Did Masahiro Tanaka Make a Mistake?

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Mike Napoli called Masahiro Tanaka an idiot on the baseball field. It would, of course, be misleading — Napoli didn’t say that to Tanaka’s face, and Napoli wasn’t asserting that Tanaka is some kind of moron. Napoli was simply gleeful, returning to the dugout Saturday night after breaking a tie with a ninth-inning dinger. Down two strikes, Napoli was pleased to see Tanaka throw him an elevated fastball, and Napoli knocked it out of the yard to right-center. Though the ESPN Home Run Tracker says the ball would’ve left just one of 30 stadiums under standard conditions, that one, presumably, is New York, and within a few minutes the Yankees lost. Dingers have been Tanaka’s one human side.

If you listen to Napoli, Tanaka was a fool for throwing a fastball. Obviously, according to results-based analysis, Tanaka was a fool for throwing a fastball, since that pitch ultimately was the difference in the game. There’s no question that Tanaka made a mistake in that he missed his spot and left the pitch up. But let’s think a bit about the sequencing. Did Tanaka make a mistake in going with the heat in a 1-and-2 count? Was Tanaka being an idiot, or did he get burned by a fine idea?

To set the scene real quick: it was 1-1 in the ninth, and the Red Sox had two down with none on. Against Napoli, Tanaka missed inside with a first-pitch fastball. Then he got a whiff at a high slider, and a whiff at a low splitter to take the count to 1-and-2. Lest you think what followed was Brian McCann‘s idea, McCann called for both a splitter and a slider. Tanaka wasn’t feeling them.

TanakaShakeShake.gif.opt

McCann’s first two thoughts were breaking balls. Tanaka had something else in mind.

“I just wanted to go hard outside,” Tanaka said. “I wanted to show the batter a fastball there, even if it was not in the strike zone. … The stadium we have is a rather smaller stadium, so that can happen.”

Hence:

TanakaNapoliDinger.gif.opt

In a two-strike count, batters are going to be swinging. They know they need to protect, and Napoli is a disciplined sort. Tanaka knew that when he made his choice. Now let’s go back. In the top of the second inning, Tanaka got ahead of Napoli 1-and-2. He missed high with a fastball, then he missed barely away with a fastball, then Napoli took a close slider for ball four. In the fourth inning, the count again grew to 1-and-2.

TanakaNapoliK1.gif.opt

In the sixth inning, Tanaka immediately got ahead of Napoli 0-and-2:

TanakaNapoliK2.gif.opt

So, two times in a row, Tanaka put Napoli away with two-strike splitters, in the usual spot. In the ninth, Tanaka got a whiff with a one-strike splitter, in the usual spot. That set up another breaking-ball count, one in which Tanaka didn’t throw a breaking ball.

Let’s go back even further. Once before, Tanaka and Napoli have faced off. In a game in April, the two had three matchups. In the first plate appearance, Tanaka whiffed Napoli with a two-strike splitter. In the second plate appearance, Tanaka never got to two strikes. In the third, he threw five two-strike pitches. A splitter was fouled, a fastball was fouled, a slider was fouled, and a slider was taken for a ball. Then Napoli hit a fastball for a double. In the ninth inning on Saturday, there was every reason for Napoli to expect another splitter, down. He said as much after the game.

“Nothing against him,” Napoli said. “I was just surprised he didn’t try to bury another splitter in the dirt. I was just having fun out there.”

From the other recap:

“I was pretty surprised, but I was down to two strikes, I was just trying to see something up,” said Napoli. “My mind was saying, ‘Hang a splitter,’ but I just got something up in the zone that I could handle.”

Tanaka had already put him away twice in a row on the same pitch. It’s Tanaka’s bread-and-butter pitch, and Napoli had seen it earlier in the season. Everyone would’ve been thinking splitter. Napoli was thinking splitter. And, that’s precisely the thing. That’s precisely the argument against throwing a splitter. All this is is textbook game theory. If pitching is about keeping things unpredictable, then, Napoli was predicting a splitter. Napoli admitted to being surprised by a fastball. So then was throwing a fastball really a mistake, or was it Tanaka understanding the nuances of his job?

With the occasional two-strike fastball, Tanaka, in theory, keeps the hitters honest. In theory, by keeping said hitters honest, Tanaka makes his splitter and slider more effective. And, in theory, the fastball is a two-strike weapon if the hitters are looking for something else, something slower and more break-y. You could say Napoli might’ve been a little behind the fastball he knocked out. He still hit it squarely, of course, but according to game theory, by definition it shouldn’t be idiotic to do something that catches a hitter off guard.

