Tanaka Looking Like A Bargain So Far

It has been only three starts, and it has been only three starts against the Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs at that. Almost anything can happen over a few starts; just look at Aaron Harang‘s success. But so far Masahiro Tanaka has been everything the New York Yankees could have hoped for and more.

Remember the controversy that swirled in February when Yankees GM Brian Cashman said Tanaka “had the potential to be a No. 3 starter?” That wasn’t exactly what Yankee fans wanted to hear after seeing their team drop $155 million in salary, plus a $20 million acquisition fee on top of that. But if this keeps up, that price might almost look like a bargain.

Historic start

He can’t keep it up, not exactly like this anyway, because Tanaka will inevitably run into trouble just like every other pitcher has. Still, in the history of Major League Baseball, here’s the list of pitchers who have started their career by striking out eight or more and walking one or fewer in each of their first three games:

1. Masahiro Tanaka, 2014

That’s it. No one has done what Tanaka has done, and while there’s at least a little bit of bias in that — Tanaka isn’t your traditional rookie, and major league hitters are striking out more often in 2014 than ever before — it’s still more than a little impressive.

Tanaka’s 28 strikeouts are also a record for any Yankee in his first three starts, breaking Al Leiter‘s 25 from a quarter-century ago, and that’s perhaps not surprising considering that only Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano has a higher swinging-strike percentage than Tanaka’s 16.1 (see table).

Through Sunday, the leaders in swinging strike percentage.

Francisco Liriano 16.3
Masahiro Tanaka 16.1
Felix Hernandez 15.8
Ervin Santana 15.5
Stephen Strasburg 14.6
Roberto Hernandez 13.0
Max Scherzer 12.5
John Lackey 12.4
David Price 12.2.
Jose Fernandez 12.2

Put another way: Through Saturday, Tanaka had as many swinging strikes in 305 pitches as R.A. Dickey managed to get in 420 or Wade Miley has in 478. Over the past 50 years, in seasons of at least 100 innings, the only rookie to get as high a rate of swinging strikes as Tanaka was Liriano back in 2006. (Yu Darvish, for example, had an 11.8 percent rate in 2012.)

Unconventional attack

When Tanaka arrived, we knew two primary pieces of information about how he had succeeded in Japan. We knew that he threw more types of pitches than nearly anyone else, and that his splitter was expected to be among the best in the game. So far, the first part — the huge repertoire — has been true, to the point that it has become extremely difficult to categorize how many pitches he really has, due to the fact that he throws a few different varieties of fastballs that differ slightly in speed and break. With that being the case, different PITCHf/x databases have him throwing anywhere from six to nine different types of pitches.

If we’re having such a hard time identifying his pitches even with the benefit of hindsight, data and video, then imagine how the hitter must feel. Taking into account that attempting to put exact numbers on his pitch selection is a best guess more than anything, Tanaka has thrown four different pitches at least 18 percent of the time each — fastball, slider, splitter and sinker — and sprinkled in curveballs, changes and cutters along the way. It’s a stunning array of pitches, and he has enough command of all of them that he has walked just two batters thus far.

But as detailed recently at FanGraphs, Tanaka is making it even more difficult on the other side by staying out of the strike zone more than most pitchers while still getting more strikes than most pitchers. That sounds impossible, but what it means is that he’s enjoying the best of both worlds, getting strikes on 70 percent of his pitches while throwing only 42 percent of them in the zone. The closest comparable to that combination right now is Felix Hernandez — nice company to be in — and while that might change as hitters attempt to lay off Tanaka’s breaking stuff, the number of different pitches he has makes that easier said than done.

Oh, and the splitter? When hitters have swung at it, they’ve missed 59 percent of the time, and he has given up just two hits on it. So far, this is a pitch that has been as good as advertised, but made to look better by the rest of his arsenal.

Necessary boost

Along with the fragility of their aging infield and the reality of a post-Mariano Rivera bullpen, the uncertain starting rotation was among the biggest questions about the 2014 Yankees headed into the season. CC Sabathia struggled through a poor 2013 amid questions about declining velocity, Hiroki Kuroda is 39 years old and coming off a lousy second half, and Michael Pineda hadn’t pitched since 2011 because of a severe shoulder injury.

Pineda has looked wonderful as he makes his way back, but the rest of the rotation is still full of uncertainty. Sabathia’s velocity has declined even further — once routinely at 95 or above, he’s now struggling to break 90 — and while he has managed to increase his strikeout rate so far, it’s a mirage, as his swinging-strike rate of 9.5 percent (through Saturday) is identical to last year’s 9.6. (That he already has allowed six homers isn’t helping either.) Kuroda is also having trouble missing bats, and Ivan Nova‘s 5.5 percent swinging-strike rate was among the worst in baseball even before he injured his elbow on Saturday.

Now Nova appears likely to be headed for elbow surgery, and so the Yankees still have rotation problems to worry about, having lost their only starter who was both pitching regularly in Major League Baseball last year and under the age of 30. Now imagine what the rotation would have looked like without Tanaka.

The primary free-agent starters this winter were Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco — all less-than-desirable for the Yankees for various reasons — which was a big part of the reason the Yankees went after Tanaka so hard. Despite all that Sabathia has meant to this franchise, it’s difficult to argue that Tanaka isn’t the best starter they have right now, and as the issues pile up around him, he’s someone they’re desperately counting on after just three starts.

As Tanaka faces the Red Sox on Tuesday night, he’ll get a different challenge than he’s seen his first three times out. So far, everything we’ve seen shows that the Yankees spent their money wisely.[/groups_member]

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.
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do you think major league hitters not being accustomed to splitter comes into play with Tanaka?