Masahiro Tanaka’s Bold Experiment

Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)

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Maybe this is surprising just to me, but Masahiro Tanaka has been with the Yankees since 2014. Counting this season, that’s 7 years. A whole new generation of Yankees have taken over during his tenure, including homegrown talent like Aaron Judge and free-agent juggernaut Gerrit Cole. Throughout a constantly changing Yankees lineup and rotation, it seems like Tanaka, along with Brett Gardner, have been the lone constants. 

And for many years, Tanaka has been a predictable pitcher. Not in the sense that he’s boring – rather, hitters and fans knew his pitching tendencies: a whole lot of sliders and split-finger fastballs. His four-seamer was almost like a secondary pitch, which is something you rarely see in the majors these days. Tanaka is one-of-a-kind, and perhaps that’s what made him successful. He’s had his ups and downs, but a career 3.88 FIP in 1009 innings pitched is very respectable. 

So when he returned to the mound on August 1st after recovering from a concussion caused by a Giancarlo Stanton line drive, baseball fans expected nothing different from Tanaka. 

Then, because this sport is amazing, he started doing things he’d never done in his big league career. Revealing what they are right away isn’t fun, so here’s a preview: 

Right off the bat – that’s not a splitter, nor a slider. That’s a four-seam fastball if I’ve ever seen one. But there’s no context to it. Was that a pitch Tanaka threw often during the game? Was it a mistake? Or just something to throw off Rafael Devers, possibly setting up a low splitter? Perhaps introducing this graph will help:

graph will help

See that sudden upward spike? That’s because in his first start of 2020, Masahiro Tanaka threw a fastball 58.8% of the time. At no point in seven whole years did Tanaka come even close to touching that mark. So as crazy as it sounds, we can conclude that the pitch to Devers was not only deliberate, but also a main component of his game. 

Next, let’s consider the location of the pitch. It was Tanaka’s 0-1 pitch, thrown a few inches above the strike zone, so the intent was likely to induce a swing-and-miss from Devers. But again, we should check if it was a one-time occurrence. Coming to our assistance this time is a graphic from Baseball Savant: 

tanaka four seam

It’s a small sample size for sure, but the majority of Tanaka’s four-seamers were thrown at either the top of the zone or above it. He’s elevated before, but never this often during one start. High fastballs are all the rage in modern baseball, so perhaps Tanaka is jumping on the bandwagon along with fellow teammates James Paxton and Gerrit Cole. 

If so, that would represent a change in Tanaka’s approach to pitching. He’s never been much of a strikeout pitcher, possessing a career K/9 of 8.47. That doesn’t mean he’s a great soft-contact pitcher, either – his GB% of 47.5% last year was 21st of all qualified pitchers, but his avg. EV of 89 mph put him in the 32nd percentile. Tanaka has never really had an edge; he’s instead been average or above-average at the tasks assigned to pitchers. 

Lastly, let’s consider the quality of the pitch itself. It’s way too early to tell, sure, but Tanaka’s fastball looks way better. The average velocity so far is 92.9 mph, up from 91.5 mph last year. His spin rate has also gone up by around 100 rpm, which subsequently decreased the inches of drop on his fastball. That means Tanaka’s fastballs are more likely to appear as if they are ‘rising,’ fooling the hitter. Andrew Benintendi experienced this firsthand: 

What’s interesting is that some of these changes were foretold towards the end of 2019. For example, here’s a plot from Brooks Baseball showing monthly average fastball height. The height is relative, with 0 representing the middle of the strike zone: 

strike zone

As expected, Tanaka pitched mostly around the center of the zone most of his career – then in September and October of last year, the vertical location of his fastballs shot up. In fact, October’s point is so high that it’s escaped the y-axis! The lone dot to the right is where we are right now – higher than what we’re used to, but also not too absurd. Tanaka seems to have found a nice midpoint. 

But after all that’s been said, we haven’t analyzed how successful Tanaka was against the Red Sox. There’s no simple answer, because it’d depend on your definition of success. Let’s look at the positives: of the 30 fastballs Tanaka threw, Red Sox hitters whiffed at 6 of them. That’s good for a 20% SwStr%, well above the league average of 9.9%. Plus, all swinging strikes were from elevated fastballs, so you could say the new strategy worked. 

On the other hand, they were instances where hitters simply ignored his high fastballs and instead attacked other ones. This wouldn’t be a huge issue for someone like, say, Gerrit Cole – he gets whiffs in other quadrants of the strike zone too – but both Tanaka’s velocity and spin rate are a tick below the league average, giving him less room for error. Case-in-point: when he threw a fastball down the middle, this is what happened: 

But overall, I love that Tanaka is experimenting with his pitches, even this late into his career. He was already a good pitcher, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t still have room to grow. And note that this early into the season, with just one start, we can’t fully judge the success of his transformation. This article is more of an observation than a verdict.

By the way, remember the high fastball Devers didn’t bite at? Three pitches later, Tanaka got him to strike out with the same pitch. I know the definition of insanity is doing the same thing multiple times and expecting different results, but in some ways that happens to be the definition of baseball. So here, enjoy some madness: 

All statistics from Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball, and Fangraphs 

Follow P365 MLB and KBO Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

Featured image courtesy of photographer Bill Kostroun and the Associated Press

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