But then there’s a counter-argument, and it goes beyond the fact that Napoli hit a home run. Maybe Tanaka’s splitter is just so good it doesn’t matter if it’s predictable, in the way that it doesn’t matter that Kenley Jansen‘s cutter is predictable. Maybe, in truth, Tanaka doesn’t throw enough two-strike splitters. As you can see in the quote above, Napoli was hoping that Tanaka would hang something. Maybe Napoli believes he’s just helpless if Tanaka executes a splitter like he can. In a two-strike count, batters look to swing. Low splitters look like low fastballs, strike fastballs, until they dive, and that’s where the whiffs come from. Maybe, here, game theory takes us off the right path, because Tanaka’s splitter is unusually amazing. Maybe hitters just don’t have to be kept that honest.

Like so many of them, it’s ultimately something of an unanswerable question. Had Tanaka thrown a better fastball, he wouldn’t have given up a home run, probably. If pitchers didn’t make location mistakes, they’d all be great pitchers. All this is is a thought experiment, but, seldom do we hear one baseball player refer to another as an idiot. Sometimes, the idiocy is readily apparent. Sometimes, players throw baseball bats at other players. And sometimes, this game is freaking complicated.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

55 Responses to “Did Masahiro Tanaka Make a Mistake?”

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  1. tz says:

    Maybe it’s a practical matter of how many splitters Tanaka can throw before his arm falls off. A splitter has to be harder on the arm than cutter thrown by a guy with a natural cutter like Jansen (or Rivera before him)

    After all, even Sergio Romo couldn’t throw 100% sliders when trying to close out a World Series.

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  2. Alex says:

    If he wasn’t in Yankee Stadium, is that even a HR?

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    • arc says:

      “the ESPN Home Run Tracker says the ball would’ve left just one of 30 stadiums under standard conditions”

      - The article you’re commenting on.

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  3. Tom says:

    All I can say is, no way Napoli hits a decent splitter for a game winning HR, even if he knows its coming. Better chance for Napoli to hit a fast ball out, than for Tanaka to hang a splitter.

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  4. Steve says:

    The “idiot” thing is one of the dumbest things to get upset about. I call my friends idiots all the time when they do something dumb in a game. Guarantee you Napoli has no problem whatsoever with Tanaka.

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    • cs3 says:

      Agreed. Really really doubt it was personal at all. Just one of those “I cant believe he actually did that” moments at the peak of excitement.

      Even if throwing a fastball there was not a mistake (I think it was, and agree with Tom on the reasoning), the execution was definitely a mistake. Napoli shouldnt have been thrown anything near the plate there.

      If Im Tanaka and for whatever reason I decide to not throw my best pitch, which happens to be one of the best pitches in all of baseball, and I also decide to not throw a slider off the plate away, then the fastball is going to be neck high and off the plate.

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  5. arc says:

    Even if Napoli is guessing splitter, there is no reason to believe he’ll hit it or lay off it. Much of the reason the splitter is so effective is that it looks like a fastball.

    Seems pretty clear that Tanaka made a mistake both in selection and execution. It happens.

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    • jasen74 says:

      All the arguments being made are easily solved with a properly executed pitch. It doesn’t matter whether it was a splitter, a two seamer, a four seamer or slider. If thrown and located properly, any of the aforementioned pitches most likely do end with the result that occurred. A hung splitter, elevated fastball that caught a bit too much of the plate, or cement mixer slider all have the possibility of being hit for a mile.

      My personal opinion, and take that with a grain of salt, is that this argument shouldn’t even be argued.

      Tanaka knows what he’s doing, as many of us in our respective fields of work do, however, I think we can all agree that at times our execution just isn’t good enough.

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      • jasen74 says:

        Sorry, should read ” do not end with the result…”

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      • arc says:

        I don’t see why that kind of self-evident whitewashing is useful or interesting.

        Your best pitch has a different level of execution risk than your third best pitch. Categorically, a splitter is less likely to be hit for a home run than a fastball. Properly executed fastballs are hit for home runs all the time. Splitters, almost never. These facts are all relevant to the decision of which pitch to throw.

        Tanaka made a mistake both in selection and execution.

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        • Siera Madre says:

          Neither do I, plus white-washing is extremely out-of-date.

          Do you take into account that the percentage of pitchers of “relevance” (apply FIP, xfIp or SIERA at your preferred threshold) who have a splitter ranked as an above average MLB pitch, per Fangraphs matrices, are a very small sample size in MLB pitchers as a whole.

