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Pitching by the Numbers: Projecting Masahiro Tanaka

In our first Pitching by the Numbers of '14, let’s look at the newest hot commodity, Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees.

 Here’s what Tanaka did in Japan compared to some recent imports of note:

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 These stats are all pre-MLB (some pitchers went back after pitching in the majors). I’ve sorted by the most important stat, SO/BB. There’s also a good argument for strikeouts minus walks (next week’s column). But I try not to use stats that are not commonly tracked when there is a comparable one that is almost as good and easily available. The objective here generally is to provide you with projecting models that you can easily use yourself.

 Now let’s use Rotochamp.com to pull some Tanaka projections for 2014.

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My major quarrel here is mainly with the strikeouts. I think they’ll be considerably higher.

Notice the Japan K rates of recent pitchers with decent MLB samples – Darvish, Iwakuma and Kuroda. They have actually beaten their combined K/9 in Japan (7.4) while in MLB (7.8). Add in Matsuzaka (8.2 K/9 in MLB despite injuries) and the picture barely changes. Plus Kuroda has the most MLB innings in the sample by far and, had he stayed in Japan, his age would have led us to forecast a K decline there, too. But he’s actually pretty much matched it.

Furthermore, the K/9 in the AL last year was 7.7/9. Should we expect Tanaka to be a below average K/9 pitcher here after being significantly above average in Japan? The performance of these recent imports says no. It says we should expect a similar K/9 for Tanaka here. But while his career rate was 8.5, he K’ed just 7.8/9 last year. A reason for that was less batters faced, though, given a WHIP far below his career Japan average. His K% didn’t dip as much as his K/9 suggests. So conservatively, let’s give him 8.0 K/9 this year. That’s about 30 Ks more than the composite average, which is pretty significant when it comes to ranking pitchers. To project his ERA and WHIP, let’s just see what other pitchers have done in the majors with about those averages in K/9 (8-8.5) and K/BB (3.5-4).

Here’s that list since 2010: James Shields (2010, 2011), Chris Capuano (2011), Max Scherzer (2011), Ian Kennedy (2011, 2012), Adam Wainwright (2010 and 2012), Dan Haren (2010), Zack Greinke (2012), Madison Bumgarner (2012), Julio Teheran (2013), Josh Beckett (2011), Roy Oswalt (2010) and Felix Hernandez (2010).

The median ERA is 3.37. But the overall average is 2.97. Let’s call it 3.30.

But Tanaka is toiling in the tougher AL East.

Here’s the OPS allowed last year by MLB pitchers to hitters by division:

AL East: .738
AL Central: .717
AL West: .719
NL East: .684
NL Central: .712
NL West: .713

So it’s unfortunate that Tanaka is pitching for the Yankees in a hitter’s park with so many games against AL East opponents (76 out of the 162). Imagine if Tanaka instead pitched across town for the Mets. Or better yet, somewhere in the NL East where he could actually face the Mets.

Given all of this, here’s a 2014 Tanaka projection: 200 IP, 3.40 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 183 Ks, 15 wins

That’s in the tier with pitchers ranked about 20th to 30th. His current ADP, then, is spot on. Tanaka is currently being grabbed about 90 picks into mock drafts, as the 23rd starting pitcher right between Homer Bailey (who I prefer) and Alex Cobb (who I do not). And he’s going about nine picks after Hisashi Iwakuma (now THAT is a bargain).

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