So, an interesting thing happened on Wednesday. The New York Yankees agreed to pay $175 million for a pitcher who's never thrown a pitch in the majors, and all they're asking him to do is conquer an extremely tough AL East while pitching primarily at Yankee Stadium.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster. But in reality, it probably won't be all bad. In fact, I figure it will be mostly good.
Just in case anybody missed Wednesday's news, Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com was the first to report that the Yankees had agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract with Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. Add in the $20 million posting fee going to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and you get $175 million.
That, for the record, is the largest price ever paid for a pitcher on the open market.
So yeah, go ahead and think it if you're a Yankees fan: this better work.
One thing that says it will is Tanaka's track record in Nippon Professional Baseball. I'm sure you've heard all about it, so I'll just point out one key bit: the fact that Tanaka's BB/9 from 2011 to 2013 was no higher than 1.4.
That's a bit that encapsulates one of Tanaka's main selling points: excellent control.
Excellent control, obviously, plays well at every ballpark. It's also something you tend to find among the greats. If we go by FanGraphs' version of the stat, 14 of the 16 pitchers who have compiled at least 15 WAR since 2010 (i.e., since awesome pitching became popular) have also compiled a BB/9 under 3.0. Most of them (12, to be exact) are in the 2.5 range or better.
Those guys will vouch that limiting walks comes in handy. It means fewer baserunners to worry about, and fewer baserunners tends to mean fewer runs. If Tanaka's control translates and he joins the best control pitchers in the game, only his fate on batted balls will keep him from greatness.
Conceivably, that's where Yankee Stadium might ruin Tanaka. Per ESPN's Park Factors, Yankee Stadium has been a top-10 home run park every year since 2009. It's naturally been particularly friendly to left-handed sluggers, yielding more homers to lefty hitters than any other park.
So how does Tanaka conquer Yankee Stadium? Elementary, Watson: conquer left-handed hitters and keep things simple by keeping batted balls on the ground.
Tanaka has just the thing to do both: his splitter.
You can catch a glimpse of it here if you haven't seen it yet:
That's a really good splitter. It's certainly one that will play well in MLB, and one thing we know about splitters that play well in MLB is that they're really good at neutralizing left-handed batters.
That's a point Dave Cameron of FanGraphs raised a while back, and we can look at the point beautifully illustrated by three of Tanaka's countrymen: Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara.
I'm going to recycle a table I used a few months back using data from Brooks Baseball. In it, you'll see what the three aforementioned pitchers did to lefty batters with their splitters in 2013:
|The Splitters of Kuroda, Iwakuma and Tanaka|
All three got a hefty amount of whiffs using their splitters against lefty hitters, and both Kuroda and Iwakuma, the starters of the trio, got mainly ground balls with their splitters when lefties made contact.
In general, picking up ground balls is a habit that's not unheard of when it comes to splitter-heavy pitchers. For example, if we use FanGraphs data to round up pitchers (minimum 200 IP) who have used their splitters more than 20 percent of the time since 2010, pay attention to the ground-ball rates:
|Splitter Pitchers, 2010-2013|
Note: Not pictured here is Kuroda, but he used his splitter 21.0 percent of the time in 2013 and racked up a 46.6 ground-ball percentage. So go ahead and pretend he belongs.
The league-average ground-ball percentage has been right around 44-45 percent over the last four seasons. Four of the seven pitchers pictured above have been safely above that mark.
All we're doing here is guessing. But assuming Tanaka's splitter translates from NPB to MLB, and given what we know about how good splitters fare against lefty hitters and how helpful they can be in keeping the ball on the ground, Tanaka being able to hold his own at Yankee Stadium seems like a safe guess.
Remember when I said a while back that Tanaka in pinstripes probably won't be all bad? This is a big reason why.
Where I begin to wander into "Gee, I don't know guys..." territory is when I consider the AL East opponents Tanaka will have to face. They're some tough customers who could easily give Tanaka a hard time.
Let's say Tanaka does indeed become a ground-ball pitcher. Baseball-Reference.com actually keeps track of how teams do against such pitchers, and it so happens that the other four clubs in the AL East spent much of 2013 beating up on them:
|AL East Teams vs. GB Pitchers in 2013|
Not exactly a happy prospect for Tanaka, and his chances probably aren't going to be any brighter if the strikeout decline that was already forming over in Japan continues in the States.
If that happens, there's a good chance he'll qualify as a finesse pitcher. AL East clubs beat them up pretty bad as well in 2013:
|AL East Teams vs. Finesse Pitchers in 2013|
Same story, pretty much. The Red Sox pummeled finesse pitchers just as much as they pummeled ground-ball pitchers, and the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays were none too shabby in their own right.
The hope here is that Tanaka will prove to be a power pitcher rather than a finesse pitcher. I have a hard time counting on that, and it goes beyond presuming that a strikeout habit that was declining in Japan will turn around and go in the opposite direction in a superior offensive league.
By all accounts, Tanaka's splitter is amazing. Ben Badler of Baseball America spoke to one scout who said Tanaka's slider can be "dirty" when it's on. It's his fastball that draws questions, and for good reason. Though Tanaka can get it as high as 97, it's an awfully straight fastball. Worse, ESPN's Keith Law says Tanaka prefers to use it up in the strike zone.
That habit's not going to fly in the majors, and don't be surprised if Tanaka learns that the hard way early on. And even if he figures it out, there's still the reality that the AL East is home to some clubs that did plenty of damage against heaters in 2013.
We can use FanGraphs to narrow it down to fastball runs above average:
|AL East Teams vs. Fastballs in 2013|
Same old story. The Red Sox were amazing, and the other three teams in the AL East were pretty darn good.
What we've basically done is take the long way around the barn to say that there's a good chance Tanaka is going to have issues against the competition in the AL East, at least while said competition still bears some resemblance to what it was like in 2013.
A simpler way to have made that point, I'll grant you, would have been to highlight how the other four teams in the AL East were four of the 11 most prolific run-scoring teams in the league in 2013. If these four clubs hold course in 2014, all pitchers are going to have a tough time with them. Not just Tanaka.
Want the good news?
It's as simple as pointing out that Tanaka obviously doesn't have to start only against AL East clubs. If he makes 30 starts, a good guess is that 15 of them will be against the Red Sox, Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays.
Those starts don't necessarily have to ruin his debut season in 2014, as all he has to do is own the other half of his starts and maybe sneak a few gems into his body of work against the AL East. Case in point, the fact that Kuroda's seven worst starts in 2013 all came against AL East clubs didn't stop him from having an excellent season.
It's probably not going to be pretty from start to finish for Tanaka in 2014. Or in any season, for that matter. But because he has the goods to survive at Yankee Stadium, and because the big, bad teams in the AL East can't get at him all the time, the $175 million the Yankees have spent on him shouldn't end up being money down the drain.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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