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Entries in splitter (4)

Tuesday
Dec312013

Can Tanaka's Splitter Top These Guys?

Masahiro Tanaka will likely become the first Japanese star to earn a $100 million contract in the states, thanks to a confluence of factors including unprecedented TV money permeating the game, a new posting system that shifts more cash from Nippon Professional Baseball teams to players, and the 25-year-old's youth, power and precision on the mound. Statistically, Tanaka compares favorably to other top Japanese starting pitchers who have made the jump to Major League Baseball. He's got the stuff to match up, too. While the Rakuten Golden Eagles ace and reigning Sawamura Award winner can best hitters many different ways, his splitter garners the most international acclaim.

Tanaka throws his upper-80s splitter around 15 percent of the time, according to the NPB Tracker website. Baseball America's Ben Badler calls the offering "arguably the best in the world," noting that overmatched NPB batters routinely swing over the pitch as it plummets toward the dirt. Tanaka's out pitch will make him an outlier in the majors. Just 1.4 percent of the total MLB pitches thrown over the past three seasons have been splitters, and only 17 hurlers have thrown the pitch at least 10 percent of the time over that period.

If Tanaka truly wants to lay claim to having the world's best splitter, he must top a collection of pitchers including Japanese standouts like Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara. Here's a look at Tanaka's competition for the title of splitter king, with top 10 rankings over the 2011-13 seasons in swings and misses, chases on pitches tossed out of the strike zone, strikes thrown, ground balls induced, and opponent slugging percentage.

Splitter Whiff Rate

 

Percentage of Splitters Chased out of the Strike Zone

 

Splitter Strike Rate

 

Splitter Ground Ball Rate

 

Opponent Slugging Percentage vs. the Splitter

Monday
Dec302013

Masahiro Tanaka, Statistically Speaking

Let the bidding commence! Nippon Professional Baseball's Rakuten Golden Eagles officially posted Masahiro Tanaka last week, opening the door for MLB clubs to land the two-time winner of the Sawamura Award, Japan's Cy Young equivalent. Tanaka will undoubtedly sign the richest contract ever for a Japanese player coming stateside, as the new posting agreement between the leagues essentially allows all MLB teams to pay up to a $20 million fee to the Eagles for the right to negotiate a free agent contract with the 25-year-old ace (the fee is refunded to teams that don't sign him). Previously, the posting fee was uncapped, with teams bidding blindly against one another for the exclusive right to negotiate with the player.

So, why will Tanaka soon blow past Yu Darvish's $56 million cut from the Texas Rangers and potentially ink the first $100 million (posting fee excluded) deal for a Japanese player? He possesses premium stuff, complementing his low-to-mid-90s heat with a devastating splitter, a tight slider and an occasional curveball. His stats are pretty impressive, too, as Tanaka compares quite favorably to other starting pitchers who have made the jump from Japan to the majors.

To see how Tanaka stacks up with the likes of Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Hideo Nomo, I found the ERA, strikeout, walk, and home run rates for Japanese starters during their last three seasons before arriving in the majors. I then compared them to the NPB league average over that time frame and placed the stats on a scale where 100 is exactly average, north of 100 means the pitcher is above average in that category and under 100 means he's below average. I weighted the stats to put more emphasis on the pitcher's most recent work (50 percent weight to his last season in Japan, 30 percent to the second-to-last year, and 20 percent to the third-to-last year). The numbers aren't park-adjusted, so keep that in mind as you look at the table below (Miyagi Baseball Stadium, Tanaka's home park, appears to suppress home runs).

Tanaka has done a better job of preventing runs than all other Japanese imports, posting an ERA that's 136 percent better than the league average. His strikeout rate, which has dropped three years running, is actually pretty modest (30 percent above average). But he's a stud when it comes to throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the park. Tanaka has the best walk rate (137 percent above average) this side of Colby Lewis, and only Darvish surrendered fewer home runs.

