First, here is why you should be excited about, or at least intrigued by, Tanaka. The following numbers compare Yu Darvish and Tanaka year by year in Japan. Remember, they played in the same league, and both came up to the Ichi-gun (the NPB majors) in their age 18 season, though Darvish is a couple years older, which is why his numbers start earlier. Darvish debuted in 2005, while Tanaka debuted in 2007.
Without park adjustments (Rakuten's park has roughly a 101 park factor over the last 6 seasons, so really no difference) here is Tanaka versus Yu Darvish in Japan, with yearly league adjusted ERAs and kwERAs:
Darvish: 87 ERA -, 124 kwERA -
Darvish: 74 ERA -, 105 kwERA -
Darvish: 51 ERA -, 71 kwERA -
Tanaka: 107 ERA -, 84 kwERA -
Darvish: 48 ERA -, 68 kwERA -
Tanaka: 89 ERA -, 88 kwERA -
Darvish: 43 ERA -, 79 kwERA -
Tanaka: 58 ERA -, 81 kwERA -
Darvish: 45 ERA -, 68 kwERA -
Tanaka: 63 ERA -, 92 kwERA -
Darvish: 49 ERA -, 81 kwERA -
Tanaka: 43 ERA -, 61 kwERA -
Tanaka: 62 ERA -, 66 kwERA -
2013 (so far):
Tanaka: 34 ERA -, 77 kwERA -
I do want to be clear: these statistical comparisons are the only real similarities between Tanaka and Darvish. Other than that, they are both righties that pitched in Japan that have sliders that they throw a lot. Everything else is different, from body type, mechanics, fastball velocity, pitch selection, etc. Darvish is not a valid comp to Tanaka, other than the fact that they were both really really good in the same league.
Before we take a look at his pitches, let's take a look at Tanaka's delivery. While it has some moving parts, it really looks like a low effort delivery to me. For the most part, he has been a workhorse in Japan, throwing at least 150 innings every season since he first came into the NPB. So handling a full season in the Majors is no problem. He has a small injury history, but obviously no major injuries (and we will see that his fastball velocity is actually going up). The conundrum is that even at age 24, his arm already has a lot of miles on it. He threw 186.1 innings as an 18 year old, and he has had a few 130 plus pitch outings this year and like many Japanese aces, he threw a ridiculous amount of pitches in high school tournaments. You could take this two ways I think: 1. He is strong, every pitcher is different, and he could handle all the innings when he was younger and can handle above average pitch counts when needed, or 2. This means that he will not age as well as most 24 year old pitchers would, and he is due for an injury as shoulder and elbow (or just general body) fatigue catches up. I think either of these would be difficult to prove, but interested teams have to grapple this issue if they are going to bid a significant amount of money on him.
Here is how Tanaka starts his delivery, standing very high and holding his glove out from him (I apologize that the quality of screenshots aren't great, I couldn't really find a better quality video)
Mariano Rivera: -2.59 horizontal, 6.1 vertical
Shawn Kelley: -1.54, 5.83
Preston Claiborne: -.83, 6.02
Joba Chamberlain: -1.49, 6.58
David Phelps: -.2.6, 6.04
So we are probably looking at Tanaka being in the 6 feet to 6.1 feet vertical release point range. According to my (somewhat outdated) release point data, this is where about 12.2 % of starting pitchers in the Pitch F/X era sit, and is in the bottom 40 % of vertical release points. Some notable right-handers that are in that range include Ervin Santana, Edwin Jackson, and A.J. Burnett. He releases the ball a littler lower than the average MLB starter, mainly because he just doesn't have intimidating height, but I don't think it is a problem, especially since we find other successful MLB pitchers in that range.
While Burnett is listed as two inches taller than Tanaka, and Jackson an inch taller, Ervin Santana is listed at the same height:
The NPB doesn't have Pitch F/X, but Yahoo does track velocities, locations, and pitch selection (they also track results as well, but I don't have them for this post). This data was supplied to me by ScoutDragon.
