Analyzing Masahiro Tanaka’s Perceived “Struggles”

Masahiro Tanaka hasn't been as bad as some casual fans perceive him to be.
Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t been as bad as some casual fans perceive him to be, and one small tweak could change his career forever.

There seems to be a thought among many casual Yankees fans that Masahiro Tanaka is not performing up to expectations and is not all that he is cracked up to be.  While his outstanding rookie season had us all expecting more, that may have been an unfair expectation.  Tanaka has largely been the same pitcher in 2015 as he was in his stellar 2014 with one big exception: his home run rate has skyrocketed.  Is this a temporary setback, or a cause for concern?

Before we analyze Tanaka’s 2015 season, it is important that we understand what he was last year.  Tanaka of 2014 finished with a 13-5 record, 2.77 ERA, .240 BAA, 1.06 WHIP, and a partially torn UCL.  Now what if I told you that Tanaka’s rate stats in 2015 are equal or even better than last years?  That is actually a true statement.  Tanaka of 2015 is at 9-6 (spotty run support; he could easily be 11-5), 3.61 ERA, .223 BAA, 1.03 WHIP, and a DL stint due to a forearm injury.  The only stat that is significantly different is his ERA.  But how could this be if all of his rate stats or equal or better than last year’s?  Tanaka has been victimized by the long ball and specifically some bad luck.

Let’s take a deeper look at some of these “rate stats”.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, rate stats are statistics that are computer generated or appear as ratios rather than solid numbers such as strikeouts or home runs allowed.  These stats are advanced in their nature, but aren’t horribly difficult to comprehend.  Comparing Tanaka’s rate stats from 2014 to 2015 will allow you to see many similarities.  His hits per 9 innings is down from 8.1 to 7.5.  His strikeout per 9 innings rate is down from 9.3 to 8.1, but that is a minor difference and still a respectable total.  His strikeout to walk ratio is down from 6.7 to 4.7, but that may just be due to a smaller sample size.  His ground ball rate is an equal 47%, and his hard hit rate has actually improved from last year, from 35% to 30%.

What all of this means is that from an opposing batter’s standpoint, Tanaka is the same as last year, when he was a Cy Young candidate.  So how then, did his home run rate skyrocket from a worrysome 1.0 HR/9 to an alarming 1.5?  Yankee Stadium may have something to do with this.  In 2015, Tanaka has pitched 62% of his games at the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium.  In 2014, Tanaka only pitched 50% of his starts at home, and his home run rate was lower.  Maybe Tanaka was a flyball pitcher all along and we just didn’t realize it last year?

In my opinion, a pitcher is bound to give up one homer a game at Yankee Stadium.  Guaranteed.  So long as Tanaka is able to limit the damage in terms of non-homer earned runs to 2 or less, you’ve possibly got a quality start.  And this is what Tanaka has been doing in 2014 and 2015.  Aside from the occasional home run, Tanaka has been mostly solid in all of his starts.  I believe that bad luck is responsible for some of Tanaka’s home run issues.  Often facing powerful lineups such as the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox and often at Yankee Stadium is going to inflate any pitchers’ home run rate.  Tanaka is no exception.  The combination of hitter-friendly ballparks and tough lineups makes it tough for any Yankee pitcher to keep his home run rate down.  That’s why it’s so tough for a Yankee pitcher to win a Cy Young: they have to pitch in arguably the toughest ballpark to pitch in in the entire MLB.

Tanaka’s PitchFx data also points out a reason for his struggles: his fastball is not an exceptional pitch for him.  In both 2014 and 2015, Tanaka’s fastball has been clobbered to a BAA of .311 and his sinker has been even worse with a BAA of .323.  12 of his 19 homers in 2015 have come off of these pitches, comparable to his rate of 11 out of 15 last year.  By comparison, his amazing splitter and slider have generated BAAs of .159 and .160, respectively, with both BAAs actually improving in 2015 versus 2014.  What that means is that his offspeed stuff has been nastier than ever, but his fastball has been seriously holding him back.  Now Tanaka can’t just give it all up and become a junk baller.  However, to cure this problem, he has introduced a new pitch rather quietly but with great success.

The 2015 version of Masahiro Tanaka has seen the introduction of a cut fastball. Yes, the same pitch that could save CC Sabathia’s career could also save Tanaka’s.  When Tanaka throws the cutter (only 9% of the time but getting higher as the season progresses), his BAA is a paltry .206 and he has yet to allow a homer on the pitch.  Furthermore, because this pitch is of course a variant of fastball, Tanaka averages 89-91 mph on the pitch, slower than usual but with more movement.  While his straight fastball and flat sinker get clobbered despite average speeds of 91-93 mph (higher than last year, so quit your “Tanaka’s elbow costs him” argument), his moving cutter is generating weak contact.  The stat Opponents WRC+ (Opposing Batters’ Weighted Runs Created, a variant of OPS where 100 is league average and lower is better for Tanaka) shows that his fastball and sinker are getting smoked at 70% and 90% above league average, while his offspeed pitches render opposing batters useless (WRC+ of 29 and 47 on splitter and slider). His cutter is the X-Factor in this all.  His cutter is actually his best fastball pitch, his third best pitch overall, and a pitch that opposing hitters bat 30% below league average off of.  Needless to say, Tanaka needs to use his cutter as his predominant fastball from here on out.

Tanaka is already increasing his use of the cutter, and is already achieving more success.  I wrote much the same narrative in terms of pitch selection regarding CC Sabathia a month ago, but Tanaka needs to follow this model too.  With a few minor tweaks, Tanaka could once again become not just an above-average pitcher, but a dominant one.

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