Masahiro Tanaka’s Non-Secret Weapon

Two things, both from Wednesday. Before the first game of a Yankees/Cubs doubleheader, the YES Network broadcast was profiling scheduled starter Masahiro Tanaka. They, of course, had very positive things to say, and at one point, Al Leiter remarked, “what I like is that he’s attacking the zone.” No nibbling, with that guy. Aggressive, polished rookie.

Later, Wednesday night, I got an email from Dave Cameron, asking if hitters should just stand there with their bats on their shoulders, since Tanaka doesn’t throw strikes. Why not force him to come into the zone? Is he even able to come into the zone often enough?

Two analyses by two analysts of one pitcher on one day, arriving at basically opposite conclusions. Leiter said Tanaka attacks the zone. Dave said Tanaka doesn’t attack the zone. What’s going on here? It’s time to gush some more about Masahiro Tanaka.

Here’s a graph. You know what are closely related? Strike rate and zone rate. That shouldn’t surprise you at all. Below, you’ll see split-season data from 2008-2013, for all pitcher-seasons of at least 100 innings. I’ve also, on the same graph, included a couple data points from 2014, to give you some frame of reference.


In the early going, we have a couple outliers. Felix Hernandez has thrown about 42% of pitches in the zone, and he’s thrown about 69% strikes. Masahiro Tanaka has thrown about 42% of pitches in the zone, and he’s thrown about 70% strikes. Felix is interesting, but known — we’re aware he’s one of the world’s greatest pitchers. Tanaka’s still new, and the early results couldn’t really be much more encouraging.

Supporting Dave’s argument: Tanaka’s really low zone rate. Supporting Leiter’s argument: Tanaka’s really high strike rate. Tanaka’s basically running a Cliff Lee strike rate and a Francisco Liriano contact rate with a Francisco Liriano zone rate. In other words, he’s Liriano with more strikes. In other words, he’s damned near perfect. And recall that he only just started here a couple weeks ago.

Any sort of outlier, naturally, needs to be regressed, especially this early on, but we can still pause and acknowledge what Tanaka has done to this point. Between 2008-2013, there were 25 pitcher-seasons in which a guy threw at least 68% strikes over at least 100 innings. The lowest zone rate was about 52%. Flipped around, there were 36 pitcher-seasons in which a guy threw no better than 45% of pitches in the zone over at least 100 innings. The highest strike rate was about 64%. Driving this is that Tanaka’s gotten swings out of the zone. He’s gotten more than almost anybody else.

A map of swings and non-swings against Tanaka thus far:


And you know what’s in large part responsible for that? Tanaka’s splitter, the pitch that everyone simultaneously feared and lauded even before it came over to the continent.


Among pitches thrown by starters at least 50 times this season, batters have swung most often at Juan Nicasio‘s slider. They’ve swung at 67% of sliders, while 41% of them have been in the zone. The runner-up: batters have swung at 65% of Tanaka’s splitters, even though just 32% of them have been in the zone. Tanaka’s splitter benefits from his other weapons, and it’s not like he never makes a mistake with it — he allowed that leadoff home run to Melky Cabrera with it. Tanaka’s success isn’t all about his splitter. But that’s been his most successful pitch, and that’s what pretty much everybody expected. Tanaka’s scouting report highlighted that pitch, and despite the awareness, batters have been almost helpless against it.

What makes the equation so difficult is that Tanaka is armed with seemingly well above-average command. Watch him work a game and he’s constantly pitching around or to his target. And he has that command of his splitter, which can be a tremendously difficult pitch to locate. Watch him get ahead of Mike Olt with a splitter on the edge of the zone:


Watch him then put Olt away with a splitter at the feet:


Olt came up again, and again faced a two-strike count. He would’ve remembered that Tanaka put him away earlier with a splitter out of the zone. So watch Tanaka counter Olt’s counter:


Instead of a 1-and-2 splitter in the dirt, Tanaka spotted a 1-and-2 splitter at the knees. So Olt was caught in between, and Tanaka demonstrated that he can throw that pitch for a strike — he just seldom has to, because he can often throw it for a strike by throwing it for a ball.

Just in the interest of balance, here’s a mistake that Tanaka made with his splitter, against Luis Valbuena:


Instead of a lower splitter, Tanaka hung one inside nearer to the belt, and Valbuena hit the pitch both hard and foul. We have seen Tanaka hang some splitters, and we have seen some of them get drilled. But this is a rarity, and no pitcher’s immune to the occasional mistake. Tanaka makes fewer of them than the average, and his stuff also gives him a margin of error.

