Comparing and Contrasting Dominance of Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 15, 2014

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka throws in the first inning of their baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels at Yankee Stadium, Sunday, April 27, 2014, in New York. The Yankees won 3-2. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo/Associated Press

To some extents, comparing Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish is easy.

They both throw right-handed. They're both from Japan. With Darvish on a $60 million contract with the Texas Rangers and Tanaka getting $155 million from the New York Yankees, both are rich.

Oh, and then there's the other thing: They're both pretty good at pitching.

Darvish owns a 3.24 career ERA and an 11.11 K/9, the latter being the best in MLB since his 2012 debut. Following his Wednesday night shutout (his first in MLB) against the New York Mets, Tanaka now has a 2.17 ERA and 9.43 K/BB ratio through his first eight starts.

In a word: dominance. Dominance is fun. Hooray dominance.

Where it gets harder to compare the two, however, is in how they go about being so dominant. Tanaka and Darvish are both darn good pitchers, but clones they are not.

This is usually where we do deeper dives in the interest of what-the-heckery. 

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On that note, let's get on with it.

Note: I'm writing this on Wednesday night, so pardon some stats not being quite up to date.

The Ol' Bag of Tricks: Where Darvish Is Clearly Deeper

The conventional wisdom is that a starting pitcher needs at least three solid pitches. Some can get away with just two, but the magic number is generally three.

Unless you're (Yu're?) Darvish. Then the magic number is eight.

Since Darvish has been in the league for a few years, his kitchen sink repertoire admittedly isn't a secret anymore. Even still, it's kind of amazing how (A) the depth of his repertoire is not exaggerated and (B) the usage of his many pitches has varied from year to year.

On that note, we head to Brooks Baseball for some percentages:

Yu Darvish's Pitch Percentages, 2012-2014
YearFour-SeamSinkerChangeSliderCurveCutterSplitSlow Curve
Brooks Baseball

The 2014 season has been the least complicated for Darvish's repertoire to date, as he's come to rely mainly on his four-seamer and slider. He still hasn't forgotten his other six pitches, though, as he's thrown each at least 21 times.

Now, logic tells us that Darvish wouldn't throw eight different pitches if he didn't have that many good ones. He does indeed, as the single highest average against any of his pitches (his changeup) is .321.

There's at least one scout down with Darvish's repertoire too. When Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports asked a veteran scout in 2013 if he'd ever seen a pitcher with as many good pitches as Darvish, he supposedly grinned and offered a one-word answer: "Zero."

For Tanaka's part, it's not like he works with a bare-bones repertoire. According to Brooks Baseball, he throws his four-seamer, sinker, slider and splitter at least 19 percent of the time apiece. He's a four-pitch pitcher, which is a compliment.

Tanaka just doesn't have much else, as he's otherwise mixed in just 45 curves, 19 cutters and one (possibly misclassified) changeup.

Knowing all this, at-bats against Darvish might be a tad more uncomfortable than at-bats against Tanaka. Hitters can look fastball or slider, but they really have no idea what's coming from pitch to pitch.

But, we can say this in Tanaka's defense: He knows where his pitches are going better than Darvish does.

A Matter of Efficiency: Where Tanaka Is Clearly Better Than Darvish

Here's probably the easiest statement I'll make today: Tanaka is a more efficient pitcher than Darvish.

Yeah, I know. Sort of goes without saying given that Tanaka is more efficient than just about everyone. But all the same, here's the necessary perspective.

Yu Darvish's Efficiency vs. Masahiro Tanaka's Efficiency

In so many words, Tanaka is better at not walking guys, getting ahead in the count, throwing strikes and generally limiting his pitches for every batter he faces.

Now, what should be noted is that Tanaka isn't actually more proficient at pounding the strike zone than Darvish is. According to FanGraphs, Darvish has thrown 43.4 percent of his career pitches inside the zone. Through his first seven starts, so had Tanaka.

Rather, Tanaka's real specialty is getting strikeouts outside the strike zone.

FanGraphs has a stat called "O-Swing%" to measure that, and all you need to know is that Tanaka entered his Wednesday start with the highest O-Swing% in recorded history.

This is partially a function of Tanaka having really good secondary pitches—more on those later. But it's also because he's good at getting ahead, and one reason he's able to do that is because he has pretty good fastball command.

