Masahiro Tanaka: The Market’s Best Starter

Some people, surely, are being racist when they draw comparisons between Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda. Some other people, surely, are being not racist, but lazy, failing to look much beyond country of origin. But it is neither automatically racist nor automatically lazy to compare the two starters, because it turns out the comparison is a pretty good one. Masahiro Tanaka has a lot in common with Hiroki Kuroda, and Kuroda has been quite good from the get-go, and Tanaka is entering an offseason in which he might stand to have a higher price tag than Yu Darvish.

What Tanaka doesn’t have is Darvish’s raw stuff. On top of that, he hasn’t put up quite the same numbers in Japan, so there’s a reason people aren’t talking about him as potentially the next best starting pitcher on the planet. But there’s more money in baseball now than there was then, even though “then” wasn’t long ago, and among the teams looking to land an impact starter are some of the richest teams in the league. This isn’t going to be the offseason of Masahiro Tanaka, but it’s going to be the offseason with Masahiro Tanaka, and he ought to be the kind of pitcher who can alter a playoff race.

In a good way, for the team with Tanaka on it. Should’ve made that more clear. There’s always this air of mystery when it comes to international players, because they haven’t yet succeeded or failed as American pros. They represent limitless possibilities, and people naturally shift their attention toward the positive extreme. As a consequence, international players can end up a bit overhyped, but here’s something we can say with a high degree of certainty: Tanaka’s an extraordinarily talented pitcher. He throws multiple pitches, he’s established his own track record of durability, and he’s succeeded at one of the highest levels in the world. Tanaka’s a risk, just like every pitcher, but there’s no question he possesses stuff that can get big leaguers out. That’s why he’ll command a high posting fee, and that’s why he’ll subsequently command a big long-term deal.

The comparison between Tanaka and Kuroda goes beyond just the Japanese thing. Both are right-handed starters. Both have fastballs around the low 90s. Both throw a lot of sliders, both are known for their command, and most importantly, both feature a frequent splitter. There just haven’t been that many splitters among big-league starting pitchers lately, which is one reason why the Kuroda comparison isn’t as lazy as it can seem. Since 2002, just seven starters have thrown at least 20% splitters. Just 11 more have thrown at least 10% splitters. Included are names like Kuroda, Hideo Nomo, Kenshin Kawakami, and Hisashi Iwakuma. The splitter is a popular pitch in Japan, so Japanese pitchers frequently make for easy comparisons for Japanese pitchers.

Ben Badler has referred to Tanaka’s splitter as being one of the best splitters in all of baseball, everywhere, and there are indications that even by just throwing a splitter pretty frequently, Tanaka could have an advantage in the majors. Since 2002, those 18 starters who have thrown at least 10% splitters have averaged a 100 ERA- and a 99 FIP-. Everybody else has averaged a 106 ERA- and a 104 FIP-. The splitter pitchers have generated more strikeouts and issued slightly fewer walks. Obviously, there have been good splitter pitchers and worse splitter pitchers, but it’s a valuable pitch against hitters from both sides if you can command it and keep from getting hurt by it.

Maybe you’d like to see some visuals of Tanaka’s stuff. Here are a few clips from the World Baseball Classic in March, and in this game Tanaka threw two innings against Cuba, striking out six.

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The fastball, the slider, the splitter — the weapons are all in there, and while a highlight package could make Edinson Volquez look good, it isn’t difficult to reconcile Tanaka’s stuff with Tanaka’s numbers. What he lacks in overpowering velocity, he makes up for with movement, location, and what the seasoned pros like to call pitchability. Also he can run it up to 96 or 97 if he wants.

There is one concern about Tanaka’s fastball — that it arrives on a flat plane, making it particularly hittable when it’s left up. This is in large part a consequence of Tanaka’s delivery, in which he drops down pretty far before release:

tanakarelease

He ends up with the release point of a shorter pitcher, so Tanaka’s fastball doesn’t feel like it’s being thrown downhill. But, Tanaka doesn’t look to be a success because he has a league-best heater. He looks to be a success because he could have a league-best split, with a heater that’s fine and a slider that’s better than that. Koji Uehara doesn’t have an awesome fastball, himself. It just seems awesome when hitters have to worry about an unhittable splitter that tumbles out of the zone.

