When Masahiro Tanaka is at his best, he has three pitches that deserve 60 or better grades on the 20-80 scouting scale. There’s the fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a vanishing splitter and a slider that gives away from righthanded hitters.
Throw in above-average control, the ability to maintain his stuff deep into games and an extensive track record of dominance in Japan and it’s easy to see why so many teams view him as an immediate top-of-the-rotation starter.
So we pulled out three of the nastiest pitches Tanaka threw during the 2013 season—one each of his fastball, splitter and slider—to bring them to you in GIF form (thanks to GIF-master J.J. Cooper), with a take from scouts on each one.
Tanaka generally throws his splitter anywhere from 84-88 mph, but on occasion he’ll crank it up even higher. When Tanaka’s firing the splitter up to 90 mph, starting at the belt and bottoming out of the zone like he did here, the result is a lot of collapsed back legs and foolish looking swings.
“For me, that was always his calling card, the splitter,” said one National League scout. “The slider is just filthy, but when you have a top-of-the-scale split, that’s borderline unhittable as long as you throw it close to the plate.”
Tanaka can miss bats with his plus slider, though there were times last year when the pitch seemed to get away from him and he leaned more on his splitter. Tanaka throws the slider and the splitter to both lefties and righties, and since the splitter has such hard downward action and checks in around the same speed as his slider, there are times when scouts have trouble telling them apart.
“It’s really, really hard sometimes to distinguish the slider and the splitter,” said a second National League scout. “On the slider, I definitely thought it was a weapon. I really liked it early in the count. It was 80-82 when he used it early in the count as a get-me-over pitch. When I say get-me-over, people think soft, but it had teeth to it. Once it gets to 85 and up, it’s dirty. Guys were straight up missing it.”
I remember watching the game when Tanaka threw this pitch. Tanaka got into trouble in the top of the sixth inning against the Chiba Lotte Marines, putting runners on second and third with two outs while holding on to a 1-0 lead. Kazuya Fukuura whiffed at a 95 mph fastball up and in before taking another 95 mph pitch in the same spot to even the count 1-1. Tanaka came back with a wicked 89 mph splitter that Fukuura swung over the top of before reaching back for this 97 mph fastball on his 108th pitch of the game to escape unscathed.
Tanaka finished the game with eight strikeouts and one walk over seven shutout innings in the Eagles’ 5-0 victory. Not only was this pitch believed to be the fastest one he threw all season, but the 60-grade turn, spin and fist pump is indicative of the tenacity that scouts often mention when talking about Tanaka.
“He’s intense,” said the second NL scout. “He pitches with passion. There’s emotion to it when he’s getting outs.”
You can watch a video compilation of more than 200 strikeouts from Tanaka’s 2013 season here.