Throughout spring training, all we heard was about the out-of-this-world split-finger fastball that Yankees’ rookie Masahiro Tanaka baffled hitters with. Tonight in Toronto, we will finally get to see how it matches up against a complete lineup of big league hitters–not one sprinkled with minor league players who will never see the Show. What hasn’t been discussed much during the spring, is whether or not Tanaka will use his entire repertoire of pitches now that he is in the Major Leagues.
It is very common for pitchers that comes from Japan to throw four or five different pitches to some degree of success, whereas their U.S. counterparts usually have three or four that they stick to. Yankees’ fans are well aware of the differences between the professional leagues, as Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa both fell on their faces once their reached U.S. soil. Size of the ball, dimensions of the ballparks, and throwing schedules all affect how Japanese imports transition to the Major League game. For every success story like Hiroki Kuroda, there is a Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Tanaka is bigger, stronger, and more athletic than most of his countrymen that have come to the United States and failed. Transitioning from one baseball to another won’t be as big of a deal for someone that is 6’2″ compared to someone that is smaller in stature, and has smaller hands. Tanaka has seven pitches to choose from: a two-seamer, a four-seamer, a curveball, a slider, a cutter, a changeup, and of course the nasty splitter. Japanese pitchers are taught to go after hitters with a swing-and-miss mentality, while American pitchers are taught to pitch to controlled contact. Tanaka adds:
In Japan, all the batters knew that I had a various number of pitches, including the splitter and the slider…So I feel that in Japan, a lot of the batters were trying to get early contact off of me.
Another difference that Japanese pitchers aren’t accustomed to, is pitching efficiency. Pitch counts don’t matter in Asia because of the once a week schedule that starters are placed on. Here in the states, pitchers are taught to be more economical with their pitches because they can ill-afford to break down during the season on a five-day schedule. This helps to eliminate the massive repertoire that several Japanese imports attempt to bring to the states with them. Matsuzaka supposedly had the “gyroball.” Major League hitters will stand and let borderline pitches go, and patiently draw walks, thus driving up the pitch count. In Japan, anything close and the hitter is swinging due to the swing-and-miss mentality of the game.
Tanaka will have to learn, as all Major League starters do, to pitch off of his fastball. Everything is based on the heat. Former Major League pitcher Al Leiter, says it’s about simplifying your approach when coming to the big leagues from Japan:
There is an advantage to simplifying a pitching arsenal when transitioning to the major leagues. In terms of arsenals, [Japanese pitchers should] have the proper velocity to offset their split-fingers and other secondary pitches against major-league hitters. It starts with the fastball.
As of right now, the Yankees have no plans to limit or shorten the different types of pitches Tanaka throws during the 2014 season. It’s about him being comfortable and getting results. If he can incorporate several of his seven pitches that worked in Japan, and he can get hitters out, the Yankees would be fools to try and change that now. If they had any intention of slowing Tanaka down, spring training would’ve been the proper time to limit his arsenal.