For each pitch, I broke it down by average velocity, max velocity, usage percentage, and the closest MLB Pitch F/X comparison (I tried to only use RHP) in velocity. For 2013 data I only compared him to 2013 pitchers, while for his career, I compared him to pitchers from 2007-2013 (the very start of the Pitch F/X era to now). In parenthesis is what the translation of the Yahoo data calls the pitch.
4-seam fastball ("straight"):
2013: 90.85, 96, 35.1 %, Jeremy Hefner
Career: 90.6, 96, 38.1 %, Kyle Lohse
The velocity is not really impressive on average, but is very slightly up this year. The tags have him as throwing straight fastballs as low as 84 MPH, which doesn't seem right. He may see an increase in average fastball velocity in the majors if for no other reason than the pitching tags are more likely to be right.
He can get it glove side against righties without any problem and arm side against lefties, using it traditionally. He will occasionally throw inside, and I have seen him jam hitters pretty bad. When he maxes out or gets close to maxing out, he has the velocity to do so.
He will work high to get whiffs, and occasionally it has a little late arm side tail, though we will see that he has a separate 2-seamer with more, and more consistent, arm side tail.
2013: 83.34, 88.5, 25.6 %, Jeff Samardzija
Career: 82.9, 90.5, 29.1 %, Justin Masterson
This is less of a sweeping type slider, and more of a one he can throw for a strike. It has a heavy usage, perhaps too heavy in my opinion, against right-handed batters. When things are going bad, he leaves the pitch up, sometimes above the strike zone. When things are going well, he can dominate hitters from both sides of the plate with it. Notice that while his average fastball velocity is pretty mediocre, his slider velocity has him with some hard throwers.
2-seam fastball ("shoot"):
2013: 90.12, 93.5, 14.1 %, Tim Lincecum
Career: 89.61, 93.5, 11.3 %, Javier Vasquez
Rather than just throwing it in reverse platoon situations, Tanaka will allow this to tail into right-handed hitters, causing uncomfortable swings. For the most part, it is not a pitch he throws low, which is unusual compared to most 2-seamers.
He doesn't have a real sinker, but it can work like one. He can show the traditional 2-seam movement, coming back arm side, or he can throw what looks like a straight fastball down and away from lefties.
2013: 86.22, 90.5, 18.2 %, Hiroki Kuroda
Career: 85.02, 92, 14.6 %, Dan Haren
Though he uses the slider more, this is his best pitch in my opinion. The movement is both arm side and down, more aggressive than a traditional changeup, but not the straight down movement of a true forkball. Some of the worst swings I have ever seen in high level professional baseball have come off Tanaka's splitter.
2013: 88.85, 92, 1.9 %, Dillon Gee
Career: 87.61, 92, .5 %, Ross Ohlendorf
Not a big part of his pitch selection, it breaks more down than sideways. While I can't speak for the consistency of the Yahoo tags, I will say that, just from watching him, he seems to have two different pitches that are a slider and a cutter.
2013: 71.15, 79, 4.4 %, Hisashi Iwakuma
Career: 74.26, 84, 4.1 %, Javier Vasquez
This is the pitch that he is actually lost velocity on this year. It seems that he is throwing a lot more slow curves this year, than in years past, when it really wasn't something he threw. From my count, he has thrown 29 curveballs tracked by Yahoo at less than 70 MPH. 27 of them are from this year. I don't think it is a particularly valuable weapon, but it is a new weapon Tanaka has added.
2013: 80.61, 86, .7 %, Kyle Lohse
Career: 80.45, 86, 2.2 %, Paul Byrd
Despite having the forkball, Tanaka will still thrown an occasional more traditional changeup, though it is becoming a smaller part of his repertoire. He can throw it for strikes and it has some depth, but it isn't that important. The forkball is how he is going to get left-handed batters out.