To this point, Tanaka’s thrown a lot of strikes while throwing a lot of balls. It should be noted that he’s faced the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Cubs, and perhaps those hitters, collectively, are more aggressive than most. So there are necessary regressions and adjustments, and odds are Tanaka will look a little more normal come August or September. But he has stuff that hitters chase, and he has stuff that he can move around almost at will. Which means, while his zone rate suggests it might be better to wait him out, Tanaka’s probably capable of pitching well within the zone, and then when you decide to start swinging again, Tanaka can adjust back to splitters and sliders down or away. I’m not sure what I’d recommend for a hitter set to face Tanaka. Probably counseling.

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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.

32 Responses to “Masahiro Tanaka’s Non-Secret Weapon”

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  1. Dan Rozenson says:

    Tanaka has also developed a counter-measure to sitting on first-pitch fastballs (in the interest of avoiding the splitter): throw a first-pitch curveball. 17 of his 20 curveballs have been the first pitch of the at-bat.

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  2. JimNYC says:

    If Tanaka and Pineda keep this up, the Yankees might be really dangerous in a short series, despite their offensive issues.

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  3. Ballfan says:

    This reader is a Tanaka fan. I am glad to have another potentially dominant pitcher to watch.

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  4. FeslenR says:

    As much as I love Tanaka, he did face the Cubs..the CUBS ;).

    anyway, I am pretty sure Tanaka will end up being elite and world class, assuming good health.

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  5. Biesterfield says:

    So hitters should, in fact, stand there with the bat on their shoulders?

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  6. PsyMar says:

    As a Cubs fan, from what I saw, I would have one word of advice: Bunt.

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  7. Bip says:

    High strike % + low zone % seems like it should be part of the recipe for Pitcher McPitcherson.

    Last year’s leaders and notable pitchers in Strike% – Zone%, so approximately the percentage of a pitcher’s pitches that were strikes outside the zone:

    1. Eric Stults – 20.14%
    2. Hiroki Kuroka – 19.05%
    3. Homer Bailey – 18.82%
    4. Adam Wainwright – 18.58%
    5. Andy Pettitte – 18.34%

    10. Felix Hernandez – 17.17%

    18. Clayton Kershaw – 16.49%

    29. Yu Darvish – 15.67%

    42. Matt Harvey – 14.62%

    77. Jose Fernandez – 11.39%

    81. (last) Felix Dubrount – 9.67%

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    • Andrew says:

      What are those numbers supposed to tell us? It seems that dominant and non-dominant pitchers are pretty well distributed throughout the list.

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      • Bip says:

        I don’t know! I looked it up to see if there were any trends. I didn’t do any sort of regression, so I don’t know the general trends, but it certainly doesn’t look like it’s strongly correlated with effectiveness.

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        • Stan "The Boy" Taylor says:

          Different ways to do it. Jose Fernandez can probably be explained as being able to get swinging strikes in the zone, so he doesn’t need to draw the hitter out of it, yet.

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    • Giambini says:

      Good observation. It should be noted, though, that the guys at the bottom of the list are young (obviously a sample bias, but the point is stil made). They have the stuff to stay around the zone, but pitchers who don’t average 95 on their fastball (like the veterans towards the top) can’t really do that… they fool hitters early in the count. What I take away from this is that Tanaka is pitching like a veteran, and it helps him capitalize on his 25 year old arm. He’s hit 94 with his fastball, has excellent pitch selection and control, and makes the ball dart in every direction. A rare breed in the world of 25 year olds.

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  8. redsoxu571 says:

    I’m not saying this to rain on any Tanaka parade (because of course there’s not much negative to take from Tanaka’s start so far), but seeing the ridiculous strike%/zone% combo suggests something else to me: perhaps this is what happens over a small start sample size against teams with really bad plate discipline. Toronto isn’t awful thanks to Bautista (though they are much worse beyond him in PD), but Baltimore might have the worst PD in baseball relative to overall hitting talent, and Chicago probably has one of the worst lineups, period. I think we need to check back on this once Tanaka is exposed to a better cross-section of disciplined lineups and some teams have had a chance to examine MLB tape of Tanaka for tips and patterns (though this does seem to suggest if nothing else that Tanaka can own hacking lineups).

    I mean, your GIFs were of Mike Olt…that should say something right there.

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    • Jon L. says:

      “It should be noted that he’s faced the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Cubs, and perhaps those hitters, collectively, are more aggressive than most.”

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    • Johnston says:

      You can’t really judge a pitcher until after a couple of seasons. That being said, this guy looks really good so far.

