Comparing Japanese Phenom Masahiro Tanaka to Yu Darvish

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistDecember 16, 2013

TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 12:  Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka # 17 of Japan pitches in the fifth inning during the World Baseball Classic Second Round Pool 1 game between Japan and the Netherlands at Tokyo Dome on March 12, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Lost in the madness of whether Masahiro Tanaka will actually take the mound for a Major League Baseball team in 2014 is the need to dissect what kind of pitcher he is. 

Via The Japan Times, MLB reportedly reached a basic agreement on a new posting system with the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB), where Tanaka has pitched the last seven years with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. 

Rakuten team president Yozo Tachibana reportedly wants Tanaka to remain in Japan and may not post him until 2014, though there hasn't been any official word (again via the Times).

We have all heard the legends surrounding the 25-year-old: Tanaka went 24-0 with Rakuten during the 2013 regular season, going unbeaten in 30 starts from August 2012 to November 2013. 

Tanaka would have the unenviable task of being the first major Japanese pitcher to come from Japan since Yu Darvish two years ago. Fairly or unfairly, comparisons between the two will last for as long as the two pitch in the same league. If they face off in the same game, imagine what the media coverage will be like.

Until we get to that moment, if we ever do, now seems like a good time to examine the similarities and differences between Tanaka and Darvish, specifically examining how the pre-MLB scouting reports compare.

Darvish, obviously, has more than lived up to the hype.

The Texas ace finished in the top 10 of AL Cy Young voting in his first two seasons, including a second-place finish in 2013. He led the league with 277 strikeouts, 6.2 hits allowed per nine innings and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings last season.

That is a lofty bar for Tanaka to reach, which probably isn't fair to him. He works and is built differently, so he will have to get hitters out in different ways.

Let's examine Tanaka and Darvish as both were/are preparing to enter MLB for the first time, using old scouting reports and analysis. 

Physical Comparison

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 29:  Yu Darvish #11 of the Texas Rangers throws against the Los Angeles Angels in the first inning at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on September 29, 2013 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When evaluating pitchers, particularly right-handers, you are looking for height and weight right away. You don't want a guy to be too tall (think 6'6" or above) because those players tend to have longer limbs that make it difficult to repeat mechanics and throw consistent, quality strikes.

At the same time, you don't want a pitcher who is too small (around 5'11" or 6'0") because they can be frail and aren't able to get enough plane on the fastball.

Some players can buck the height trend, in either direction. Doug Fister is 6'8" and has carved out a very good career for himself as a pitcher whose strength is a lot of sink on the fastball and throwing strikes. Tim Lincecum won two Cy Young Awards despite not having an ideal frame at 5'11", though he did fall apart rather quickly.

Darvish has the look of a guy who is going to be a horse at the top of a rotation. He's listed at 6'5" and 225 pounds. Looking at the length of his arms and legs, you can see what made scouts drool over him coming out of NPB.

Tanaka is no slouch in the height/weight department. He's listed at a very solid 6'2" and 205 pounds, which is roughly on par with the measurements for Zack Greinke.

Yu Darvish Scouting Report

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 19: Pitcher Yu Darvish #11  of the Texas Rangers starts against the Tampa Bay Rays September 19, 2013 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Here is where you will find the greatest separation between Darvish and Tanaka. Any comparisons between these two players run dry when you get to the sheer volume of pitches Darvish throws and quality of the pitches.

We know, based on two years of evidence in MLB, that Darvish is not just a No. 1 starter. Clayton Kershaw is arguably the best pitcher in baseball, but not even he is working with the kind of stuff Texas' ace has.

This didn't come out of nowhere. One reason the Rangers bid a record-breaking $51.7 million just to negotiate with Darvish, even after Daisuke Matsuzaka flamed out in Boston, is they understood what he could be.

In January 2012, prior to Darvish's debut season in Texas, Jim Callis of Baseball America answered a reader question about putting an overall grade on Darvish's future projection. 

Darvish is a frontline starter who has a proven track record in the Japanese major leagues. I'd give him a 70/Low (and rank him as baseball's fourth-best prospect behind Trout, Moore and Harper), and I also could see him as a 75/Medium.

For those who don't know, baseball players and tools are scouted using a 20-80 grading scale; 50 is average, 60 is plus, 40 is below average, etc. Anything or anyone at a 70 is the rarest of rare, while an 80 is Mike Trout's all-around game, Andrelton Simmons' arm and glove or Miguel Cabrera's hit tool. 

Putting a 70 on Darvish before he ever threw an MLB pitch speaks volumes about how highly regarded he was around the game.