There's another Japanese starter with sparkling numbers who could be posted this winter: Hiroshima Carp right-hander Kenta Maeda. The 25-year-old probably doesn't excite scouts as much as Tanaka, considering his skinny frame, high-80s-to-low-90s velocity and decent secondary stuff. While his K rate is low (17 percent above average), Maeda boasts quality control and is fairly stingy with the long ball.

Masahiro Tanaka vs. other NPB aces

It's useful to see how Tanaka compares to fellow NPB aces, but this table shows that stats alone certainly don't predict how successful a pitcher will be in the states. Nomo walked everybody in his home country with his tornado-like windup, yet he holds the record for most career Wins Above Replacement (21.7) among Japanese-born pitchers. Kuroda (19.4 WAR) will likely surpass him next year. Who could have predicted that, considering his good-not-great work with the Carp in his early 30s? If there's one universal truth in baseball, it's this: pitchers are a strange, unpredictable lot.

To be more like Darvish than Dice-K, Tanaka will have to answer a number of questions. Can he make the transition from pitching on six days' rest to four? Will his heavy workload in Japan (1,315 innings pitched) affect his stuff and durability down the road? Why is he missing fewer bats in recent years? It will be a while before we know the answers, but one MLB team -- the Yankees? Cubs? Dodgers? Astros? -- is about to make a nine-figure wager that Tanaka's stuff and statistical track record will make him a star.

Friday
Sep062013

Koji Uehara's Unhittable Splitter

Koji Uehara is 38 years old, needs a strong gust of wind at his back to crack 90 MPH on the radar gun and is the third-highest -paid reliever on the Boston Red Sox. He's also eviscerating hitters. Uehara boasts the sixth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (9.67) ever among relievers tossing 60+ innings in a season, and his park-and-league adjusted ERA is 269 percent above average -- that's 12th best all-time among 'pen arms.

While he doesn't have Aroldis Chapman's gas or Craig Kimbrel's wipepout slider, Uehara might just possess the nastiest pitch in the game in his splitter. The right-hander throws his tumbling, low-80s split nearly half of the time (47 percent of his total pitches), transforming opposing lineups into a fleet of weak-hitting pitchers in the process. When Uehara unleashes a splitter, opponents are batting .101 and slugging .193. The last time a hitter managed an extra-base hit against the pitch was nearly three weeks ago, when Lyle Overbay laced a double in a loss to the Sox on August 17.

Here's more on Uehara's splitter, as the Sox stopper looks to vanquish the Yankees' slim playoff chances...

  • Part of what makes Uehara's splitter so deadly is that the pitch tails in on righties (away from lefties) much like his fastball, but it then drops off the table. On average, Uehara's splitter and fastball both have about 5-6 inches of horizontal break compared to a pitch thrown without spin. But there's a big difference in vertical break: Uehara's fastball "rises" nearly a foot compared to a spinless pitch, while his splitter rises just 4-5 inches. Imagine having milliseconds to figure out whether Uehara is tossing you a tailing, high-80s fastball up in the zone, or a tailing, low-80s split that proceeds to plummet like a wasp that got whacked by a Sunday newspaper.

To help you visualize hitters' conundrum, here's a graphic showing the break and velocity of Uehara's fastball (the yellow-orange cluster on top) and his splitter (the green-blue cluster).

Pitch velocity and movement of Uehara's fastball and splitter

  • Uehara has lured hitters into chasing his splitter off the plate nearly half of the time (48% chase rate), which ranks behind only St. Louis' Edward Mujica (51%) among relievers. Lefty batters would need a boat oar to reach some of the Uehara splitters that they're swinging at:

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Uehara's splitter

  • Uehara has generated swings and misses 44% of the time with his splitter, highest among all relievers.
  • While Uehara has registered 51 of his 87 strikeouts with his splitter, he uses his split as more than a put-away pitch. Uehara has thrown his signature offering about 37% of the time in first-pitch counts, and to great effect. Opponents are batting .143 and slugging .286 versus Uehara's first-pitch splitters.