In the 2013-14 Major League Baseball offseason, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, a Japanese major league baseball team, listed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka as an available player to the MLB postings at a fee of $20 million. Shortly following the listing, MLB teams came clamoring to Tanaka, longing to sign the Japanese ace to their team. The early frontrunners were the Yankees and the Cubs, with the Bronx Bombers eventually signing Tanaka to a 7-year, $155 million deal.
On Wednesday, Tanaka made his third major league start by squaring-off against his former suitors, the Chicago Cubs. By the end of the first game of Wednesday's double-header, the entire Cubs line-up vehemently wished their club would have put up more money to acquire Tanaka, especially considering his stat-line Wednesday placed Tanaka in the MLB record books.
8.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, BB, 10 Ks.
— Pinstripe Alley (@pinstripealley) April 16, 2014
While one may dismiss Tanaka's performance due to the ability of the competing team, these numbers are not a fluke. Over his first three games, Tanaka has struck out 28 batters while walking only two. His efficiency is devastating, and it is led by his sickeningly-good split-fingered fastball.
Masahiro Tanaka (8 K's today) joins Stephen Strasburg as the only pitchers in the last 100 years with 8+K in each of first 3 MLB starts
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 16, 2014
In his three games thus far, Tanaka has thrown the splitter 24 percent of the time. The average speed of his splitter is 87 mph, coming in only 4.6 mph slower than his average fastball speed - this margin being the closest of any MLB who uses the splitter with any frequency.
What makes his splitter even more devastating, however, is how far it drops while coming through the strike zone. As Tanaka's splitter travels toward the plate, it drops vertically at a rate of 17 feet per second. In comparison, Tanaka's fastball drops at 11.6 feet per second as it travels from the mound to the hitting box. This 5.4 feet per second differential in vertical drop places Tanaka second in the league, only behind Tim Hudson.
Tanaka's fellow Yankee Carlos Beltran, who is on pace for early MVP honors, describes what batters are facing as they stand in the box across from Tanaka: “It’s at your knees and a lot of guys think it’s a fastball, and all of a sudden the ball drops because it’s a splitter and it’s 87-88 [mph]. It’s not like it’s 82 or 83, where you have time to recognize it. In your mind, you’re thinking fastball, so you swing.’’
The data supports Beltran's assessment. Batters swing at Tanaka's splitter 65 percent of the time, with more than half of those swings being whiffs. Even if the batters make contact, 72 percent of the balls put in play against the splitter wind-up as ground-ball outs.
Perhaps Cubs manager Rick Renteria said it best when he tried to downplay Tanaka's dominant performance against his struggling Cubbies: "His split-finger fastball, when it’s down, is pretty good. He can elevate his fastball a little bit. He’s pretty good."
Image via YouTube