WTW4: Tanaka’s MLB Regular Season Debut


Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

New York Yankees’ starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was very good in his first MLB Spring Training. On Friday night, 25-year-old Tanaka will make his MLB regular season debut against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Tanaka was a member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japanese Pacific League from 2007-2013. During that time span, he amassed a 99-35 record, he had a 2.30 Earned Run Average, ERA, he struck out 1,238 opposing hitters in 1,315.0 Innings Pitched and he had a 1.11 Walks and Hits in Innings Pitched; WHIP, in the regular season.

Last season, Tanaka was very dominant for the Golden Eagles.

He finished the regular season with a 24-0 record, had a 1.27 ERA, struck out 183 hitters in 212.0 Innings Pitched and he had a 0.94 WHIP. This contributed to him earning “his second Eiji Sawamura Award as Japan’s best pitcher but also the Pacific League MVP with all 233 first-place votes — the first unanimous selection since 1965,” according to Steve Wulf and Jason Coskrey of ESPN.com.

This past offseason, the Golden Eagles had to pay a $20 million fee for posting Tanaka. This allowed numerous MLB teams to bid for the chance to sign him.

On Jan. 22, Andrew Marchland of ESPN.com reported that the Yankees had signed Tanaka. When the negotiations concluded between Casey Close, Tanaka’s agent, and the Yankees, they reached an agreement on a seven-year contract for $155 million.

There were numerous concerns about Tanaka as he entered Spring Training. These concerns included the adjustment he would have to make to throwing a bigger baseball in a smaller strike zone, pitching every five days instead of every seven days and facing lineups filled with power hitters, according to Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News.

Tanaka appeared to silence some of these concerns with a very productive Spring Training.

He started three games and appeared in relief in two games this Spring Training. He finished Spring Training with a 2-0 record, he had a 2.14 ERA, he struck out 26 hitters in 21.0 Innings Pitched and he had a 0.86 WHIP.

The Yankees enter Friday night hoping to ‘redeem’ themselves after losing two of three games against the Houston Astros.

The Astros finished the 2013 season with an abysmal 51-111 record. They made some offseason moves, trading for Colorado Rockies’ center fielder Dexter Fowler and San Diego Padres’ first baseman Jesus Guzman, to try to upgrade their team.

Despite the Astros making 12 offseason acquisitions, numerous MLB experts and fans are expecting them to have another terrible season. This did not stop them from winning their opening series, three games, against the revamped Yankees.

The Astros outscored the Yankees 11-7 to win the series two games to one. The Yankees won the final game of the series on Thursday to avoid a sweep to start the season.

They traveled from Houston to play a three-game series against the Blue Jays. The first game of the three-game series begins on Friday night.

On Friday night, Tanaka will make his MLB regular season debut against 32-year-old starting pitcher Dustin McGowan and the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. There are two aspects that everyone should be watching for in Tanaka’s start.

1. The effectiveness of his splitter

Tanaka has an arsenal consisting of five different pitches. His five different pitches are his fastball, splitter, slider, curveball and cutter, according to David Schoenfeld of ESPN.com.

Arguably, Tanaka’s best pitch is his splitter.

He throws his splitter between 85 and 89 miles per hour. When he throws his splitter, it has “(an) excellent downward bite and (he has) the ability to command it to both sides of the plate,” according to Schoenfeld.

Tanaka was able to strike out numerous hitters in the Japanese Pacific League with his ‘deadly’ splitter. When his splitter is on point, the baseball drops from the batter’s belt to the dirt behind home plate.

One National League scout told Ben Badler of Baseball America that Tanaka’s splitter is nearly unhittable when he throws the ball near home plate.

"For me, that was always his calling card, the splitter…The slider is just filthy, but when you have a top-of-the-scale split, that’s borderline unhittable as long as you throw it close to the plate.”"

If Tanaka can have great control of his splitter against the Blue Jays on Friday night, then the hitters will struggle against him. This would also help him mix and match his other pitches to try to keep the Blue Jays’ hitters guessing.

2. How effective he is facing the Blue Jays’ hitters after the first time through the order

Masahiro Tanaka has a unique advantage against the Toronto Blue Jays because he is making his first start against them. This means that the Blue Jays’ coaching staff have had to make a scouting report against Tanaka based on scouting reports they have compiled or received and videos of his pitching performances.

A scouting report can only include so much information, which gives the initial edge to Tanaka. He could keep hitters guessing the first time through the order because they may not have be able to establish a good repetition against him.

Starting pitchers statistically achieve their most success against an opposing team’s lineup the first time through the order. Chris Teeter of Beyond The Box Score, part of SB Nation, used the linear weights in “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball” by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin and data from Baseball Reference between 2008 and 2013 to determine how much success starting pitchers have each time through the order.

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The aforementioned table shows that the amount of success starting pitchers have against lineups decreases each time through the order. This makes it even more critical for Tanaka to get as many hitters out as he can the first time through the order.

After a hitter faces Tanaka for the first time and sees his fellow teammates hit against him, the respective hitter will make adjustments, with the help of his coaching staff, for his next at-bat against him. Tanaka will have to make minor adjustments to the order and speed of his arsenal to try to keep the hitters off the balance.

If Tanaka can do that, then he will be very successful against the Blue Jays.