It’s probably about time to peek at what Tanaka has done over there. Kuroda, Kawakami, Darvish, and Iwakuma are the recent imports to make plenty of big-league starts. Here’s a table comparing them to Tanaka, focusing on strikeouts and walks, covering their last three seasons in Japan, and adjusting for league:

Pitcher BB% K% lgBB% lgK% BB%ratio K%ratio
Darvish 6.1% 28% 8.4% 18% 73% 153%
Iwakuma 6.0% 18% 8.4% 18% 71% 100%
Kawakami 4.8% 23% 7.7% 18% 62% 126%
Kuroda 4.9% 19% 7.8% 18% 63% 102%
Tanaka 3.7% 25% 8.1% 17% 46% 144%

The last three years, Tanaka’s walk rate has been less than half the league-average walk rate. The others haven’t come real close to that, and only Darvish has approached and surpassed Tanaka’s strikeout numbers. I chose not to include home-run numbers, since the samples are all pretty limited, but Tanaka has unsurprisingly done a fine job of keeping the ball in the park. Homers in Japan, also, are less common than they used to be.

If there is one troubling thing for Tanaka, it’s in here:

Season BB% K% lgBB% lgK% BB%ratio K%ratio
2011 3.7% 28% 7.5% 18% 49% 154%
2012 3.0% 24% 7.7% 16% 39% 148%
2013 4.3% 22% 9.2% 17% 46% 128%

The last three years, Tanaka’s walks have remained stable. But he just lost a chunk out of his strikeout rate, even as the league numbers increased. On the one hand, that’s always cause for further investigation. On the other hand, Tanaka still struck out a lot of guys, and it’s not like he lost any of his overall effectiveness. Look back at the table above this most recent table. Neither Iwakuma nor Kuroda struck out a ton of batters in Japan, and in the majors they’ve been highly effective, with few speed bumps.

The question is whether Tanaka lost strikeouts as a consequence of his aggressive workload. Just the other day, people were talking about a start in which he threw 160 pitches, subsequently throwing another 15 pitches in relief the next day. Tanaka wouldn’t face that kind of workload in the States, but people wonder what toll it might have taken on his body. If his numbers suggest anything, it’s that he’s just fine. Japanese pitchers, also, start less frequently than major-league pitchers do, so workload comparisons aren’t perfect.

We have two facts:

  1. Tanaka has been worked hard
  2. Tanaka is great!

No team can just ignore fact no. 1, but the more important of the facts is no. 2. Yu Darvish dealt with a high workload, and he’s still pitching strong. Daisuke Matsuzaka dealt with a high workload, and he started to come apart. Hisashi Iwakuma had shoulder problems in his last year in Japan, and last season he threw 220 innings, ending with an extended scoreless streak. The question’s always going to be there with any Japanese pitcher who’s pitched a lot, but at the end of the day, unless there are other obvious warning signs, it’s probably best to just assume a pitcher is a pitcher and pitchers get hurt sometimes. You pay for talent and hope for durability. Tanaka isn’t to be considered some kind of Rich Harden.

Here’s the funny thing about international-player mystery: you can take all the fun out of it if you just look at the basic numbers. Tanaka will pitch in the major leagues next season, presumably. What will matter is his ability to prevent the other team from scoring runs. Forget all the details. If he can prevent runs by 30% better than average, he’ll pitch like Clayton Kershaw. If 20% better than average, he’s Matt Cain. If 10% better than average, he’s Mark Buehrle. If average, he’s Edwin Jackson. If worse, he’s worse. It all comes down to runs per inning, and innings. Tanaka will follow his own unique path toward numbers that other people have posted before.

But all Hiroki Kuroda has done since arriving in the majors is post an 85 ERA- that ranks him with guys like Jon Lester and Tim Hudson. Tanaka has Kuroda’s splitter, and he has Kuroda’s location, so there are reasons to expect him to have something like Kuroda’s success. It just so happens that Hiroki Kuroda is one of baseball’s very most underrated starting pitchers. Masahiro Tanaka probably isn’t going to fly under the same radar.



