Before the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, I looked back to some available PITCHf/x data in 2009, when the Japanese starter pitched out of the bullpen for his home country in the World Baseball Classic. It was one of the only opportunities we had at seeing his PITCHf/x data, and unfortunately it was a very old small sample size.
What we learned from 2009 was that Tanaka had incredible command of the strike zone, and a brilliant ability to spin the ball. His four-seam fastball showed tremendous movement, particularly vertically, which led to scouts calling it straight. His slider’s movement and velocity matched up well with one of the greatest sliders in the MLB, Zack Greinke‘s. His splitter movement was unique, showing both drop and depth like a strong changeup, though it matched up best with fellow Japanese starter Yu Darvish. Here is the pitch movement from this 2009 outing.
This brought me to the conclusion that Tanaka could have two very good out pitches in his splitter and slider, due to both movement and velocity that matched other pitchers that had success. His fastball was a little bit more worrisome, as it was the only fastball he threw in this outing, and it showed a ton of vertical rise. The high rise of his fastball may be bad news for Yankee Stadium, as we saw pitchers like Phil Hughes get destroyed when his rising fastballs were hit over the right field porch.
After Tanaka’s last start, we finally have updated PITCHf/x data.
When we took a look at Michael Pineda yesterday, it was easier to identify pitches in the chart, because Pineda only throws three pitches. Tanaka’s pitch repertoire is much bigger, and unfortunately, PITCHf/x’s automated pitch id’s had no idea what was going on during the game. So here are the labels for Tanaka’s pitches based on movement.
This is a very rough estimation of his pitches, and not 100% accurate, but you should get the idea. Supposedly, Tanaka also throws a more conventional changeup, which should theoretically be in the sinker circle. He may also throw variations of the sinker, which is called the shuuto, but at that point we’re entering a very subjective debate about pitch labeling.
Anyway, we do learn some things about Tanaka from Friday’s PITCHf/x numbers. The biggest thing that stands out to me is the numbers of sinkers he threw as opposed to four-seamers. As I saw in 2009, Tanaka didn’t throw sinkers according to PITCHf/x, and in Japan he was more well known for a four-seamer up in the strike zone. Many scouts and fans were worried that this straight fastball up in the zone could lead to a number of home runs. But Tanaka threw a ton of sinkers in his first major league outing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was part of his transition in facing more sluggers in AL East stadiums. More sinkers will lead to more ground balls and less home runs, so it’s obvious why he’d benefit from throwing this pitch in certain circumstances.
Also noteworthy about his four-seamer, is that he threw it later in the game, after he established his splitter. As you can see from the chart above, both pitches come in with the same horizontal movement, and one of his strengths is his ability to throw the splitter and four-seam from the same arm slot. Once he had hitters swinging and missing at his splitter, he pitched backwards and threw a high rising four-seamer that had batters swinging under it, thinking they were getting the deadly offspeed pitch.
Tanaka also threw a lot more curveballs and cutters than I expected. We saw very few curveballs in his 2009 outing, but in it, he used it as a first pitch strike to confuse hitters. He did the same thing on Friday, throwing the pitch often as the first pitch strike. In 2009, the pitch looked pretty fat, but it does look like he added some velocity and some good vertical drop to it, which should keep batters confused when they’re expecting one of his other five pitches. Though I wouldn’t call it a plus pitch, it’s certainly worthy of keeping in his repertoire for the confusion it creates.
Overall, the pitch movement is very impressive, and something that we expected after he showed such a great ability to spin the ball in 2009. He’s still showing a high rising four-seamer, something that rivals Clayton Kershaw‘s high rising seamer.(Kershaw led baseball in vertical movement for starters in 2013.) I don’t believe this will be his primary fastball though. What Tanaka did show is a handful of strong sinkers that will keep the infield defenders on their toes. This should help him limit his home runs, but it can also lead to some problems as the Yankees don’t have the strongest infield defense in baseball. The right hander also showed a very strong game plan, by using all 6 of his pitches to keep batters absolutely guessing at the plate. It was a very educational performance by Tanaka, and we’ll see if he changes gameplans against the Orioles in Yankee Stadium tomorrow.