The Process Versus Masahiro Tanaka
The Rays will get their first look at Yankees’ starter Masahiro Tanaka this afternoon. The Japanese import has pitched as advertised – or better – since coming stateside. He has allowed just nine earned runs in 35 2/3 innings while striking out 46 batters and walking only six. The last time he took the loss in any regular season game was late August of 2012. He’ll also be the fourth different starter Tampa Bay faces in the span of 48 hours.
Tanaka throws an assortment of pitches, but we will keep it simple with four general classifications: a low-to-mid 90s fastball, a slow curveball that touches the mid-70s, a wipeout slider thrown in the range of 82-85 mph and a devastating splitter comes in just few ticks higher. The fastball comes first in usage followed by the splitter and slider. The curveball has only been throw 32 times according to ESPN Stats & Info; however, 23 of them have come on the first pitch of a plate appearance.
The slider and splitter have been Tanaka’s most effective weapons thus far. The opposition is hitting just .130/.130/.261 against the slider and .114/.133/.205 against the splitter. Batters have swung at these pitches 128 times, coming up empty on 52 percent of the swings. Tanaka throws the slider in all areas of the zone with the splitter is generally thrown arm-side and down.
While Tanaka has been dominant, he has shown a few weaknesses. First, he has allowed five balls to leave the yard in addition to seven doubles and a triple. Hitters have struggled to do much against him, but when they do it appears to be loud. Second, he has has shown a pronounced platoon split early in his major-league career; one that may favor the Rays’ current roster.
Though he can throw any pitch at any time to batters on both side of the dish, Tanaka has used his splitter against lefties more than righties. This has helped produce reverse splits over his first five starts. Left-handed batters have hit 159/.183/.275 against him while right-hander have hit .254/.309/.508.
Aside from the splitter, righties have taken advantage of fastball location. Tanaka favors the inside corner (except on the first pitch) against same-siders but some heaters have failed to get in far enough. Right-handed batters are hitting .407 off his fastball to date. Though righties have had better success versus Tanaka does not mean he lacks the tools to handle them. His slider has been a knock out weapon, and although the splitter falls behind in usage against righties, it is still extremely effective.
Tampa Bay’s best plan may be to swing early and often against Tanaka. Of the 27 hits he has allowed, 18 have come in early counts (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 0-1, 0-2, 1-1) with seven of them on the first pitch. As mentioned above, his fastball location skews to his arm-side; however, on first pitches – especially to right-handed batters – he tends to catch more of the plate. As counts get deeper, his pitch selection and location becomes highly unpredictable which has led to a lot of ugly swings to end plate appearances.
As constructed, the Rays have five everyday players that are right-handed: Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, Desmond Jennings, Yunel Escobar and a catcher. This means a “Danks Theory” lineup may just be in the natural order of things. Meanwhile, there maybe room to sneak another righty like Sean Rodriguez in and see what happens. Considering what Tanaka has done to opposing lineups thus far it can’t hurt to try.