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  9. DNA+ says:

    Do you know what percentage of those swinging strikes out of the zone are when the batter is behind in the count. My instinct from watching Tanaka so far is that he has impeccable control and pitches in the zone early in counts all the time. Hitters are expanding the zone when behind because they can’t tell the splitter from the fastball that Tanaka used to get ahead two pitches before.

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    • peopletocakeratio says:

      i looked it up at brooks baseball and found the following (i don’t know of a way to get their data other than by adding up the numbers manually, so excuse any early-morning addition errors. also, i’m not entirely sure i used the data properly, so there’s that too. i used whiffs/swing and added up the numerators for whiffs and denominators for swings.):

      hitters counts –
      1-0 count: 2 swinging strikes out of the zone (of 8 swings – 25%)
      2-0 count: 2 swinging strikes out of the zone (of 3 swings – 67%)
      2-1 count: 4 swinging strikes out of the zone (of 5 swings – 80%)
      3-0 count: 0 swinging strikes out of the zone (of 0 swings – undefined, divide by zero bad)
      3-1 count: 0 swinging strikes out of the zone (of 1 swings – 0%)

      not hitters counts –
      0-0 count: 5 swinging strike out of the zone (of 13 swings – 38%)
      0-1 count: 12 swinging strike out of the zone (of 18 swings – 67%)
      0-2 count: 6 swinging strike out of the zone (of 16 swings – 38%)
      1-1 count: 3 swinging strike out of the zone (of 11 swings – 27%)
      1-2 count: 6 swinging strike out of the zone (of 16 swings – 38%)
      2-2 count: 5 swinging strike out of the zone (of 11 swings – 45%)
      3-2 count: 1 swinging strike out of the zone (of 2 swings – 50%)

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      • DNA+ says:

        Cheers! Excellent work!

        Well, he certainly is getting a ton of swinging strikes outside the zone when he is ahead in the count. Hitters will have a tough time just waiting him out in that case. There is a bit of a catch-22 where, when facing pitchers with swing and miss stuff, hitters tend swing more early in counts to avoid getting to 0-2, 1-2 ,2-2. So far it seems Tanaka has been able to take advantage of this by using the splitter to get swinging strikes outside the zone a lot on 0-1 counts. Perhaps if hitters can force themselves to lay off this pitch and get to 1-1 rather than 0-2 they will be more successful. But if they think they are getting a zone fastball in that situation because they can’t pick out the splitter, laying off the pitch will be very difficult.

        Tanaka’s success so far probably has a lot to do with the fact that hitters simply cannot distinguish between fastball and splitter, and he throws his fastball for strikes. Hitters may also feel his fastball is his most hittable pitch. So, if they read fastball, they think it is a strike, and they think it may be the one pitch they can hit. …then the bottom drops out and they’ve swung at a pitch out of the zone. To me, this looks like a pitcher with very good stuff.

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  10. Ray says:

    the same can be said about Tim Lincecum

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    • jdbolick says:

      Lincecum’s first strike percentage and zone % are both up in the very small season sample thus far. It’ll be interesting to see if that continues, as anecdotally it appears that he used to be aggressive like this back in his early seasons, then started pitching more and more out of the zone when his velocity started to decline.

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  11. pft says:

    Tanaka obviously has an advantage over hitters the first time he faces a team.
    He has also only pitched 1 game with 4 days rest.

    I expect hitters to do a better job against him as the season wears on the 2nd time through, and the toll of the workload takes effect.

    Thus far, he has been striking out RH hitters at almost a 50% rate. LHH make more contact, but weak contact, with only a 353 OPS. RHH have a 471 BABIP, so maybe thats luck or they are hitting him pretty hard when they manage contact

    The oither thing he has done well is avoid falling behind in the count. Only 9 of 83 batters have hit with a 2-0 count. A rate about 30% less than the average MLB pitcher, and he has not get hurt much when he does fall behind on the count

    When he gets 2 strikes he puts hitters away, they are batting 065 with 2 strikes and 60% are K’s.

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  12. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    Lets see how he does against the supposedly uber patient Red Sox lineup.

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  13. Mr baseball says:

    The big question for me on Tanaka was can he throw the splitter for an occasional strike when needed. It seems he can, but we won’t know for sure until a few teams wait him out. We will see.

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  14. Colbert says:

    you jus got me overthinking about the game. It’s a good thing though

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  15. thjs says:

    Good looking GIFs, fascinating visual presentation, but they don’t tell you much.

    In fact, the GIFs of borderline pitches are sliders. It actually makes me wonder, is it that difficult to identify a pitch correctly?

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  16. james wilson says:

    Just my impression–a pitcher who makes very few mistakes tends to get away with most of them. The mistake prone pitcher gets his mistakes lit up at a higher percentage to boot, the hitters being confident they will see one.

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