They’re baaaaaack! What better way to open Pod Projections season than with the pitcher the Yankees just made a very rich man, Masahiro Tanaka. This is the third season I have been publishing my projections and once again, my methods have improved and incorporate more data than ever before. Of course, since my process is completely manual, that just means it takes even longer to project each individual player.
I originally published an introduction to my pitcher forecasting process in 2012 when I first shared my Pod Projections. I then decided to share my methods with the world when I released my eBook Projecting X. But, I’m doing things slightly differently now, even versus Projecting X methods. The biggest difference is that I’m projecting Strike%, along with Looking/Swinging/Foul strike rates for pitchers. This data is available at Baseball-Reference and gets punched into my xK% (I use a slightly improved version) and xBB% formulas. I don’t blindly follow what these formulas spit out, but the xK% produced a very high R-squared, so I generally follow that more closely than the xBB%, which is good, but not good enough.
Okay, enough babbling, let’s get to the projections! As usual, I will explain each metric I manually project and then finish with a table that includes the full projected line with stats that are calculated, such as ERA.
Tanaka has averaged 203.2 innings over his last three years. But Hisashi Iwakuma, Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda all failed to reach the 200 innings plateau in their first year. Does that automatically mean that Tanaka will fail as well? Of course not. But it would be sensible to expect a sub-200 innings total given that history. The fact that Tanaka is also an unknown quantity, at least in Major League Baseball, adds that slight risk that he’s a bust Kei Igawa style and poor performance is the reason he misses the plateau.
Based on scouting reports, the best comps for Tanaka are Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma. But Kuroda brings better velocity, which is why he makes for a slightly better comparable. These pitchers feature a high rate of splitters and complement the pitch with a slider and a low 90s fastball. They also possess excellent control.
As alluded to in the intro, I now begin by projecting Strike% and the various strike type rates. So I’ll look to my Kuroda and Iwakuma projections to assist with Tanaka. The slider and splitter are both swing and miss type offerings, so we would expect the pair to typically post a low rate of looking strikes and higher swinging strikes. This is exactly the case, and I just realized my projections for each in those two metrics are virtually identical.
Tanaka’s career Japanese league K% is 23.3%, but it has declined each season since peaking in 2011. But that year seems like the outlier, so he has been pretty consistent outside of that season and a down 2010. Kuroda’s K% has been about the same here as in Japan, while Iwakuma’s jumped last season. Darvish’s also spiked last year, but it was similar over his first season.
My xK% spat out a 21.1% strikeout rate, which is slightly lower than his 22.3% mark he posted in 2013. That seems reasonable and therefore doesn’t require an adjustment.
Tanaka’s walk rates in recent years have been minuscule, sitting below 5% for three straight seasons. He owns a career 5.2% mark as well. Historically, Japanese league pitchers have experienced different changes to their walk rates when coming to the States. Some have seen their walk rates jump, others have seen it stay the same. So it’s hard to figure exactly how good Tanaka’s control could be, but he posted the lowest walk rate in Japan of the group of recent imports.
My xBB% formula spit out a 6.4% mark, which feels a touch too high. I am projecting both Kuroda and Iwakuma for rates between 5.5% and 6.0%, and by all accounts and stats, Tanaka has better control. But since he’s still never thrown a pitch at the MLB level, it’s important not to get too carried away and expect close to his Japanese mark. So slightly lower than the aforementioned pair it is.
Both Kuroda and Iwakuma are ground ball pitchers, but not of the extreme variety. I projected the two for a high 40% ground ball rate and low 30% fly ball rate. Unfortunately, I haven’t found batted ball distributions for Tanaka, but figure he should perform similarly to the pair.
Since 2008, the average starting pitcher HR/FB rate has ranged between 9.6% and 11.8%. Yankee Stadium is a pretty darn good place for power, as its home run park factor ranked tied for fourth highest last season. In a better environment, I would have figured a 10% mark, but his new home has increased my projection to 10.5%.
Tanaka’s career BABIP is exactly .300 and it has ranged from a low of .271 in 2013 up to .324 in his first year as an 18 year old. Yankees pitchers posted the seventh highest BABIP in baseball last year at .302 while the Major League average was .294 and the American League average sat at .296. There doesn’t appear to be any obvious deception in Tanaka’s delivery, so with no clear BABIP suppression skills and a group of defenders that are collectively mediocre, the wheel has landed on a .300 BABIP.
My full projected line is below:
It’s important to note that my wins projections are based on the Pythagorean win formula and take into account a team’s runs scored projection. Unfortunately, I have no runs scored projections yet, so I’m only using 2013 actual runs scored. If the Yankees offense is better than last year, Tanaka’s win projection would rise to 13 or 14.
As I mentioned On Twitter, Tanaka should be a very good pitcher…in real baseball. But without an elite strikeout rate, he’s likely to disappoint many fantasy owners who believe he’s now a top 10 or 15 starter. In fact, plugging his projections into my valuation spreadsheet preparing for 2013 auctions yields a $10.70 value. That would tie him with A.J. Burnett at 29th among starting pitchers in Zach Sanders’ end of season rankings.
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