In our preseason starting pitcher rankings, we — the Yahoo fantasy baseball experts aggregate — ranked Yankees Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka as the No. 29 starter overall. Of course, that was before he mowed down 28 batters and posted two wins and a 2.05 ERA in the first three starts of his MLB career.
Since our initial rankings were based mostly on the merits of his impressive seven-year run in the Japanese League, we figured it was prudent to re-assess where we see Tanaka fitting in among the fantasy baseball starting pitcher crowd now that he's actually faced MLB hitters. Here's the experts' take on Tanaka:
Brandon Funston (Tanaka preseason SP rank No. 25) — There have been several Japanese starting pitchers over the past couple decades that have enjoyed at least a successful season or two in the majors (Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Hasashi Iwakuma chief among them). But none can claim a more impressive three-start split to open a major league career than Tanaka.
The strikeouts are what stand out the most. A big question mark of his transition to the majors was whether his K rate from Japan would hold up and clock in above average among starters. I think we have a pretty good answer to that question now. He currently sits among the leaders in swinging strike rate and outside swinging percentage (the rate at which hitters swing at his offerings that are outside the strike zone). Those are encouraging marks and speaks directly to the deception of his arsenal. Three starts is woefully lacking in terms of a meaningful sample size, but because the results of those starts have been so good, I'd certainly be looking at Tanaka as a top 20 starter now. And if he was in the NL, free of the head wind that the AL (East) creates for pitchers, I'd definitely slot him inside the top 15.
Andy Behrens (Preseason SP rank No. 28) — I'm not one to radically re-rank players based on 2-3 weeks of data. I don't do it with guys who start fast, don't do it with guys who start slow. Baseball is a complicated game, one in which small data samples rarely give us an accurate image of a player.
But still, Tanaka was weapons-grade filthy against the Cubs on Wednesday afternoon. There's no denying it. We're not talking about a degree-of-difficulty matchup, obviously, but there's no bad way to post a line like this: 8.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, BB, 10 Ks. He was terrific. The split is as nasty as advertised. Possibly better. Possibly a demon pitch, from the belly of hell itself.
We should have expected Tanaka to have a serious advantage early in the year, of course, as he's facing hitters who've never seen him. No one should be surprised if the second half of his season doesn't quite mirror the first. But this is clearly going to be an excellent campaign, both in reality and in fantasy. If we were re-drafting a Yahoo league today — something we can all still do, by the way — I'd slot him in a deep second-tier of starters, perhaps in the 16-22 range. As good as he's been, he's not the only starter who's outperforming his preseason rank. I can't say he's been more impressive to my eye than, say, Andrew Cashner or Michael Wacha — two guys who pitch in the friendlier league, in friendlier parks.
Dalton Del Don (Preseason SP rank No. 33) — Tanaka looks dominant, posting a 28:2 K:BB ratio over his first 22.0 innings. He has an elite SwStr% (no pitcher produced more swings and misses over their first two starts this season), and while it's best not to overreact to small samples, I'm buying here. I'd comfortably rank Tanaka as a top-15 fantasy starter moving forward.
Scott Pianowski (Preseason SP rank No. 41) — Tanaka looks terrific and no doubt I ranked him too low in the spring. Nonetheless, he still hasn't faced a Top 12 offense yet, and Yankee Stadium can be an awfully small park in the warm-weather months. I'm calling for an ERA around 3.35 and a WHIP in the 1.15-1.18 range the rest of the way, around with a strikeout per inning. That makes him a Top 25 starting pitcher in Yahoo.