The raw PITCHf/x data at FanGraphs says Darvish has thrown 50.1 percent of his career four-seamers in the zone. That's compared to 54.6 percent for Tanaka. Also, Tanaka has thrown 46.8 percent of his sinkers in the zone, which is perfectly acceptable. 

There is one downside to Tanaka's heat, however: It's hittable.

Bringing the Heat: Where Darvish Is Clearly Better Than Tanaka

May 9, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Yu Darvish (11) throws in the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at  Global Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

That we're about to have the following discussion shouldn't come as a surprise. Before Tanaka even threw a pitch in the big leagues, the word was that his heat wouldn't quite compare to Darvish's.

As Ben Badler of Baseball America put it: "Darvish throws harder than Tanaka, has a little extra life on his fastball and gets better downhill angle on the pitch."

In so many words: Yeah, Tanaka's probably not going to be able to blow hitters away like Darvish can.

Which has indeed been the case (via Brooks Baseball):

Yu Darvish's Heat vs. Masahiro Tanaka's Heat
Brooks Baseball

I should note that Darvish has all but ditched his sinker and cutter in 2014, opting instead to throw his four-seamer roughly half the time. That's working out fine, though, as hitters are hitting only .224 with a .418 slugging percentage against it.

Tanaka's hard stuff, by comparison, has good velocity and good ability to miss bats compared to most hard stuff. But when batters do make contact with it, hard hits tend to follow. In short, the stuff is living up to something else that Badler had to say over the winter: that Tanaka's heat was "more hittable than the velocity might suggest."

Which, to this point, means we've discussed really nothing except for how Darvish and Tanaka are different pitchers. I suppose that supports my theory that they are not, in fact, clones.

But there is one thing they have in common: A good portion of their success is owed to signature pitches that delight us about as much as they make MLB hitters whimper.

Signature Pitches: Heck, Nobody Can Hit Either of Theirs

Through his first seven starts, Tanaka was holding hitters to an AL-low .284 OPS in two-strike counts. Darvish can relate, as no qualified starter can match his two-strike opponent OPS of .352 since 2012.

What makes these guys so lethal with two strikes on hitters?

Mainly their signature pitches: the slider for Darvish and the splitter for Tanaka.

Both pitches have roughly the destructive power of the Holy Hand Grenade, so we shouldn't be surprised that the two-strike numbers for both (via Brooks Baseball) are off the freakin' charts:

Yu Darvish's Slider vs. Masahiro Tanaka's Splitter w/ 2 Strikes
Brooks Baseball

If Darvish gets a hitter to two strikes and busts out his slider, that hitter's done. If Tanaka gets to two strikes and busts out his splitter, that hitter's done.

If you're thinking it, yes, there is a case to be made that these are the two nastiest pitches of their kind. 

Baseball Prospectus recently rated Darvish's slider as the best in MLB, which meshes with Nolan Ryan's opinion of it. Tanaka's splitter, meanwhile, is living up to the teaseoffered by Ben Badler and othersthat it might be the best in the world.

Now, most everyone knows about how dangerous Darvish's slider and Tanaka's splitter are. Such is life when pitches have the look of devastating out pitches. More quietly, one thing that's helping the reputation of both pitches is that they can get both lefty and righty batters out with ease.

What Darvish and Tanaka get less credit for is how they also have specific weapons for certain batters.

In Darvish's case, we rarely recognize his curveball as an excellent out pitch against lefties. In Tanaka's case, we don't recognize his slider as an excellent out pitch against righties as much as we should.

So here's us doing some recognizing:

Yu Darvish's Curve vs. Masahiro Tanaka's Slider w/ 2 Strikes
Brooks Baseball

When they're on the mound, you should keep watching for Darvish's slider and Tanaka's splitter. By virtue of being two of the great pitches of our time, they certainly deserved to be watched for, darn it.

But the next time Darvish has two strikes on a lefty, keep an eye out for his curve. The next time Tanaka has two strikes on a righty, keep an eye out for his slider. You'll be doing two underrated pitches a favor.

Whatever you do, just keep watching Darvish and Tanaka, period. They're largely different pitchers, but they're both great at what they do.

Not to mention a joy to watch.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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