I would be a little surprised if the Yankees didn't sign Masahiro Tanaka. At least, that's what I said a couple of days ago. I've written about Tanaka a couple of times, and the organization's interest appears to be growing. I've had some requests for in depth analysis on the starter, so I'll do my best to cover a pitcher I've never actually seen on the field. It will be difficult for Tanaka to avoid comparisons to his fellow countryman Yu Darvish. Both pitchers have enjoyed a remarkable amount of success, with Darvish posting a 1.99 ERA in the NPB, and Tanaka a 2.32 ERA. However, over the last few years, Tanaka has at times outperformed Darvish, posting a 1.27 ERA in 2011, a 1.87 ERA in 2012, and currently a 1.24 ERA in 2013. But there's a big difference between the two pitchers. Darvish is a physical specimen at 6'5", he throws mid 90's, and can hit high 90's with his fastball. His repertoire of pitches does not end, and he's always looking for a strikeout. On the other hand, Tanaka is 6'2", his fastball sits in the low 90's, and usually maxes out at around 95 or 96 mph. His repertoire consists of a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, and a splitter, though he does have a couple of other out pitches. If there were any Japanese pitcher to compare to Tanaka, his frame, his repertoire, his velocity all compare pretty well to Hiroki Kuroda.
Velocity certainly isn't a plus, as he average low-90's, but can find himself in the mid-90's by the fourth or fifth inning. He's seen the velocity increase over the years, and it's possible that overcoming some health problems has contributed to an increase in his velocity. The movement on the pitch is relatively straight, and I wouldn't say that this is a plus pitch. If he ends up signing with the Yankees, the four-seam could be a problem in Yankee Stadium, as I expect the lack of horizontal movement to contribute to a good amount of fly balls. In 2012, he threw the pitch 36.7% of the time.
Fortunately, Tanaka also owns this sinker/shuuto, which could quickly out number the four-seam in the major leagues. The number of sinkers has grown throughout the years, and you have to wonder to what extent this has contributed to his recent success. In 2012, he threw the pitch 13.2% of the time. The movement on the pitch looks dramatic, more so than your typical sinking fastball. It appears to be a strike out pitch, rather than a ground ball inducer. The sinker sits at around 89-90 mph, which is rather impressive with that sort of movement in to right-handed batters.
This pitch has also increased in usage recently, occurring in 15% of pitches thrown in 2012. The diving action down and in to right-handed hitters is useful against both lefties and righties, and it's a pitch that I'd imagine most scouts want to see more often.
This is his go to out pitch. At a 28.8% selection rate in 2012, it's his second most used pitch behind the four-seamer, and I think there's a chance it could be a plus slider in the major leagues. It owns a good amount of movement both away from a right-handed batter, as well as some impressive sinking action.
Tanaka's ability to command the ball with good movement and velocity is undeniable, but his mechanics are far from perfect. He owns a typical 3/4 arm slot, and there's nothing in there too wild to expect injuries. His balance and timing earn him plus grades. His posture, torque, and release distance are slightly above average. His momentum, as with many Japanese pitchers, is an area where there's some concern. The delivery from the stretch might earn him plus grades, but from the wind up, his momentum is far from fluid. He's found a way to repeat this delivery well in Japan, but it might be costing him some in velocity. We've seen Japanese pitchers dump the herk-jerk windup in the past, namely Darvish, who strictly pitches from the stretch now.
Tanaka fits the Yankees' needs for multiple reasons. For one, the right-hander is a young starter with very high upside. The current state of the rotation begins and ends with CC Sabathia, after that the potential of Ivan Nova is somewhat of a mystery with his rollercoaster career. Michael Pineda will be given a rotation spot, but it's hard to see how he'll perform after his shoulder surgery, and in the move from a pitcher's park to a hitter's park. After that, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, and perhaps Manny Banuelos will have a shot to win rotation spots. The Yankees clearly lack starting pitching, so an established young starter like Tanaka is extremely valuable.
But Tanaka also fits into the Yankees plans due to the way the Japanese bidding system works. As many know, the Yankees plan to get under $189 million this offseason, and this will probably keep them away from big name free agents like Matt Garza or Ervin Santana. The team will be cutting around $40 million in payroll this offseason, in order to get below the luxury cap and receive a number of tax breaks over the course of the next few years. But this $40 million might not go unspent, the Yankees could use this for the posting of Tanaka. In the bidding system, the money spent in the bidding process to acquire a player does not go towards the payroll, and thus the Yankees could have their desired high-end starting pitcher without taking a luxury tax hit. Of course, after the bidding process, the organization and player must work out a contract, and I'd imagine Darvish's 6 year/ $56 million contract will be a good indication of what Tanaka will receive.