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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.


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Kyle
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Kyle
2 years 9 months ago

In fairness to his K rate, he’s been a lot more reserved this year in situations where he didn’t need his best stuff, pitching a lot more to contact. He threw a lot of early count movement-side 2-seamers and cutters to get quick outs. In 29 postseason innings he struck out 30 and walked 5.

Brian
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Brian
2 years 9 months ago

rac·ist
/?r?sist/
noun: racist;?plural noun: racists

1. a person who believes that a particular race is superior to another.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan
2 years 9 months ago

pe·dan·tic
p??dantik/
adjective
1. of or like a pedant.

Brian
Guest
Brian
2 years 9 months ago

That’s where your wrong chief, casually throwing around the word racist is not minor.

James Lahey
Guest
James Lahey
2 years 9 months ago

a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

Comparing Japanese pitchers based solely on race seems to fit the first part of the Merriam Webster definition. Good enough for me, guy.

Jaack
Guest
Jaack
2 years 9 months ago

No, I think that is the definition of pedantic.

Kinanik
Member
Member
Kinanik
2 years 9 months ago

There are reasons other than race to compare Kuroda and Tanaka, rather than, say, Felix Hernandez and Tanaka. Japan has a unique pitching culture–especially in the way they treat young pitchers, their numbers both come from the same sort of competition in the NPB, and are likely to have many of the challenges in adapting to American Baseball due to the differences between the way the leagues play. Comparing Tanaka to players with similar professional backgrounds, who happen to be the same race, is not racist. If Tanaka were coming out of Long Beach State then, sure, the comparison would be racist.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
2 years 9 months ago

*you’re

Relax a little bit. You’d hate to have everyone make a huge issue of all YOUR syntactical or grammatical idiosyncrasies.

FeslenR
Guest
FeslenR
2 years 9 months ago

I wonder how many more guys Tanaka would strike out against NL teams?

jim
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jim
2 years 9 months ago

it’s almost like adjusting for that is something that teams (probably) do

Connor Jennings
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

By my projection system for Japanese baseball players(available at nomprojections.com) I expect Tanaka to be a 4-5 win pitcher in the MLB immediately. I think the comparisons this article draws are apt. He’s like Hiroki Kuroda, but better. He has very good strikeout ability to go with some of the best control in the history of Japanese baseball.

My projections love him (FIP of ~3, xFIP of ~3.5). They project him almost equally as they did Darvish in terms of overall value (obviously with more strikeouts for Darvish, fewer walks and home runs for Tanaka). Subjectively, I think it is clear he doesn’t have the same talent Darvish does. However, the projections love him. He has dominated, year after year, in a league that has been in a lot of flux by repeatedly changing the ball. I don’t think he’s that many notches below Darvish, and will slot nicely as a top of the rotation starter.

Connor Jackson
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Connor Jackson
2 years 9 months ago

If by top of the rotation starter, you mean Jeff Samardzija.

Paul Wilson
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Paul Wilson
2 years 9 months ago

Or Yovani Gallardo

BurleighGrimes
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BurleighGrimes
2 years 9 months ago

You’ve sold me.

Alexander Nevermind
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Alexander Nevermind
2 years 9 months ago

Colby Lewis’s NPB numbers probably bear the closest resemblance to Tanaka, regarding Ks and BBs

Helladecimal
Guest
Helladecimal
2 years 9 months ago

Good stuff, but there must’ve been a more elegant way to handle that opening paragraph

failticle
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failticle
2 years 9 months ago

Stopped reading after the first sentence.

Simon
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Simon
2 years 9 months ago

Oh well. It must be tough going through life having to stop reading everything when you come across a sentence you don’t like.

jh
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jh
2 years 9 months ago

Unfortunately, failticle stopped at “Oh well”.

not lovin you
Guest
not lovin you
2 years 9 months ago

loser

Park Chan Ho's Beard
Guest
Park Chan Ho's Beard
2 years 9 months ago

And yet you put so much effort into commenting on the article!

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 9 months ago

A declining K rate for a pitcher that young raises alarm bells.

Some people don’t think the posting fee is real money because it does not count against the tax threshold, but it certainly shows up on the bottom line.

