Masahiro Tanaka making hitters swing and miss at a remarkable rate to start season

Masahiro Tanaka delivers a pitch in the first

Masahiro Tanaka delivers a pitch in the first inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs during the first game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

The most eye-opening aspect of Masahiro Tanaka's early-season dominance has been his remarkable ability to miss bats, something he's been doing at a rate nearly twice as high as his peers.

To comprehend just how good Tanaka's swing-and-miss rate of 16.1 percent (49 out of 305 pitches, according to fangraphs.com) is through three games, consider that Texas' Yu Darvish led the majors last year at 12.6 percent and that the league average this year is 9.4 percent.

The last time a starting pitcher went a full season with a swing-and-miss ratio this high was Arizona's Randy Johnson in 2002. That year The Big Unit induced swings-and-misses on 16.4 percent of his pitches en route to striking out 334 in 260 innings.

The main reason for so many hitters whiffing in the early going has been Tanaka's splitter, which has the last-second drop of a Wiffle ball and has been every bit as good as advertised.

Of the 74 splitters he's thrown this season, he's gotten swings and misses on 26 of them, according to Major League Baseball Advanced Media's PITCHf/x data. Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild has gone as far as to describe Tanaka's out pitch as "hardly hittable'' by righthanded batters because the ball drops down and away at the last second.

"He throws it in the upper 80s and it comes in on the same exact plane as a fastball,'' former Yankees and Mets pitcher David Cone said. "It looks like a fastball right down the middle and then it's gone at the last minute.''

Cone, a strikeout pitcher who got his share of swings-and-misses throughout his career, said he's been most impressed by Tanaka's ability to throw so many strikes -- 69.5 percent of his total pitches have been strikes -- while also missing so many bats in the process.

"Those are kind of two things that work against each other,'' said Cone, who watches Tanaka in his role as a YES Network broadcaster. "Usually, strike-throwers are the high-contact guys, and usually the swing-and-miss types are the ones who throw more balls out of the strike zone to try to get hitters to chase. Tanaka does both of those things. He throws a bunch of strikes and he can get you to swing and miss. That's kind of a rare double that puts him, I think, in an elite category.''

The only downside to starters getting swings-and-misses -- and this is a quibble at best -- is that doing so raises the starter's pitch count and therefore limits the number of innings he can go.

Like many pitchers of his era, Cone almost always preferred to go for swings-and-misses rather than aim to induce bad contact. "I always thought you could take the variable of defense out of the equation if you could get them to swing and miss,'' he said.

But the tide has turned somewhat with the advent of pitch counts.

Some pitchers (and pitching coaches) these days prefer bad contact over making hitters chase, as that will save pitches and keep them in games longer. That hasn't been an issue with Tanaka thus far.

Tanaka's control has been so precise that his pitch count hasn't been a factor in any of his first three games. He has walked only two hitters in 22 innings and, perhaps even more impressive, he's faced a three-ball count only nine times out of 83 batters.

Essentially, he throws strikes, strikes and more strikes and still keeps hitters off-balance because he stays in the zone with an array of pitches.

When Cone first saw Tanaka pitch, he thought Bret Saberhagen was a good comparable, given Saberhagen's superb control (1.7 walks per nine innings over 2,562 2/3 career innings). But after watching Tanaka's first three games, Cone said he's ditched that comparison, saying Saberhagen in his prime never had Tanaka's strikeout stuff.

"He's kind of a hybrid,'' Cone said of Tanaka. "He's sort of a Hideo Nomo with good control . . . He's fun to watch, no doubt about it.''

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