The New Look Tanaka

If you drafted Masahiro Tanaka and his elbow of broken parts, you knew there was risk. I was among the many that thought because of his “high floor” and expected ADP, he represented a nice little opportunity given the other available talent at that stage in the draft — a point well articulated by Paul Sporer in this piece. But while we knew he had a partially torn UCL, what wasn’t fully disclosed was that Tanaka had every intention of modifying his approach to hitters, saying, in effect, don’t expect much in the way of velocity this year. So it goes.

And yes, Tanaka was roughed up in his first start. And yes, he made improvements in his next start but was far from 2014 Tanaka. But just how different has he been? It kind of depends on when and where you choose to look. And as a disclaimer, between every word that follows, insert “but this is a small sample size” and then we can spare everyone the time talking about it in the comments.

Masahiro Tanaka has thrown a grand total of 179 pitches in 2015, and a cursory glance at his pitch usage tells a pretty clear story — he’s simply not throwing as many fastballs (for simplicity, I’m just going with his top four offerings, data from Brooks Baseball):

2014 2015
Fourseam 21% 15%
Sinker 20% 24%
Slider 21% 27%
Split 26% 24%

This doesn’t really represent a massive departure from the 2014 version of himself, but clearly, he’s leaning more sinker/slider right now than he was on establishing his fastball. On the velocity side, there’s a difference as well, as advertised:

2014 2015
Fourseam 92.7 91.3
Sinker 91.4 90.8
Slider 84 82.8
Split 87 86.2

For a guy with a partially torn UCL who says don’t expect much in the way of velocity, well, I kind of expected a bigger departure from 2014. A mile and a half on the fastball is nothing to ignore, but his other offerings aren’t that far from 2014, and kind of represent a concomitant percentage gap between the straight stuff and the junk. But things look interesting if look at the first six starts (rather randomly chosen, admittedly) from 2014:

Usage:

1st Six 2015
Fourseam 21% 15%
Sinker 24% 24%
Slider 20% 27%
Split 25% 24%

Nothing in particular jumps out here.

Velocity:

1st Six 2015
Fourseam 93.3 91.3
Sinker 91.8 90.8
Slider 84.5 82.8
Split 89.7 86.2

Well now. So Tanaka was throwing markedly harder across the board in his first handful of outings in 2014, and darn near 4 mph harder when you consider his splitter. And we all know his results were pretty spectacular, with an April and May FIP of 2.96 and 2.27, respectively and strikeout rates of 33% and 25%.

So with this in mind, compare his last six starts because I can hear your mind doing the average math in your head:

Usage:

Last Six 2014 2015
Fourseam 16% 15%
Sinker 21% 24%
Slider 23% 27%
Split 25% 24%

Velocity:

Last Six 2014 2015
Fourseam 92 91.3
Sinker 91.1 90.8
Slider 83.5 82.8
Split 87 86.2

Things start to tighten up, don’t they? This probably indicates this partial UCL tear was present as far back as June. However, it’s also worth noting that he was still pretty great in June and July, spent a couple months rehabbing, and came back for one solid outing and one dreadful outing. But Tanaka was still effective with a slightly modified repertoire and lower velocity. His June FIP was 3.70 and his July FIP was 4.08, but the big difference is in the strikeout rate where June saw an excellent 27.3% and then July fell to just 13.8%.

There might not be a takeaway here other than the fact that we’ve actually seen this Tanaka before, because he was using a very similar repertoire after the first couple of months of the 2014 season, and he wasn’t throwing appreciably harder. That might not get you excited about his prospects for however many innings his elbow gives us in 2015, but if you’re an owner, I’d hold and probably expect better results. If you’re a vulture, or you aspire to be one, his first two outings might represent an opportunity to pounce if you’re looking for some version of bottled lightning. It’s not likely Tanaka is ever as dominant as he was in 2014 and he might only give you 100 more innings, but if he can somehow mimic his effectiveness from June and July last season, he ought to be pretty solid before the partial tear becomes complete.





Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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Brian
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Brian

What stands out to me is the difference in release points:
http://www.brooksbaseball.net/velo.php?player=547888&b_hand=-1&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=month&minmax=ci&var=x0&s_type=2&startDate=03/30/2007&endDate=04/15/2015

Brian
Guest
Brian

Eh, the whole thing won’t copy. Just head over to brooks baseball and look at the horizontal and vertical release points. He’s clearly doing something very different (back to what he had going on at WBC 2009)