          Of course, in general terms, a splitter is less likely to be hit out of the yard, but from a pitcher of the caliber such a Tanaka, a well-placed, knee high fastball on the black would not have had the same result.

          If you accuse me of white-washing, please don’t compare pitchers from this year and years past that do not compare with the given skill set of Tanaka when drawing conclusions about certain pitches. Dig deeper and you’ll see the discrepancy.

          No reason on your behalf to be snarky or self-righteous. If you disagree, fine, but nobody likes a know-it-all.

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        • arc says:

          Don’t know what snark or “know it all”ness you’re reading in that comment. Your comment (the one mine replied to) dismissed out of hand the entire exercise taken up by this article, which is arguably the main purpose of this site’s existence. I still don’t see how that’s useful or interesting and I don’t see how expressing that view is snarky.

          The subsequent statements in my last comment are strictly factual. You don’t need to control for pitchers with above average splitters for what I said to be true. Properly executed splitters are hit for home runs far less frequently than properly executed fastballs whether you’re talking about the league (as, yes, you should be) or Tanaka in isolation. This isn’t controversial.

          A properly executed fastball on the corner from Tanaka against Napoli is likelier to be hit for a home run than a properly executed splitter from Tanaka against Napoli. You can parse the data however you want; what I said before remains true.

          “Dig deeper and you’ll see the discrepancy”, to the extent that it has any meaning at all, is false.

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  6. Steve says:

    When I read the title, I thought this was going to be about how he should have signed a 1-year deal, and then got $250M in his next contract.

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    • Slugger27 says:

      no you didn’t.

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    • Bip says:

      That’s not possible anyway, as he wouldn’t have enough service time to qualify for free agency anyway. There was no reason for him to sign for less than 6 years.

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      • Joe says:

        yes its perfectly possible if he gets an opt-out after 1 year.

        He has one after 4 years now of course so what you’re saying is blatantly false.

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  7. The Guns of Navarone says:

    What this article fails to mention is that the helpless Stephen Drew was on deck. You don’t let Napoli beat you in that count in that spot. If you want to show him a fastball it has to be further off the plate away. Otherwise you spend the next few pitches trying to get him to chase (which I have to believe he would have) or you put him on first and deal with Drew.

    Bad pitch. Bad decision. It was a mistake. Case closed in my opinion. No need to over-think it.

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    • Bip says:

      Also, they should have specifically considered that Yankee Stadium is probably the easiest place to hit homers to RF, and an elevated outside fastball to a RHB is most likely to get hit to RF if it gets hit. If they’re in AT&T, sure, throw that pitch and maybe it the ball gets caught a few feet in front of the warning track.

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    • BMac says:

      Exactly. NY radio broadcasters made the same observation the next day. At least try to get him to chase or try to catch the edge of the strike zone.

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  8. dfives says:

    last night felix got a lot of strike 3s by just throwing fastballs when they were expecting changes

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  9. james wilson says:

    Tanaka missed location, period. If he had missed location with a fork ball up it would have been hit out to center field. Napoli has become a much better two strike hitter than he ever was. The pitch was a mistake but it didn’t come with room service.

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  10. dude says:

    Why is Lester in the gif? It made me think this article would be about stealing signs.

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  11. Bip says:

    Sometimes I wonder to what extent it’s true that a batter will be able to hit a pitch even if he knows it’s coming. Clayton Kershaw has gotten so many whiffs on his slider this year, there is no way that each of those hitters weren’t expecting it.

    Hitter: it’s 0-2
    Hitter: probably a slider
    Hitter: if it’s low, don’t swing
    Kershaw: /slider
    Hitter: that’s probably a
    Hitter: /swing
    Hitter: /whiff
    Hitter: slider
    Hitter: wow dude great job

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  12. pft says:

    Tanaka said he meant to throw the fastball off the plate to get him to chase. He missed location. Hitters like Napoli hit mistakes all the time, thats all they can hit out of the park, and he does not call them an idiot. Napoli knew the dugouts are miked in nationally televised games, players are reminded of this before each game so they can watch what they say.

    Maybe the fact Tanaka is Japanese? If Arod called Tanaka an idiot it would be blown up and cause international relations to fail and lead to possible World War. :lol: Red Sox apologists everywhere

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    • Eric Feczko says:

      There’s no question that Tanaka failed to execute the pitch. I think knowledgable red sox fans would agree on that question.