Also, given the proposed changes to the posting system next year, which favor the players by allowing him to negotiate the best deal with the 3 top bidders, he has a bit more leverage and can simply wait till next year rather than accept a low ball bid like Daisuke and Darvish did.

That said, I am a real believer in the split after seeing guys like Nomo, koji and Kuroda. So if his declining K rate is not related to a health issue, he might be the real deal. Hard to gamble though, neither of these 3 required a huge posting fee. Darvish had bonafide stuff and was built like a MLB pitcher so he seemed like a better gamble than Daisuke or Tanaka.

Also, I would want to know how the lower seams on the MLB ball would affect him. Guys with small fingers like Daisuke had a problem throwing their breaking stuff. If he has the same problem he becomes a 2 pitch pitcher like Koji and might end up in the pen. That’s a lot of money to spend for a closer.

Bubba
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Bubba
2 years 9 months ago

Didn’t know about the proposed changes to the posting system. If he can negotiate with the top 3 bidders though, there’s less incentive to have really high posting bids. Less money goes to the Japanese team, more to the pitcher.

Aggie E
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Aggie E
2 years 9 months ago

Darvish got 6 years 60 million he cost Texas 115 million

Poppin the Elder
Guest
Poppin the Elder
2 years 9 months ago

The word you are looking for is stereotype-ist.

ReSzAT80
Guest
ReSzAT80
2 years 9 months ago

One thing IMO that competitions like the WBC (and MLB-NPB exhibition games) as well as Japanese position players in the MLB have shown is that Japanese hitters seem to lack power. I always had the impression that a lot of Japanese pitcher live and die with the flyball. So the one stat I’s be looking at is groundball ans flyball rate.
That’s also one of the reasons why Kuroda has been so good at the Major League level. Pitching in Hiroshima’s old ballpark which was a hitters paradise (300ft down both lines) he couldn’t take a chance with too many flyballs.

BurleighGrimes
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BurleighGrimes
2 years 9 months ago

Good article Jeff, and convincing.

The Whale
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The Whale
2 years 9 months ago

The worst racists are the ones who bring it up at every opportunity. Jeff Sullivan.

bdhudson
Member
Member
bdhudson
2 years 9 months ago

Yeah…that’s pretty not accurate at all.

Anon21
Member
Anon21
2 years 9 months ago

Fuck off and die.

fat man
Guest
fat man
2 years 9 months ago

Whale: as a fat man I hate you for your obvious slights

Zen Madman
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

If anyone thinks that no one is ever being racist when talking about Japanese players, then I’d really like to live in the world they think we’re living in.

_C1V
Member
_C1V
2 years 9 months ago

If you are looking for more Tanaka info, Clint Hulsey wrote a fairly in-depth scouting report in Tanaka back in August.

http://irfast.blogspot.com/2013/08/masahiro-tanaka-scouting-report.html

lester bangs
Guest
lester bangs
2 years 7 months ago

Given the curious similarities to the lazy/racial word drops, I’m pretty sure Sully read this before posting. It almost deserves a perfunctory link in the article proper.

The Humber Games
Guest
The Humber Games
2 years 9 months ago

So I see a lot of words in this article, but it clearly adds up to “Japanese pitchers all look alike”

For shame, sir, for shame.

maguro
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maguro
2 years 9 months ago

Would you prefer to see the words “Masahiro Tanaka is nothing like Hiroki Kuroda as a pitcher”, even if those words are not true? Would that make you feel better?

The Humber Games
Guest
The Humber Games
2 years 9 months ago

I bet you also think Tanaka knows martial arts just because he’s Japanese

maguro
Guest
maguro
2 years 9 months ago

Probably at least did some Judo in high school. Maybe Kendo as well.

Not worth it
Guest
Not worth it
2 years 9 months ago

So all Jeff’s comparisons of white males to other white males is now racism?

Seriously, author has mental issues.

Paul
Guest
Paul
2 years 9 months ago

Unreal how so many readers of this article (who I assume are baseball stat junkies like me) can latch on to one sentence and go nuts. Jeez. Jeff made a comment. Focus on the article.