So it appears that the the data has him throwing more splitters, cutters, and 2-seamers this season, pitches you would expect to left-handed batters normally. However, he is throwing less straight changeups as well, probably just throwing his better pitch a few more times a game instead of going to one he doesn't use that often. His curve doesn't have a significant difference in usage, but he is throwing less 4-seamers and sliders.
This year, he has faced slightly more righties than lefties and while his K/BB is better against righties (7/1 to 4/1), he has given up just one home run to lefties (.3 % of at-bats versus 1.4 % against righties). Because of the release point and forkball, I don't think platoon splits will be an issue for Tanaka.
The easiest comp for Tanaka in the Majors is Hiroki Kuroda since they have somewhat similar fastballs, and rely a lot on splits (assuming you call Tanaka's "forkball" a split) and sliders. Obviously they are at totally different moments in their careers (though Kuroda is pitching as effectively, if not more effectively, than he even has), and Kuroda was throwing quite a bit harder at Tanaka's age (he was averaging over 92 MPH in 2008 with the Dodgers at age 33). Iwakuma also seems lazy and racial, but we have to recognize that the pitching style in Japan differs from the pitching style in America, which causes comps that may seem lazy and racial when looking at pitch selection. There aren't many American pitchers who use splitters at all, much less have it as an out pitch. That is why Dan Haren is an interesting American comp, especially Dan Haren's 2009. Haren's slider was a MPH harder, but the fastball and splitter were about the same as Tanaka. It is noteworthy that 2008-2010 Haren was better than Kuroda has been in America (at least by fWAR).
Now that we have looked at his pitches and pitch selection, let's look at location. I only have location data for 2013, and it is only in zone format, giving us estimates more than anything (as I have seen before, they aren't always accurate and come with some biases that wouldn't be acceptable to Pitch F/X enthusiasts). For whatever reason, the data zones are given from the pitcher's perspective, instead of the catcher perspective, the opposite of Pitch F/X data zones. I flipped the data to make it catcher's perspective so it would be less confusing.
First, here is a simple map of where he has located this year by percentages, regardless of pitch type (the middle 9 squares are the strike zone):
To get a more individual look, here is where each pitch type is located by Tanaka on "average", by both of the modes of the x and y values:
What about pitches in the middle of the plate? Tanaka throws a pitch in the strike zone in the middle column (only looking at the three squares in the strike zone for this part) about 10.7 % of the time. This would be the second lowest in the Majors out of pitchers that have thrown at least 1000 pitches (Lucas Harrell). The surrounding group contains a bunch of pitchers that I think have inferior "stuff" than Tanaka (Weaver, Locke, Buerhrle, Ryu, Marquis, Zito, Axelrod, Dempster, Vargas, etc.). Tanaka keeps the ball out of the middle of the plate despite having what I would call some pretty good stuff.
However, I wanted to get some different perspectives on Tanaka. Perspectives that will hopefully catch things I have missed or not noticed, or at least give another voice for the readers of this article to consider. So I asked a three people whose scouting opinions I respect to watch some video of Tanaka and tell me what they think.
Hudson Belinsky of Halos Daily, Perfect Game, and Hardball Scouting:
"Tanaka has impressive stuff. All of his pitches consistently show above average movement, and flash plus movement. Tanaka's splitter was my favorite of his pitches; it breaks down and to the arm side and checks in in the 84-87 MPH range. He throws this pitch with the same arm slot and speed as his fastball. In the video I watched it looked like Tanaka was living on his two-seam fastball, a 90-92 offering that had very late dive as it entered the zone. His four-seamer was up to 94, and he flashed plus run with the offering. Tanaka didn’t go to his slider as often as he could have, but when he used it he showed the ability to get tight break and tilt on the pitch. It was thrown in the 83-85 mph range and had the makings of an above average pitch.
Mechanically, Tanaka has some room for improvement. He’s loose and easy on the mound and has good balance and control of his frame. Tanaka goes strong into foot strike, but may be able to close his stride a little bit to allow some room for his back side to come through. This could allow his velocity to tick up a smidge, which could make his arsenal even more dangerous."
