The first batter Masahiro Tanaka ever faced in a regular-season game in the majors hit a home run. On Tanaka’s third-ever pitch, Melky Cabrera blasted Tanaka’s signature splitter, and just that quickly was the fairy tale smashed. There would be no season-opening whiff or shutout, and Tanaka might’ve figured the home run would stick with him for the length of his career. And that much is true, in that the game was documented, and Cabrera’s homer is something people will always be able to look up. But no one thinks of Yu Darvish and remembers that his career began with a four-pitch walk of Chone Figgins. No one thinks of Daisuke Matsuzaka and remembers that his career began with a single by David DeJesus. No one thinks of Stephen Strasburg and remembers that his career began with a 2-and-0 line drive by Andrew McCutchen. People will remember Tanaka for however Tanaka performs overall, and, one start in, it seems there’s an awful lot to like.
Which should surprise absolutely no one. Tanaka isn’t just a rookie — he’s a rookie recently given a nine-figure contract. Against the Jays, he threw two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. He kept the ball on the ground, outside of the dinger, and he didn’t issue a single walk while he struck the hitter out eight times. It was, granted, a Jays lineup without Jose Reyes, but it was a Jays lineup with everybody else, and Tanaka needed very little time to settle in and find a dominant groove. And along the way, he happened to pitch a lot like another front-of-the-rotation American League arm.
Tanaka, previously, drew a range of comparisons, including the obvious Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda and the only slightly less obvious Dan Haren. There are only so many starters in baseball who throw a high number of splitters. But one thing we’ve come to realize is that splitters and changeups behave in very similar ways. Obviously, they are not the same pitch to the pitchers, but it doesn’t really matter what the pitcher thinks — it matters what the hitter sees. We can get away with grouping changeups and splitters together, and if you do that, we can have some fun with Tanaka’s first start.
To whom did Tanaka pitch most similarly? Fewer than half of his pitches were fastballs. A quarter of his pitches were splitters, and according to Gameday and Brooks Baseball, he mixed in sliders, curves, and cutters. I pulled up all the starters from 2013-2014, plugged in Tanaka’s pitch frequencies, and did some simple math to identify the most similar repertoire, just in terms of mix. Velocity wasn’t included, but I wanted to find the repertoire comparison first.
As evidence of legitimacy of method, Kuroda shows up as a good comp. Iwakuma shows up as a better comp. But the best comp, according to the method, is 2013-2014 Anibal Sanchez. Fewer than half of Sanchez’s pitches have been fastballs. A quarter of his pitches have been changeups — his changeup is very good — and then there’ve also been sliders and curveballs. It’s a comparison I like, and it’s a comparison I hadn’t heard before. And it’s a comparison that, for Tanaka, is encouraging, given that Sanchez has been one of baseball’s best starters.
Sanchez might have a little extra fastball velocity. He seems to have a little extra curveball velocity, too, and Tanaka’s splitter appears to be quicker by a tick or two than Sanchez’s changeup. It’s not a perfect comp. During the start, the Toronto broadcast noted that Adam Lind said there wasn’t much speed differential between Tanaka’s hard fastball and his hard splitter. In that regard Tanaka is similar to Felix Hernandez, who barely has any velocity difference at all between his fastball and his change. That’s a different comp, but Yankees fans can’t complain if Tanaka keeps getting compared to some of the most successful pitchers in the world.
And we’ll have to see where Tanaka goes from here. It’s interesting to observe that he changed even within the one start. Through the first three innings, just 21 of 58 pitches (36%) were fastballs or cutters. Through the final four, 26 of 39 pitches (67%) were fastballs or cutters. Said Tanaka, later:
“It was good that I increased the numbers of fastballs after two innings,” Tanaka said. “I think that was good for me.”
If Tanaka, going forward, throws more like 50-60% fastballs, then Sanchez might not be so good of a comparison. But if Tanaka ends up with a more consistent feel for his secondary stuff, then he could remain in the same area, and then Sanchez would make as much sense as anyone. Recall that last year Sanchez was worth 6.2 WAR, or 6.0 WAR, depending on your preference. He was worth a WAR starting with 6.
Before ending, let’s look at some Tanaka footage. One of my favorites at-bats was the showdown between Tanaka and Jose Bautista in the bottom of the first. This was just three batters in, and it was a four-pitch sequence. Tanaka started with a first-pitch curve — his first-ever curve — and first-pitch curves usually get taken:
Tanaka followed that by coming in, a little off the inside edge:
He did more or less exactly what he wanted, and though the pitch was a ball, Bautista was slightly backed off and the crowd responded as if Bautista were almost hit. Then came the splitter to get ahead:
With Bautista clearly looking to punish the ball into left field, Tanaka subsequently dropped a perfect 1-and-2 slider that would’ve been almost impossible to pull with any authority:
Bautista didn’t go all the way around, but it didn’t matter, because the pitch was a strike anyway. Look at the target, look at the execution, and look at the spot. That might’ve been as perfect a pitch as Tanaka threw all game, and the whole at-bat was a demonstration of his upper-level command.
Bautista in particular was frustrated by Tanaka. When they met in the third, Bautista popped out. When they met in the fifth, Bautista went down swinging at a splitter, a little up:
I’ll throw in another whiff, for good measure:
It should be noted that Tanaka made mistakes. Every pitcher makes mistakes, and Tanaka allowed that dinger in the first. Two .gifs up, he kind of missed to Bautista with his splitter, and he missed in a dangerous place. And immediately preceding that splitter, Tanaka threw the following 1-and-2 slider:
That’s an elevated slider over the middle of the plate to a dangerous hitter with the pitcher ahead in the count, and though Bautista fouled the pitch off, you can see that Tanaka was upset with himself. On several occasions in his debut, Tanaka left his pitches up. Most often, he got away with it, and literally everyone will miss spots from time to time, but Tanaka won’t be impossible to hit hard. On Yu Darvish’s off days, he has trouble finding the strike zone. He’s a guy you wait out. On Tanaka’s coming off days, he’ll probably miss in the zone, like he did to Bautista and like he did in the first to Cabrera. That’ll lead to extra-base hits, and that’ll lead to runs and big innings. But Tanaka’s command seems better than average, so those big innings should be few and far between. No one’s immune to them, but they can be limited.
In Japan, Masahiro Tanaka was one of the best pitchers in the league. Coming over, he was paid to be one of the best pitchers in the league. In Tanaka’s debut start, he pitched like one of the best pitchers in the league, and he generated results like one of the best pitchers in the league. It’s true that, sometimes, Tanaka’s going to leave a breaking ball up. Even Greg Maddux allowed almost 400 dingers.
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