Brad
Guest
Brad
2 years 9 months ago

If I were grading one of my student’s papers and I ran across the first couple of sentences, I would cross them out in red and say something along the lines of “I don’t think that these sentences help or further your thesis or genuinely contribute to the point you are trying to make.”

So, while this article is a pretty good treatment of Tanaka’s skill set etc., it is not the most elegant piece of writing I have come across. Why Sullivan felt the need to include it is beyond me unless he has a personal and unknown ax to grind…which seems quite unprofessional in my humble opinion.

But, whatever – so while I am dubious of Sullivan’s ability as a writer, I still value his computational skills.

Anon21
Member
Anon21
2 years 9 months ago

Your opinion is not valuable or desired. I hope your students ignore your advice and criticism, because you are a stupid person without insight or wisdom about the world.

d
Guest
d
2 years 9 months ago

…Who’s the one with an axe to grind?

Rock
Guest
Rock
2 years 9 months ago

I drive a Dodge Stratus!

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
2 years 9 months ago

I am a teacher, and if I were grading one of my students’ (sic) papers and “I ran across the first couple of sentences, I would cross them out in red and say something along the lines of “I don’t think that these sentences help or further your thesis or genuinely contribute to the point you are trying to make.” I might have the same reaction.

However, I would then focus on the point that was made in the article rather than the 2 sentences at the beginning of the article, realizing that the student’s argument wasn’t entirely corrupted by a couple of awkward sentences at the beginning.

Teachers who focus on 2 basically irrelevant sentences at the expense of the main thesis simply because those 2 sentences don’t entirely conform to the teachers’ world view are doing their students a disservice.

The 2 sentences to which you referred were awkward but, by spending your time consumed with their awkwardness, you missed the point of Jeff’s article. If you do the same to your students, it appears that it is you, therefore, with the ax to grind and you who are acting unprofessionally.

Brad
Guest
Brad
2 years 9 months ago

Interesting reactions. Thanks for the feedback :)

And Anon, I don’t know where you learned manners, but they leave something to be desired.

Brad
Guest
Brad
2 years 9 months ago

Oh and let me just say that the standard commenter on Fangraphs as a whole is quite sad. I express my opinion, which is just that, my OPINION, and Fangraph groupies run screaming to the defense of Sullivan, who is, like it or not, a good but not great writer.

Like it or not, I honestly don’t care. But just know that that sort of behavior makes you all look like a bunch of stuck-up sabermetric pricks.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21
2 years 9 months ago

It has nothing to do with the fact that it was Sullivan who made the statement. It has to do with all the assholes trying to pretend that pointing out racism is worse than actual racism. That has nothing to do with Fangraphs in particular; unfortunately, it’s endemic wherever white people gather.

jim
Guest
jim
2 years 9 months ago

$5 says these comments are all coming from the same person, posting under different names every time

James Hogg
Guest
James Hogg
2 years 7 months ago

I’m a college english teacher, and I thought the first few sentences worked fine as a lead-in to the main topic of the article. The piece centers on an exegesis of Tanaka’s similarities to Kuroda. Some people might be tempted to make that comparison because they are too lazy or prejudiced to find a better one. But the lede to the article states, and the body of the article explains, that the comparison is actually apt because they have similar repertoires.

Paul
Guest
Paul
2 years 9 months ago

Brad, you can refer to us as “Fangraphs Groupies” all you want. The point is that Jeff wrote an article about Tanaka – the intro was somewhat superfluous. I come to this site to gain knowledge and insight about the players and game that I love from an analytical perspective. I do not visit this site to read foolish comments that have nothing to do with baseball or the subject matter of the articles.

El sidd
Guest
El sidd
2 years 9 months ago

Well, it appears that some of us may come to this site for if fervent reasons. I like good writing, myself, and bad or lazy writing nearly detracts from my appreciation of an article.

I don’t care much about people’s critique or defense of referencing racism at the start, so much as that I agree with Brad above – it was an awkward and forced start to an article.

That said, even good writers can churn out crappy stuff when Nader deadline and whatnot. It happens.

El sidd
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

Heh. *under* deadline. I guess my iPad has been thinking about the 2000 election lately.

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