Something to Get Excited About

masahiro-tanaka So, we’re eight starts into the new legend of Masahiro Tanaka, 58 innings, and history is already being made. Per Michael Kay/David Cone of YES: No pitcher in major league history has struck out as many as Tanaka has and walked as few in his first eight starts. Taking down 6 wins over that time frame is outrageous as well. But looking more granularly, over that time frame, he’s had the fourth highest strikeout rate of any AL starter, AND the second lowest walk rate of any AL starter (combining for the 2nd best K/BB, behind David Price). Let that sink in for a second. All that adds up to the lowest xFIP of any qualifying SP in the majors (2.19) – the only thing that hasn’t been working for the Yankees’ new ace has been his HR/FB which is an outrageous 16.7% (second highest in the league – miles behind the 23.3% of CC Sabathia). Looking at now often quoted-SIERA (skill interactive ERA) we find that Tanaka is the best pitcher still going this season – Jose Fernandez put up an outrageous 2.22 before being sidelined for Tommy John surgery, but Tanaka is a few inches behind at 2.28, and the next best is David Price….all the way back at 2.54.

Let’s dig further. Amongst qualified starters, Tanaka currently has the best split finger in the game by quite a ways – generating 2.82 runs per 100 pitches (next best is Ubaldo Jimenez…barely positive at 0.11) to go along with the 5th best slider in the game (2.48 runs per 100 pitches). He is generating the HIGHEST whiff rate in all of baseball (batters swing and miss a whopping 15% of the time, next best is Felix Hernandez at 12.5%). For reference, Yu Darvish led all of baseball last year…at 12.6%. In 2012 it was Cole Hamels at 12.9%.

I’m just waiting for someone to raise the spectre of Daisuke Matsuzaka, and his 18 wins in 2007, followed by……well, what it was followed by. Here’s what I’ll point to: In that season, Matsuzaka’s ERA was a whopping 2.90, but his FIP and xFIP were over 4. In other words, he was lucky. So, it’s worth asking ourselves: Has Tanaka gotten lucky so far? The answer is: Not much.

We look at luck in several ways. BABIP (which should in general, be around .300, barring odd LD% distribution) is at .273, a tick below normal (and a sustainable level if he continues to be able to generate weak contact at a higher rate than league average). His LOB% (the rate at which he strands baserunners) is at 88.2%, which is extremely high, relative to league average of 70%. But his HR/FB% is also outrageously high, at 16.7%, and it’d be very surprising if this stabilized over 12% long run, even pitching half his games in Yankee Stadium. That’s why FIP, and more importantly xFIP and SIERA love the guy. When you add these up, he’s either been a tick lucky, or right around even, depending on how you weight the HR/FB versus the LOB% factors (ERA roughly equals both xFIP and SIERA, and is a chunk below his FIP). So, how lucky you think he has been so far, is related directly to whether you think he will be homer prone (if so, he’s been lucky) or league average in that department (in which case he hasn’t been lucky at all).

Let’s now dig into how he’s doing all this:

Tanaka has outrageous control. Flat out, the guy lives at and (even better) right below the strike zone. And because of the movement on his pitches, let’s take a look at how quickly he’s getting swinging strikes in each zone.

That’s crazy. So, the area in which he throws the most of his pitches, he gets swinging strikes somewhere around 25-30% of the time. And this is one of the few places we could identify the possibility of regression – as of now it seems like players are swinging at his pitches that are slightly below the zone at high rates (and missing a ton of the time) and it’s possible that the league could adjust and stop swinging at pitches that are low (even taking some pitches low but in the zone on a more regular basis). But then again, even when he throws the ball up in the zone, he’s still getting a heady whiff rate. Dead center pitches, up but still in the strike zone, are being swung through more often than any pitcher (ex-Tanaka division) in all of baseball. The headline here is that batters just don’t see the ball that well out of Tanaka’s hand, or they’re not prepared for its specific brand of movement, and they are swinging and missing at nearly historic levels all over the zone.

Guys, let’s get excited. We have this guy under contract for the next 6.5 years, through the end of his peak, but not far past it. This is the guy we thought Sabathia was, who we wanted Mussina to be, who Clemens actually was and then wasn’t. Even as injuries pile up on the Yankee ledger, Tanaka provides a reason to be excited about what’s coming, this year and in the future.