      What does Tanaka’s nationality have to do with anything? In any case, Napoli clarified afterwards that he did not mean to call Tanaka an idiot: https://twitter.com/Ken_Rosenthal/statuses/483078943533056000

      Your last comment makes you sound like an a-rod apologist. Everyone, especially Yankees fans, hates a-rod right now.

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      • Boom says:

        I don’t hate A-rod because an even worse piece of shit in Ryan braun is playing in the league right now

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      • Hones says:

        A-rod carried the Yankees on his back in the 09 playoffs and won 2 mvps. this is one Yankee fan who definitly does not hate him.

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  13. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Even if there is argument against the splitter, what about the slider? I don’t think throwing the fastball is necessarily a mistake, but I do think that it might be worthwhile to consider the situation (tied game, none on, two outs, Drew on deck, 1-2 coubt). It probably IS worth considering how homer prone a pitch is in that situation, as you have pitches to play with and thus can have more room to miss with, say, a slider that slides too far, and you’re in a better position to give up a walk than a homer (As in the 9th, you can probably even turn it over to a LOOGY against the much worse Drew. Yes, I know you’d always rather walk a guy than have him hit a homer, but it is moreso about a walk not being as bad). And of course his splitter has hardly been homered off of and he has surely made more than one mistake pitch with it. I don’t think Tanaka’s stupid for throwing it, but I do think it probably wasn’t the smartest move. If nothing else, I’d prefer a close beltbuster rather than hard outside, personally. But I am just an internet commentor, so I am hardly a very good source.

    As for game theory…I think the big thing is just that it is a good idea for Tanaka to mix up his pitch, just not necessarily in this context. It might be better to mix in 2 pitch fastballs and the like against Napoli in less close games, say 3-1, and then it keeps some thought open in tighter situations or later in the game, and maybe you ocassionally throw some other stuff anyway (Beltbuster fastball or a slider, maybe). But, again, I don’t know as much as Tanaka, so who knows.

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    • Eric Feczko says:

      “Lest you think what followed was Brian McCann‘s idea, McCann called for both a splitter and a slider. Tanaka wasn’t feeling them.”

      I think the article agrees with you. An offspeed pitch low and away is a great call in this situation.

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  14. nick says:

    If your gonna run it up to 96, why not pitch inside. He was looking to catch Napoli napping yet he throws it away catching Napoli by surprise. He just sticks the barrel out there and lets his wrists do the rest…

    If that pitch is inside and Napoli is caught off guard he stands little to no chance.

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  15. jim S. says:

    Since Napoli hit the fastball to right, he was surely sitting on something offspeed.

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    • arc says:

      He said as much after the game. Tanaka had been getting him out with the splitter, so he was just hoping Tanaka would hang one. Technically that didn’t happen, but functionally it sort of did.

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  16. Wolf359 says:

    The real mistake he made was going to the sinking, decrepit ship that is the Yankees ….

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  17. MrKnowNothing says:

    I’ll bet Brian McCann lost his shit over this.

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  18. Mr baseball says:

    Big deal, both teams will be playing golf in October

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  19. John C says:

    It was a mistake. Napoli more or less said he couldn’t hit Tanaka’s splitter unless he hung it. The splitter is what makes Tanaka a great pitcher; his fastball is an ordinary pitch, and Napoli makes $16 million because he isn’t fooled often by ordinary pitches.

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  20. MGL says:

    Unless the correct pitch in that exact situation (score, batter, stadium, umpire, etc.) is 0% fastball, game-theory-wise, then we can never know whether a fastball was a mistake. Period.

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    • TF12 says:

      First, I would say I totally agree. I don’t think a fastball away there is ever 0%.

      However, in this instance, I think shaking twice in order to get to a fastball away was the mistake by Tanaka. I would be surprised if he and McCann have ever gone splitter as the tertiary pitch in that count and situation, especially to someone like Napoli who strikes out at the rate he does.

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      • karcotte says:

        shake, shake, go back to the first called pitch

        I think this is a pretty standard tool that most batterymates use occasionally.

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  21. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    is is
    ^^

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  22. Peter 2 says:

    “Textbook game theory” is not at all synonymous with “do what the other person doesn’t expect.” If we were to analyze this situation with one of the more basic concepts of game theory—the Nash equilibrium—what really matters is what the presumed outcome (payoff) would be given the different strategies taken by each player.

