Based on the $155 million paycheck and intense hype surrounding his arrival in the United States, Masahiro Tanaka has the aura of a Major League Baseball superstar.
Unfortunately, the Japanese ace still has to throw his first meaningful pitch at the highest level of professional baseball. That means that, when trying to evaluate his talents, there is still a wide gulf between what might be and what is.
All the tools are in place for Tanaka to be a star pitcher. He's pitching in New York for the Yankees. He's a 25-year-old, 6'2" right-hander with three above-average or better offerings in his back pocket.
On the surface, it's easy to sit back and say Tanaka will be the leader of New York's rotation for years.
If only things were that simple. The Yankees have been down this road with two Japanese stars before, with Hideki Irabu in 1997 and Kei Igawa in 2007.
The good news is that Tanaka earns rave reviews from some MLB scouts for his demeanor and stuff. One of them even told George A. King III of the New York Post in October that Tanaka will be better than another recent Nippon Professional Baseball import.
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.
This is where you see the already-insane hype for Tanaka get blown out of proportion. I've only been able to scout video of the 25-year-old, but comparing any of them to Darvish's videos is not a fair fight.
Darvish has the best pure stuff and deepest arsenal in baseball today. He finished second in AL Cy Young voting last year while posting the ninth-highest strikeout ratio since 1954 (per Baseball Reference).
So any and all comparisons to Darvish should stop now. All that matters is what Tanaka has to do to be the best pitcher possible.
There are a few notable flaws in Tanaka that must be corrected in order for him to be the pitcher everyone in New York believes he can be. Let's examine a few videos to help illustrate the point. The first is from last year's World Baseball Classic game between Cuba and Japan, when Tanaka struck out all six hitters he faced in two innings of work.
Two things that immediately jump out are the way Tanaka's back (drive) leg collapses and how low he gets to the ground. The leg collapse hasn't robbed Tanaka of velocity yet, but one that extreme is likely to put more emphasis on the hips and arms to generate extra miles per hour.
Going back to the Darvish well one more time, the Texas ace also has a notable collapse in his back leg. The difference is he's three inches taller and physically stronger and generates more natural arm speed than Tanaka, so it doesn't hurt his profile.
Perhaps the collapse won't hurt Tanaka, though it is a little alarming that his strikeout rate in Japan has gone from 9.6 in 2011 to 8.8 in 2012 to 7.8 in 2013.
As far as how low Tanaka is to the ground in his delivery, that limits how effective his fastball is going to be.
One term you often hear in scouting circles is "fastball plane." Throwing the heater at a downward angle is the easiest way to be an effective pitcher, because the heater becomes more difficult for hitters to hit in the air. Fewer fly balls means fewer home runs.
If you are limiting your height to the plate by crouching in your delivery, whatever plane you could hope to get on the fastball goes away.
Let's take a look at a second video of Tanaka highlights. This puts a greater spotlight on the fastball and one other problem with the pitch that must be corrected.
Having already touched on fastball plane, let's take a look at the location of the heaters in this video. Most of them are up around the thighs and belts of hitters. That's the kind of thing you can get away with in Japan, where hitters tend to be more slap-oriented, but it won't work against MLB hitters capable of driving the ball with authority when it's elevated.
Commanding the fastball will be Tanaka's biggest adjustment right out of the gate. It's hard for a lot of pitchers to get used to how hitters at the highest level lay off pitches just off the plate.
Tanaka's heater is also too straight, which makes it easier for hitters to square up. He throws a cutter, too, which gives it some wiggle, but when he's reaching back for a little something extra, it's going to be a straight four-seamer.
There is also the matter of finding consistency with the slider. It flashes like a plus pitch at times, but as Ben Badler of Baseball America noted in a pitch-by-pitch breakdown, "There were times last year when the pitch seemed to get away from him."
The problem with the slider is, once again, Tanaka's lack of plane. A slider is most effective when it has two-plane movement, starting higher and breaking down and away from the hitter.
Since Tanaka's body is so low to the ground, the slider mostly stays flat and will stay in the fat part of the zone for too long. It's gotten better as he's aged, but it still lacks the consistency needed to be a dominant pitch.
One of the least talked-about adjustments for Tanaka to make is pitching every fifth day. He only had to pitch once a week with Rakuten, which doesn't seem like a big deal when you consider his innings totals in Japan were that of a typical star in MLB. He reached the 180-inning barrier four times, including 200 twice.
But there is a huge difference in preparation when you start every fifth day, like pacing yourself, understanding what goes into side sessions and bullpens and not going max-effort right out of the gate to save yourself in the later months of the season.
This seems to paint a bleak picture of Tanaka, but there are a lot of things to like. He's got an excellent splitter and deceives hitters with a pause at the top of his delivery. Those can help him get by while he works on commanding the fastball, slightly altering his mechanics and getting a better feel for the slider.
He's not a perfect pitcher who will come into the American League East and dominate right away. Tanaka is still going to be a very good starter in the big leagues, which is exactly what the Yankees need him to be.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference. Videos courtesy of 2013 WBC Highlights and NatsNation37.
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