Masahiro Tanaka isn’t for the radical stat nerds. If you’re looking at what he does and base it solely off the numbers you won’t be tremendously impressed.
Tanaka’s statcast page for 2019 is mostly in the blue. Tanaka’s fastball velo is in the bottom 23%. His fastball spin is in the bottom 17% and his curve spin is in the bottom 35%. His K rate is in the bottom 24% and his whiff rate is in the bottom 32%. One of the few things Statcast likes about Tanaka is his ability to keep the ball off the barrel of the bat. He was a bit above average in that category being in the top 66%.
Another thing that stood out from Tanaka’s statcast page is his slider. Opposing teams hit the slider for a .195 AVG and had an expected batting AVG of .204. They also slugged a meager.358 against it. Of course, from there it gets a bit squirrelly. The rest of his pitches were tattooed.
Four Seamer: .318 AVG, .300 XBA, .623 SLG
Split Finger: .261 AVG, .291 XBA, .415 SLG
Sinker: .375 AVG, .336 XBA, .656 SLG
Curve: .417 AVG, .321 XBA, .583 SLG
Cutter: .372 AVG, .643 XBA, .441 SLG
Regardless of the data presented the consensus around Yankee fans is this. At the end of the season we want Masahiro Tanaka back. If a choice is given between he and Trevor Bauer, most would rather keep Masa. Even though Bauer didn’t have that great of a season himself in 2019, their most recent track records would probably have Bauer ahead of him.
What Tanaka brings
There are things Masahiro Tanaka does though that you can’t quite quantify with the numbers. (Well actually you can but you’ll see if you read on.) He always seems to come through.
These last two years the Rays have nipped at the heels of the Yankees and Tanaka spins gems against them like clockwork. The complete game seems to be a thing of the past but Masa has two of them against Tampa between 2018 and 2019. Through his career he has held them to a 3.20 ERA and a .218 AVG.
Then there’s the postseason. Tanaka has a stellar 1.76 ERA in October. The most runs he has ever given up in a start is 3. That happened in one swing against the Astros in his most previous October outing. The Yankees lost that game but it was less about Masa and more about the Yankee bats simply going to sleep as well as the bullpen essentially imploding at home.
Masahiro Tanaka just has a way about him and our ace, Gerrit Cole, is a big fan. In one of Cole’s initial press conferences with the Yankees he had a glowing review about Tanaka:
“I would like to learn from everybody, but specifically I really admire Tanaka. How can you not? I mean, he’s been just like the quintessential professional here in New York for his entire stay. He dealt with a lot of challenges coming from Japan in the middle of his career to a completely different side of the world. So there’s probably some perspective to be gained there.”
He went on to say there was a lot he could learn about Masa:
“And then, you know, his style is a lot different than mine and (the rest of the staff) in terms of true fastball, kind of, attack. So pitching with (Zach Greinke and Dallas Keuchel) the last couple years, you can always learn from the flip side perspective a little bit. I think (Tanaka’s) delivery is really consistent, so I’m really looking forward to learning like how his thought process is on the mound and maybe some drills that he does to keep himself just so centered and so consistent over his delivery.”
A lot of the time the new star player will play up the team that paid up. Quotes like these can be seen as pandering, but Cole isn’t wrong about that consistency in Tanaka’s delivery. Remember when I said the radical stat nerds probably wouldn’t like Tanaka? Well there is one stat that puts Masa ahead of most of the league.
While Statcast may not have a favorable review of Masahiro Tanaka, the Command+* statistic from STATS Perform has put his command in a high tier. Look at where his command ranks amongst the elite.
*Here is Eno Saris’ definition of Command+ in the Athletic: “Command+, a statistic that attempts to put a number on a pitcher’s ability to shape and place pitches as they intended, comes courtesy STATS Perform.”
Tanaka is a master craftsman and an artist with the baseball, which is why he’s still been able to find success in the league and in pressure situations
It’s true that his curve ball isn’t lethal and that fastball isn’t blowing anybody away. His ability to place the ball wherever he wants, though, is his biggest strength. In fact, it’s such a strength he’s the best in baseball at it.
You have to keep that guy on your team when he reaches free agency. There is a wealth of knowledge in that man’s mind which can help mold young kids the likes of Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt and Michael King. Yes, they have the stuff but the consistency in his delivery and mechanics are the best in baseball. You want him passing down his ability to do that to others in your organization.
Think about how much Andy Pettitte helped out CC Sabathia during the ladder of CC’s career. Maybe we can see Masa do that for Cole. Then, one day, Cole can do that for Jack Leiter because the Yankees are obviously going to pay him a Patrick Mahomes contract by the time he hits free agency. (Look, I get he’s in college now. The Yankees always draft the guy they wanted that ends up going back to school)