This is the GIF portion of a two part post. For anyone interested in the mechanical look at Masahiro Tanaka, please refer to this post. A few months ago, I posted an article with GIFs showing the different pitches used by Masahiro Tanaka. I included as much data as I could find, and the results were interesting, yet felt incomplete. Since then, the NPB posting system has changed, Tanaka entered an odd "will-he-be-posted?" limbo, and now that he's finally available to major league teams, everyone wants to know who this pitcher is.
I was going through my PITCHf/x databases looking for some possible game that Tanaka might have popped into unexpectedly. I'd previously looked through the 2013 World Baseball Classic, but Japan never made it into a stadium with PITCHf/x cameras. As I was double checking to see if I possibly missed something, I came across the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Randomly clicking away, I finally spotted Tanaka.
I didn't find a season's worth of pitches, or even a start's worth, but I did find a good handful from a couple relief appearances nearly five years ago. Trust me, I wish I had a real sample size to show you, or even a handful of pitch data from just a couple seasons ago, but this is what I have to work with.
There is now physical data to compare Tanaka to other MLB pitchers. Even with small sample size, if the cameras were calibrated correctly and Tanaka still has the same mechanics, the numbers should hold up pretty well. Fortunately, he did maintain his mechanics (I talked a little about his mechanics in the other post) and the PITCHf/x cameras show no glaring problems.
After a little bit of video hunting, I also found the game in which Tanaka threw most of these pitches. So I cut some GIFs and added the PITCHf/x data. I've organized them by at bat, and I'll explain the numbers after each picture.
Masahiro Tanaka v. Brian Roberts
Tanaka starts Roberts off with a four-seam fastball up and away. Roberts never had any intention of swinging. It's perfectly located with decent velocity of 93.1 MPH. The movement on the pitch is above average, and it "rises" 12.64 inches vertically (it doesn't really rise, I know), and breaks away from the left-handed hitter 3.99 inches horizontally. If you're unfamiliar with PITCHf/x, compare these movements to a no-spin pitch conforming to gravity. The vertical movement is exceptional for a four-seam fastball. Well, that's a curveball. It's a good velocity, but the movement is fairly average. The control is... well... maybe he can give it another try. Immediately we see the difference between his slider and curveball. There's about a 6 MPH difference in speed between this and the last pitch. The movement on this pitch is strong for a slider, showing 6.9 inches of movement in to the left-handed hitter, and good break with -0.02 inches vertically. The control is impeccable this time. It's an amazing backdoor slider that Roberts had no shot at hitting.
And finally, Tanaka pulls the string with a splitter down and away to Roberts. This is strong velocity, with good movement, and perfect control. Unlike most splitters, the ball does not drop out of the zone, it acts much more like a standard changeup by breaking away from the left-handed hitter considerably.
Roberts really had no shot in this at bat. Tanaka located his four-seam, slider, and splitter perfectly away from the left-handed hitter.
Masahiro Tanaka v. Derek Jeter
Tanaka starts Jeter off with almost exactly the same pitch that Roberts saw. We have similar velocity, movement, and location to his first pitch of the inning. Jeter fouls it off.
Tanaka goes outside, though it looks like his timing was a bit off on this pitch. Regardless, look at that movement. He's now touching 14.22 inches vertically while maintaining 3.83 inches of horizontal break. Maybe he overspun it?
And now we're cooking. 95 mph, 14.3 inches of rising action, and still moving the pitch close to 4 inches into the right-handed Jeter. He locates this fastball down in the zone and Jeter predictably grounds out.
Masahiro Tanaka v. Jimmy Rollins
After throwing two first pitch fastballs, Tanaka finally locates his third first pitch as a curveball right down the middle of the zone. Movement and velocity-wise, it's pretty similar to the curveball he threw to Roberts, but this time he locates it perfectly Thinking that Rollins might become a little eager after missing that curveball down the middle, Tanaka throws a splitter which breaks off the zone. It's again similar to the splitter he earned the strike out on against Roberts, but this one has a little more biting action away. He again misses the strikezone with the curveball, though he might be playing on Rollins' eagerness again, perhaps trying to earn a swing at a ball out of the zone. Not much to see here. Pretty standard fastball again, sitting around 93 with good rising action. He totally misses his location down and in though. Finally, Rollins swings. Tanaka got a little too much of the plate here and Rollins hits a hard ground ball down the first base line for a triple.
