to make the hitter think it's going to be a fastball. By the time the batter picks up the spin, he's already committed to swing, and the ball is in the dirt in the left-handed batter's box.
That's the pitch at its peak, but there are moments in all of these videos when Tanaka fails to get his wrist around the ball, and the slider comes in flat and stays in the middle of the plate.
Since we have seen Tanaka flash a plus-slider, it's easy to project that's where it will end up in the future, though consistency isn't there yet.
Projection: 50 present, 60 future
Some of the projections for Tanaka are unfair, though not totally unjustified. George A. King III of the New York Post talked to a scout in October who said that Tanaka is better than Darvish.
As much as I like Tanaka, he's not Darvish. The Texas ace finished in the top 10 of AL Cy Young voting in his first two MLB seasons and has the best arsenal of any pitcher in baseball right now.
Ben Badler of Baseball America talked to a number of scouts who were willing to slap a No. 2 starter label on Tanaka, thanks to the quality of his off-speed pitches and above-average control.
Grading Tanaka as I have (with some concerns about the fastball command and two excellent off-speed pitches), I put the 25-year-old in the high-end No. 3 starter category, among the top 35 pitchers in baseball. I'm also concerned that his strikeout rate has gone from 9.6 per nine innings in 2011 to 7.8 in 2013.
He can exceed that ceiling with some mechanical adjustments and fastball command, but based on his track record and age, it's possible that this is as good as he will ever get.
Whether that justifies the $22-plus million per season New York has invested in Tanaka is not for me to decide, but it does give the team a deeper rotation than it had 24 hours ago.
Note: Videos courtesy of MLB Advanced Media, ItsZane, Debbert2000, Pastime Athletics, AnBuXReaper, Natsnation37 and Komestars. Players stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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