Using the scouting report to evaluate Darvish's stuff, Baseball America (subscription required) listed six pitches (four-seam and two-seam fastball, slider, curveball, splitter, changeup), all of which graded out as at least plus (60 grade).

He also earned high marks for athleticism, which "allows him to consistently repeat his delivery and command his pitches."

Do you know how rare it is for a pitcher to have one 60-grade pitch, let alone six? I guarantee that you can search scouting reports for days and not find another pitcher who grades out like Darvish does. 

In addition to the overall quality of his stuff prior to pitching for the Rangers, Darvish has progressed and gotten better.

Yu Darvish Pitch Velocity, 2012-13
Season4-Seam FB2-Seam FBCutterSplitterSliderCurve

He may not be the best pitcher in baseball—at least not yet—but Darvish might have the best scouting report in the sport. 

Masahiro Tanaka Scouting Report

TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 08: Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka #17 of Japan pitches during the World Baseball Classic Second Round Pool 1 game between Japan and Chinese Taipei at Tokyo Dome on March 8, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Unlike Darvish, who has two years of MLB experience, the books haven't been written on Tanaka or his stuff yet. There are reports breaking down what the 25-year-old has to offer, but they aren't as comprehensive or in-depth as Darvish's. There will likely be more after he signs with an MLB team, whenever that happens.

The most accessible scouting report available for Tanaka is on YouTube, showing highlights from his time in the World Baseball Classic. However, that can be a bit misleading, as most short-form videos will only show a player at his absolute best.

But we can still glean information from the video. Specifically, look at the splitter Tanaka throws at the 34-second mark. It may not be quite at Koji Uehara's level, but that's about as close as you can get. 

One big concern I have about Tanaka is his delivery. There is nothing inherently wrong with the arm action or mechanics to make me think arm problems are coming, but look how wide his step to the plate is.

Sometimes, having a long stride to the plate can serve a pitcher well, because the ball comes out of the hand closer to the plate and gives hitters less time to react.

In this case, however, Tanaka's stride is so pronounced that it actually takes plane off his fastball and makes it easier for hitters to elevate it. This wouldn't be a problem if he had movement on the pitch, but it's a fairly straight offering. 

Darvish also has a long stride to the plate, but he gets such great natural movement on the fastball and is three inches taller than Tanaka, so he is able to get away with it more often. 

Baseball America's Ben Badler offered up a brief scouting report on Tanaka in an August piece about the new posting system. 

At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. Even though Tanaka can reach the mid-90s, his fastball is the pitch that gives some scouts pause because it comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable than the velocity might suggest. Tanaka has two secondary pitches that have earned grades of 60 or better on the 20-80 scouting scale, including a 70 splitter with late downward action to keep hitters off his fastball. His low- to mid-80s slider is another plus weapon, while he’ll mix in a curveball as well.

A profile like that gives Tanaka a legitimate No. 2 starter ceiling.

However, therein lies another problem: How many players actually reach their ceiling?

That's not to say he can't do it, but if the biggest questions scouts have are about the fastball, even though the velocity is strong, it can be harder to have success in the big leagues. Tanaka might have to start pitching backward (using off-speed stuff early in counts) to keep hitters off the heater. 

Some of the hype has gotten overblown. George King of the New York Post quoted one MLB scout as saying that Tanaka is better than Darvish. 

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'd like to get a better gauge of what this particular scout sees, because there's nothing about Tanaka that screams he's going to be better than Darvish. Doug Fister throws as many strikes as anyone, but that doesn't make him better than Darvish.

Even though it sounds like I'm picking him apart, I still think Tanaka is the best starter available on the free-agent market this winter. (This assumes Rakuten will post him this year.) He has the potential to be very good—but even at his best, he won't be Darvish. 

Final Word

FUKUOKA, JAPAN - MARCH 06:  Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka #17 of Japan looks on during the World Baseball Classic First Round Group A game between Japan and Cuba at Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome on March 6, 2013 in Fukuoka, Japan.  (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Ima
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Despite the inevitable comparisons that will come out if Masahiro Tanaka gets posted and signs with an MLB team, it's not fair to think the young right-hander will come to the big leagues and be exactly like Yu Darvish.

Tanaka seems likely to end up as a high-end No. 3 starter or a low-tier No. 2. That still puts him among the top 40 starting pitchers in the game, which isn't too shabby in this pitching-rich era.

Darvish is different from anyone we have seen come from Japan. He had the body, stuff and performance to suggest a sure-fire No. 1 starter, which is exactly what has happened.

Regardless of the differences between Tanaka and Darvish, some team is going to get a really good, young starting pitcher this winter, if only we could get Rakuten to ensure he's available to MLB clubs. 

Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

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