I'm not a huge fan of his curveball, and it looks like he got a little too friendly with it in this at bat. After getting a surprise curveball strike on the first pitch, he put himself in a whole with the second one. This is a pitch that he apparently doesn't throw very often anymore, and that's probably for the best.
Masahiro Tanaka v. David Wright
Right down the middle with the curveball for strike 1 again. At least he located this one. A beautifully located splitter from Tanaka here. It was called a ball, but that's a completely unhittable strike if it's framed properly. This pitch really highlights why scouts like his splitter/changeup so much. The movement into right-handed batters is incredible, and he can locate it so well. This looks like a typical foul off, but look at those numbers. Tanaka hits 95.5 mph on the PITCHf/x camera and 16.12 (!!!!!) inches of vertical movement. Oh, and it also breaks back on to the plate with 5 inches of movement in towards David Wright. This combination of movement, control, and velocity is unbelievable. All that excitement and we have to end on this pitch. I really don't know what this was supposed to be. If I didn't have a video of him messing up his timing, I'd say that was a two-seam/shuuto, but more than likely this was a four-seam that he yanked. Wright still swung and miss.
Conclusion and Comparisons
My initial reaction, after getting my hands on the PITCHf/x data, was somewhat reluctant about Tanaka. He has a ton of vertical movement on his four-seam fastball, and he loves to throw them up in the zone. But I didn't realize just how much vertical movement he gets. He averaged 13.1 inches of vertical movement on his four-seam in this game. The highest average vertical movement on a four-seamer by a starting pitcher in 2013 was Clayton Kershaw with just 12.18. Kershaw also had 2.6 inches less horizontal break, which speaks to just how much spin Tanaka got on that four-seam. I still believe he'll induce a ton of fly balls, perhaps too many for Yankee Stadium.
You can say similar things for his slider. The pitch has great break to it and at a strong velocity. The slider compares well with Zack Greinke's, which averaged 85.5 mph, 3.9 inches of horizontal movement, and .7 inches of vertical movement in 2013. Tanaka's slider continues to sit in the mid 80's, and the PITCHf/x numbers showed 4.0 inches of horizontal movement, .7 inches of vertical movement, at 87.2 mph.
The splitter is much harder to compare. Yu Darvish and Ubaldo Jimenez each have the closest numbers, both throwing their splitters in the mid-to-high 80's and earning great horizontal movement on it. In 2013, Jimenez had 4.7 inches of vertical movement and -5.6 inches of horizontal movement, while Darvish posted 4.09 inches of vertical movement and -6.03 inches of horizontal movement. No one else was really close to Tanaka's average of -5.7 inches of horizontal movement and 5.8 inches of vertical movement with a velocity at 86.8 mph. For those looking to compare him to Hiroki Kuroda, Tanaka has much less downward break, but similar velocity.
Before I finish up, I'd like to remind all the readers that the data used was extremely small sample size. I'd also like to point out that just because a pitcher has some very amazing movement, or that they compare well with another pitcher, doesn't mean that will succeed. I also realize that I just compared Tanaka to Kershaw, Greinke, and Darvish, which seems ridiculous, but this was just a simple exercise of matching pitch movement and velocity to major leaguers. It just so happened that he best matched these guys.
With all that said, if the data found through PITCHf/x proves to be an accurate representation of how he'll pitch in the MLB, there is some serious potential. Of course, you probably already knew that. The problem is that obtaining players from the NPB has always followed with mixed results. Any further proof that Tanaka's incredible stats from Japan could continue into the MLB should stifle apprehension.
It looks like the sky's the limit for Tanaka. He generates an incredible amount of spin, which results in a ton of movement. My only real concerns with him are that he may end up with too many fly balls if he finds himself in a hitter friendly stadium, and that the high spin rates may take their toll on his arm.