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Everyone wants to know who Masahiro Tanaka is. Even with scouting reports and numbers from Japan, we still get a blurred picture of a pitcher who will likely command well over $100 million when he eventually signs. This type of money is usually reserved for position players or well-established starting pitchers. In fact, of the 49 MLB contracts over $100 million, only 12 of them went to pitchers.
So why will a starter who hasn't thrown a singe MLB inning receive such a mammoth contract? Tanaka has entered the market at the perfect time, as one of the highest potential Japanese players under a new posting system. Under this system, Tanaka has essentially become a free agent with "only" a $20 million posting fee attached. All 30 MLB teams have the ability to pay him, or at least negotiate. At 25 years old with the highest upside of any free agent pitcher, Tanaka has some of the biggest potential that's ever reached the open market. But of course, all this youth and upside comes with significant risk.
Players coming from the NPB have shown mixed results. Between Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa, most teams were reluctant when even Yu Darvish was posted in late 2011. Tanaka has shown similar success in recent years to Darvish, something which has earned them numerous comparisons. Yet there is still some hesitance surrounding Tanaka.
In evaluating MLB pitchers, one of the important tools to emerge over the last few years has been PITCHf/x. As pitches are tracked, we can make some inferences on how well these pitches will translate based on the release point of the pitch, velocity, movement and break. As high velocity doesn't necessarily correlate with success, high movement or break doesn't either. Pitching can be very complicated, but the breakthrough of PITCHf/x has at least created more objective data than we ever had before.
So to compare Tanaka's PITCHf/x numbers to other MLB pitchers would perhaps shed some light on his ability. Unfortunately, NPB stadiums are not equipped with PITCHf/x cameras. The only instance where Tanaka may have found himself in one of these camera-equipped stadiums would be during the WBC, but that didn't happen in 2013. Instead, we have to look back all the way to 2009.
What I found was only a handful of pitches from a couple relief appearances. Immediately we have two issues:
We have a small sample size, as we're dealing with just 20 pitches in total. Fortunately with PITCHf/x, there isn't a big difference in pitch movement or velocity from start to start, and as long as the cameras are calibrated correctly, a few pitches should at least show us what he's capable of.
These pitches are from over four years ago. A lot could have happened since then, such as mechanical changes and adding or removing pitches.
Yet after reviewing the game, the PITCHf/x cameras look to be calibrated correctly. Pitchers from the USA team match their own PITCHf/x numbers from their careers. Mechanically, Tanaka doesn't look much different. Take a look below at the release point from one of his pitches in 2009 (left) and one from 2013 (right).
Tanaka still drops the knee on his drive leg low, as well as maintaining the same spine tilt. According to PITCHf/x, his average release point in the 2009 WBC was at 1.59 feet to the left of the pitcher's mound (from the catcher's perspective), and 5.58 feet above the mound. This is a low average release point. (Take a look at all the releases on this graph here.) After running the numbers through the database, the best match to another starting pitcher was Edinson Volquez, who releases at 1.68 feet to left of the pitcher's mound, and 5.54 feet above it. (Tanaka is on the left below, Volquez on the right.)
As you see, Volquez has a similar spine tilt and arm slot as Tanaka, but doesn't drop his drive knee as much. Volquez is 2 inches shorter than Tanaka, which would explain why they find themselves at such a similar release point.
As for movement, here is a graph of how these pitches moved based on the catcher's perspective. The axis is a no-spin pitch conforming to gravity. Below are the average velocities and movements of those pitches.
Tanaka's PITCHf/x Numbers
So the question everyone is asking is, how do these numbers compare to other starting pitchers? According to the Baseball Prospectus Leaderboards, there are some real big names with similar stuff. In 2013, no starter touched that amount of vertical movement on their four-seam fastball. Clayton Kershaw gets the closest with 12.18 inches of "rising action," but the lefty only had 0.93 inches of horizontal movement, where Tanaka showed nearly 4 inches in the WBC. The slider, which is regarded as Tanaka's best out pitch, is probably closest to Zack Greinke's in terms of velocity and movement. In 2013, Grenke averaged 85.5 mph on the pitch, 3.87 inches of horizontal break, and 0.66 inches of vertical break. Finally, the changeup/splitter matches best with Yu Darvish, who averaged 88.8 mph on the pitch, with -6.03 inches of horizontal movement and 4.09 inches of vertical movement.
Just because these pitchers compare well doesn't mean that Tanaka will have the same success. As I mentioned earlier, we are working with a very small sample size of pitches taken from four years ago. This is at least a look into why Tanaka is so successful though. The numbers show that he has an incredible ability to spin the ball, creating a ton of movement from a low release point. If you'd like to take a pitch by pitch PITCHf/x look at one of his WBC games from 2009, I put together the GIFs and some further analysis here.