Nathaniel Stoltz of FanGraphs and Athletics Nation:
"The first thing I see is that he collapses hard on his back leg in his motion. It costs a pitcher plane and leverage to the plate. The mechanics that Tanaka employs also don't generate the sort of momentum that tends to produce big velocity. Further, he seems to fly open slightly and push the ball to his glove side.
That said, he does do a decent job repeating his motion, he still throws in the 90-92 range, and he has a wrist wrap in the back that hides the ball well. The fastball does seem very flat, though, and I'm surprised he doesn't give up more homers.
From what I can tell, Tanaka makes up for the fastball by throwing both a breaking ball and a splitter that boast impressive mid-80s velocity and big vertical drop. You have to be a bit concerned about potential injury with such high usage of those pitches, but Tanaka's mechanics aren't too violent. He seems like he could be a heck of a Luke Gregerson/Michael Wuertz type in the big leagues. He might have some issues with MLB lefties if he came stateside because they get a longer look at the ball and could tee of on high fastballs. The slider might have enough velocity to work as a weapon inside on them and the splitter should be effective to hitters from both sides, with good drop and fade.
Overall, I don't think he lives up to his crazy statline, but there's a nice mix of pitches here, and he's in the zone with them. "
Eric Longenhagen of Crashburn Alley and his own blog 3rd and Longenhagen thought that Tanaka's pitches looked "average" to him, noting that he was mostly fastball/slider from what he saw. He wasn't a big fan of the delivery, especially the pace of Tanaka's delivery, as like many pitchers in the NPB, he starts slow, then stops, only to finish the rest of his delivery quickly. This is something we can see from the screenshots above, as Tanaka really holds his body from going forward much longer than you would expect. In my experience, many scouts like to talk about fluidity in a delivery, and an emphasis on the least amount of moving parts possible. In the NPB, this idea is often traded for deception, as many pitchers are more willing to trade the ability to easily repeat their delivery to throw hitters' timing off. He did think the arm works "fine" though, that there isn't a problem with the arm action itself.
After Ryu Hyun-Jin was posted for 25.7 million dollars and Yu Darvish was posted for 51.7 million dollars the year before, I thought that Tanaka's posting fee would be roughly in the middle of the two. I considered Tanaka better than Ryu, but not as good as Darvish, not exactly an original or wild position. However, Ryu's success through 22 starts in the big leagues causes me to have two seemingly contradicting thoughts. The first being that, despite how good Tanaka is, the chances of him being better than Ryu have significantly diminished. Ryu has been better than even some of the more optimistic projections. The contradiction is that I think Tanaka's posting fee will be higher than it would have been a year ago. With Asian aces showing a better translation to the big leagues, teams are probably going to be willing to spend more than they would have three years ago for Tanaka (assuming that he was 24 years old three years ago and everything else remained the same, etc.). So his posting fee will probably be closer to Darvish's than Ryu's, at least that is my prediction.
The main concerns for Tanaka for me are velocity and future durability. Even though he is trending up in the fastball velocity department and can hit 96 MPH, he doesn't appear to have a consistently plus fastball. He can succeed with the average fastball because of his other weapons, but the signing team is going to sign him to a multi-year deal. If his average fastball dips from where it is now, which typically happens as a pitcher gets older, he could find himself in a troubling position. Which, I think is related to the second concern, as described above. Will the amount of innings he has already accumulated cause his velocity to dip at a faster rate than a "normal" pitcher might? If so, it may make a long term deal turn out badly. The "how will Tanaka age" question is one that I think will haunt scouts and teams over the next couple of months and the answer should probably be the basis of how much the team is willing to spend. I think he can pitch in the big leagues and pitch well, probably not at an "ace" level, but at a rate that is above league average and would slot in as a good 2nd best starter on a contending team.