Buyer Beware - Masahiro Tanaka from a scouting perspective
As the Masahiro Tanaka momentum picks up coming off of the announcement that he would be posted by the his soon-to-be former team, The Rakuten Golden Eagles, teams should be wary. Buyer beware: Masahiro Tanaka will be a bust, and here's why (from a scouting perspective).
Over the past week or so I've seen a lot, and I mean a lot of articles written about Tanaka. His arsenal, his workload, his potential contract value and even whether or not he throws a gyro ball. Sorry, had to go there because it made me giggle. There have been some really good pieces written with interesting perspective. What I don't see a lot of is what he will actually do once he joins a major league club. That's the hard and challenging part, particularly when you're dealing with a player who doesn't take the typical path to MLB.
Tanaka has a solid average fastball (90-94, touching 96 when maxing out) with not much tilt, which may result in elevated HR rates when he faces major league hitting. Like many other pitchers that have come over from Japan, he mixes in a 2-seam fastball in the 89-92 range that compensates for the lack of movement in th 4-seam. The mechanics really tell the fastball story, but we'll get into that in detail later on.
Tanaka will also show an average slider (86-87 MPH), which seems to be effective against right handed hitters, but my eyes tell me that if he shows it to lefty's with regularity, it will end up getting hit hard. The best part about his slide is that it comes out at almost the identical arm slot that the fastball does. The break isn't severe, which is why I'm only grading it out at a 50-55, with the point of movement starting about half way. Not a terrible pitch, but also not elite.
The pitch that will get left handed hitters (and right) out is the splitter. It's a true gem of a pitch that disappears very late in the 82-84MPH range. There aren't many pitchers using the splitter as much as they used to (with good reason, it's terrible on the arm), so he's probably going to have some success if he can keep the pitch down. Which leads me to my next point, the mechanics.
Three things really jumped off of the screen for me while watching video of Tanaka:
1. The drop & drive approach. Tanaka does an excellent job of using his legs to create torque. In fact, he may be doing too good of a job. The image below shows you just how much extension he gets just before release point.
The illustration I made in red points out the separation from his back knee and the front landing spot. This summer I attended the Saber Seminar in Boston for the second year in a row (you should attend if you can), and had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Glenn Fleisig speak about bio mechanics. One of the talking points was the length of stride and how this can raise flags. Notice how much space is created between those points. Tanaka is doing himself a disservice by having a ton more torque than is necessary on his bicep (and behind the shoulder blade, which is attached to it) due to the large space between the front landing foot and his rear. Justin Verlander was one of the examples used of a pitcher with excellent spacing, and Tanaka couldn't be more opposite. Another effect of this is "getting under the ball", which (as you can see clearly) might be a problem when trying to keep the ball down. I've noticed this in video of Tanaka. You can get away with that in Japan, but in MLB you could see elevated HR rates. Again, this is an educated guess, not a slab of concrete.
The second red flag for me is the follow-through in the delivery. Tanaka's landing foot sits on the 3rd base side, which helps against right handed hitters. However in the delivery he violently jerks his head over to the 1st base side, opening up his front side and further complicating the long stride he already has. Again, this is putting a ton of pressure on his shoulder and elbow.
What I'm seeing from his is an insane amount of pressure on the shoulder and elbow just prior to release. Consider the fact that a pitcher with excellent mechanics has the weight of 8 bowling balls on his elbow in a normal delivery, and then consider a pitcher with less than optimal mechanics, and think about how much volatility there is. Team are getting smart, the Chris Sale's of the world aren't getting the $180MM contracts anymore. Not to say Tanaka is that bad, but it's certainly not pretty in my eyes.
The stuff is fine, the approach will be fine, but the mechanics are not fine. Combine these findings with the incredible workload that Tanaka has endured in his young career, and you may be dealing with a player who's 24 but the arm is turning 30 (or worse). Listen, nobody in baseball has perfect mechanics. I'm being realistic and you could even consider it nit-picking. With the figures I've seen estimated, if I'm a GM looking for a starting pitcher, I'm looking in other avenues. Tanaka from a scouting perspective seems much more than buyer beware, it seems like a bad bet.