Where’s Masa?

Masahiro Tanaka has now completed his first season back in Japan since his record-setting 2013 all-everything year with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. So perhaps now is a good time to evaluate where he is in his career and see what the season tells us.

Tanaka’s 2021 season was much like his 2020 season in the U.S. majors. Although he proved unable to dominate as he did from the summer of 2012 through the end of 2013 season, Tanaka was still plenty good, but the Japanese game is now better than the one he lorded over eight years earlier.

Tanaka’s 3.01 ERA was ninth best in Japan. His approach was solid: Get ahead in counts, and then expand the zone getting swinging strikes on pitches outside the zone. This is the way the Pacific League pitches, and Tanaka fit right in. He struck out lots of batters, and walked few. Sounds like a winner, right.

Overall, however, things did not go well. Tanaka went 4-9 and tied for ninth most in home runs allowed. The real killer was his team scoring a little more than two runs per nine innings when he was the pitcher of record.


As he had in the States, Tanaka few fewer fastballs than just about any other regular starting pitcher in Japan. His fastball velocity was good, but he rarely missed bats with it.

On a 20-80 scale I’d rate his pitches as follows:

PitchPercentAvg VeloGrade
Slider29.5134.2 kph70
4-seam27.8147.1 50

A few additional comments:

  • His sliders were among Japan’s best pitches in 2021. He threw 71 percent of them in the zone (4 standard deviations above the mean among pitchers throwing 10-plus sliders), and missed bats with 20 percent, also + 4 SD . He could also locate them on the corner (11 percent) again +4 SD.
  • Four-seam: Strikes 66% +1 SD; Misses 4% -2.4 SD, Corner 8% +1SD
  • Split: Strike 69% +3.6 SD, Miss 14% -1.9 SD, Corner 10% +3.8 SD
  • Cutter: Strike 62% -1.5 SD, Miss 9% -1 SD, Corner 8% -0.6 SD
  • Two-seam: Strike: 70% +3.5 SD, Miss 3$ – 2.2 SD, Corner 14% + 3.1 SD

Tanaka’s command remains well above average, and although he’ll quickly go away from a pitch if it’s not working, he’s otherwise extremely feisty about his approach. On a few occasions, Tanaka couldn’t get strikes on one corner of the zone but kept going back there in a kind of test of wills with the umpire, in which he only ended up walking guys.

Because Tanaka can command so many pitches, batters have to always be on their toes against Tanaka. Like virtually every other Japanese pitcher, he’ll use the curve to get a few first-pitch strikes each game and but otherwise it’s just a different chase pitch.

His four-seamer is fast but rarely has much movement on it. Tanaka used it and his curveball like pawns in the opening moves of his chess game, as something he employed to free up his other weapons.

Hide and seek

Tanaka has in the past spoken of his search for the best sequences of his pitches, both in at-bats and over the course of the game, and while his fastball would get him into trouble, when batters were looking for it and he missed up, he generally established it early before playing hide and seek with it: Get batters to look fastball and then spring the cutter, two-seamer and splitter on them.

Only five pitchers threw a higher percentage of pitches in the zone, and Tanaka got swings on 35.8 percent of his pitches outside the zone, the highest figure among pitchers with 70-plus innings in 2021.

Be prepared

Tanaka’s return to Japan had an aura about it, as he did, and there was a sense that no one wanted to look bad in the presence of such a distinguished player, and this extended to opponents, who treated games against Tanaka with postseason intensity and preparation for what he might bring.

His marquee matchup with Lotte’s rookie Roki Sasaki was wild, with both guys giving their absolute best and both teams giving it the 100 percent managers talk about but generally don’t see in the middle of a 143-game season.

Home may be where the heart is, but…

Tanaka has yet to explicitly spell out all the reasons why he chose Japan over the U.S. majors in 2021, although I have speculated that one reason was concern over the safety of his wife and children in an America where violence and abuse targeting Asians has sky rocketed.

Given his celebrity status as a former big leaguer here, and the degree to which opponents may have raised their game a bit against him, it is not inconceivable that he would be as or more effective in the majors, where batters are also more inclined to take hefty cuts at his slider and splitter rather than poke them foul.

The opposite side of that coin is that if he decides to stay another year in Sendai, the “big leaguer Tanaka” shine may wear off a little and he might, given his current quality and his intense competitive nature, tear up the league once more.

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