masahiro tanaka finally made a decision, one that was expected before publication. He agreed to a massive seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.
With the drama surrounding Tanaka’s decision now over, it’s time to finally start evaluating how his game will translate to Major League Baseball.
The Yankees are no doubt 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, both in a physical and mental sense, via mlb.com’s bryan hoch and adam berry:
Let’s take a look at what the video scan report shows, as well as some comparisons to previous high-profile Japanese launchers.
body and mechanics
While he has the solid frame of a pitcher, Tanaka is not an imposing physical presence on the mound. according to baseball-reference, he is 6’2″ and weighs 205 pounds, a very good size and weight for any starting pitcher.
Tanaka compares himself physically to Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda. Tanaka is an inch taller, but both righties weigh 205 pounds. the newest yankee pitcher can’t physically touch you, though he circles around daisuke matsuzaka.
darvish is a tremendous size at 6’5″ and 225 pounds. he uses his long limbs, particularly his legs, to throw the ball close to home plate. when you combine that with elite speed and movement on every pitch he throws , the ace of the texas rangers has the complete package.
matsuzaka is just 6’0″ and 185 pounds. he had to rely on deception in his pitch because his smaller frame didn’t allow him to really push the ball toward home plate.
Now let’s examine how Tanaka uses his body and how his mechanics will translate to Major League Baseball.
The first thing that strikes me is how high Tanaka raises his hands above his head. He repeats the pitch well, but with so much movement before he even gets to the plate, the command seems to be a problem. so much excess movement can cause problems with the release point.
I like the deception tanaka pulls off his rope by slowing everything down. if you go to the 47-second mark, you see almost five seconds go by before the ball hits home plate.
That kind of pitch will test the patience of hitters, who tend to get anxious when they see a pitcher come up to the plate. hitting is time, and tanaka does a great job of keeping hitters on edge.
what’s interesting about tanaka’s mechanics is the way it combines elements from the matsuzaka and darvish installments, as you’ll see in the embedded videos.
matsuzaka is very deliberate at the plate, nearly killing hitters before delivering the ball. he starts his hands above his head, rocking back and forth before reaching home plate. he helped him trick the batter 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 calming down his mechanics has helped him throw more strikes. it is similar to tanaka in that they both take a big step towards the plate, limiting the reaction times of the hitters.
something 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 like Darvish can get away with it, but Tanaka has to walk a fine line so the pitch doesn’t stay in the zone where MLB hitters can lift it.
When evaluating pitchers, the first pitch you want to know is their fastball.
tanaka certainly has an excellent one. at best I see the heater as a step of 60 degrees (more). speed on the four-seam is excellent, generally between 91 mph and 94 mph, hitting 97 mph when you need it. if you want to be a top-tier starter, having speed is essential.
however, it’s not a perfect fastball.
I don’t like the lack of movement or how often tanaka throws into the zone with it.
having speed on a pitch is great, but if it’s direct, mlb hitters can do it. we’ve seen several pitchers who can throw flames at 100 mph because their fastballs are as straight as an arrow.
Tanaka isn’t going to shut down, but he has to learn to keep the ball in the zone to prevent hitters from carrying it through the air.
many of the tanaka videos you see online, even when they show a batter striking out, are fastballs thrown at or above the belt.
you need to work on that against mlb hitters who will 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. He’s the one they’ll turn to at the biggest point 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 throw is a devastating split-fingered fastball. He doesn’t throw much anymore because it’s so hard to control and get speed up, 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 batter’s knee and dies right in front of home plate. I don’t care how good a hitter you are, that pitch is going to destroy you.
now watch 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 can throw it harder, which should tell you how good the throw will be.
For tanaka to be successful against mlb hitters, he must establish dominance of the fastball. if he can’t throw the heater to get the strikes ahead, players at this level aren’t going to swing the splitter.
uehara has been so successful because he commands the fastball as well as any reliever in the game, allowing him to throw the splitter whenever he wants. hitters have to respect the fastball.
this is an absolute monster release for tanaka, and he shows great feeling about it. I see no reason why it won’t be one of the best releases in the game very soon.
projection: 65 present, 70 future
Even though Tanaka has a curveball in his arsenal, it’s more of a demonstration argument than one he implicitly trusts. his best breaking pitch is a hard slider that has tremendous potential, though it still lacks certain areas.
If you want to see Tanaka’s slider at its best, go to the 35 second mark of the embedded video above. an effective slider will have a sharp, strong break in two planes and stay in the strike zone long enough for a hitter to commit.
You can see in the video that Tanaka keeps the ball on the outer half of the plate, just above his knees, and throws it with enough speed that the batter thinks it’s going to be a fastball. by the time the batter gets the swing back, he has already committed to swinging and the ball is on the ground in the left-handed batter’s box.
that’s the pitch at its peak, but there are times in all these videos where tanaka fails to get his wrist around the ball, and the slider goes in flat and stays in the middle of the plate.
Since we’ve seen tanaka exhibit a positive slider, it’s easy to project that’s where he’ll end up in the future, though there’s no consistency yet.
projection: 50 present, 60 future
some of the projections for tanaka are unfair, although not totally unjustified. george a. king iii of the new york post spoke to a scout in october who said tanaka is better than darvish.
As much as I like tanaka, he’s not stupid. The Texas ace finished in the top 10 of Al Cy Young’s voting in his first two seasons in MLB and has the best arsenal of any pitcher in baseball right now.
baseball america’s ben badler talked to several scouts who were ready to slap the punch. 2 starter tag on tanaka, thanks to the quality of his off-speed pitches and above-average control.
Rating tanaka as I have (with some concerns about fastball command and two excellent off-speed pitches), I put the 25-year-old at no. 3 starting category, among the 35 best 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 get past that ceiling with a few mechanical tweaks and fastball control, but based on his history and age, this may be the best he’s going to get.
I can’t decide if that justifies the more than $22 million per season new york has spent on tanaka, but it gives the team a deeper rotation than it did 24 hours ago.
note: videos courtesy of mlb advanced media, itszane, debbert2000, hobby athletics, anbuxreaper, natsnation37, and komestars. Player stats are from baseball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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