    Let’s presume that the strategy of the pitcher has to do with the pitch selection, and the strategy of the hitter is to decide which pitch to sit on. And let’s simplify by saying that the only two possibilities here are splitter and fastball, and let’s not factor in the uncertainty surrounding the good execution of either pitch.

    The best scenario here for Napoli (worst for Tanaka) is that Napoli expects a fastball and gets a fastball. I would also presume that the worst scenario for Napoli (best for Tanaka) is that Napoli expects a fastball and gets a splitter.

    Now, the game theoretic prescription for both players depends on whether one thinks Napoli would be better off in a situation where he expects splitter and gets fastball, or expects splitter and gets splitter. Not obvious a priori what the answer is. It could very well be the case that, even if Napoli is expecting the splitter, he’d have a better shot against the fastball than the expected splitter. And in that case, the Nash equilibrium strategy would be for Tanaka to throw a splitter and Napoli to expect a splitter—neither player can change their strategy unilaterally and be better off.

    Or, it could be that one thinks expecting the splitter and getting it would be better than expecting the splitter and getting the fastball. In that case, there is no stable Nash equilibrium—either player could take on either strategy. If Tanaka is a game theorist (according to Nash) he’d only have thrown a fastball here if he believed this was the reality of the situation.

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  23. AS says:

    Another aspect to the game theory involved in this pitch was the sequence of signs given. Of course, some (most? all?) pitcher/catcher batteries will deliberately have a shake sign to exploit this, but as a hitter, you can’t assume that’s what’s happening when a pitcher shakes off a sign. Given Tanaka’s two-strike tendencies, had McCann and Tanaka been on the same page and fastball away was the first sign dropped, Napoli might have still been thinking splitter and swung under it (likely) or slider and laid off entirely (less likely). Instead, it took three signs for Tanaka to like the call, which likely gave Napoli a hint that something was up. It doesn’t mean the next pitch definitely would be a fastball, but you almost have to think that it raised the probability of it in Napoli’s head.

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  24. mario mendoza says:

    this is why you don’t throw the fastball:

    Napoli wFB/C: 1.44
    Napoli wSF/C: -0.37

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  25. mario mendoza says:

    Also, close and late is not the time to throw your less-than-best, keep-em-honest pitch.

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  26. twigman08 says:

    There is also, IMO, something to say that Tanakas fastball is his most hittable pitch period really, pretty easily. His spliiter is just amazing, his slider can be good when he executes it (will say he’s been “lucky” sometimes when he has left it up in the zone), has a good sinking fastball, but his four seam fastball is pretty much as straight as you can get it with little downward plane.

    I understand needing to sometimes to go to fastball in 2 strike counts. You can’t always go to the exact same pitch over and over. He might get away with that this year but hitters do learn that what pitches you will be going too so you have to change it up sometimes. I get that. Though considering the situation that this is this is not one of those times where you try to “trick” the hitter or something by going to something like his fastball, which is very hittable when he throws it around the plate. This situation calls for your best pitch that you can execute very well more times than not. If you end up not getting him to chase look who you have on deck. This is where Tanakas lack of experience of the majors showed up, IMO, and just something for him to learn from. Nothing against him at all. Every pitcher has to learn something. This is just one thing Tanaka will have to learn from.

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  27. Joe says:

    Tanaka said he wanted to throw a fastball outside and off the plate, but if you’re trying to catch the hitter off guard who’s expecting a splitter why not throw a fastball at the knees? If Napoli was expecting the splitter he would expect it to break out of the zone when actually it just goes for called strike 3.

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  28. I don’t see the problem being pitch selection. I agree, you have to keep hitters off-balance. Hindsight is 20/20. The problem is he missed his spot. A high fastball in my mind is one of the best pitches you can throw because it can be so effective but at the least it sets up another pitch, in Tanaka’s case a splitter in the dirt. It was 1-2, a high fastball should be at the hands, OUT of the zone. That’s the risk with the pitch, if you miss say goodbye. Throw it out of the zone and get him to chase. If he doesn’t chase, it’s 2-2 and his eye level is changed. NOW you throw the splitter.
    I wouldn’t call him an “idiot” for throwing the high fastball. The thought process makes enough logical sense. He missed his spot. It happens. In this scenario it was just a very unfortunate time to do so.
    The most shocking thing in this article to me was that McCann called other pitches that were just as justified and based on patterns he’s seen in the scouting report, and Tanaka did his own thing. Honestly? The whole thing is blown out of proportion and the thing I worry about is when Tanaka will learn to just trust his catcher. They know best!
    -A catcher :)

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