Coming into the 2017 season, the New York Yankees roster was surrounded by question marks. However, the one constant seemed to be that the team’s ace, Masahiro Tanaka, would continue his Cy Young-level performance and be the rock that the team desperately needed every fifth day.
Through two months of the season though, the reality has been anything but what had been prognosticated. The team has had a successful run with its other starters and the lineup has stayed healthy and scored runs, yet Tanaka has been nothing short of a bust.
Nine starts into his 2017 campaign, Tanaka is 5-3, but has a 6.56 ERA, has allowed 13 home runs (two less than he surrendered over all of his injury-shortened 2014 season), and is not giving the team any length out of his starts (average 5.1 IP/start).
So what’s wrong with Masahiro Tanaka? Let’s take a look and try and diagnose what’s ailing the Yankee ace.
In order to figure out what’s different in Tanaka’s game, let’s first discuss what Tanaka was doing last year when he was pitching at an All-Star level. Last season, Tanaka threw more splitters than ever before, while also increasing his use of cutters rather than his traditional 4-seam fastball. The approach seemed to work for him, as Tanaka only gave up 5 home runs on those two pitches combined, but still gave up 8 long balls on his 4-seamer last year, even with significantly reduced usage.
This makes it hard to figure out why Tanaka has scaled back on his use of offspeed pitches this year, in favor of more 4-seamers and especially sinkers. Obviously, a pitcher needs to have a solid fastball to set up his offspeed stuff, but Tanaka was able to effectively incorporate a much more productive pitch selection into his repertoire last year.
Take his most recent start (Saturday against the Rays) as an example. He gave up 3 home runs in the contest and looked nothing like the Tanaka that Yankee fans adored in years gone by. The most frustrating part of his performance on the day was that he was frequently falling behind hitters, and then when he would get ahead, he still tried to blow a fastball by them, instead of using his splitter or slider. And when the 1-2 fastballs he threw got drilled out of the yard, it wasn’t a surprising result.
This is a change brought on by either Tanaka himself, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, or Tanaka’s new catcher, Gary Sanchez. We’ll never know why Tanaka is pitching in a different way than he was last year, but we do know that there is no medical reason for Tanaka to be throwing less offspeed pitches; both Rothschild and manager Joe Girardi confirmed that there is no medical issue with Tanaka whatsoever.
While Tanaka is throwing less offspeed pitches, he is still throwing them a lot. And when he has thrown them, they have not had the desired result. 5 of his 13 home runs have been hit off of splitters and sliders, and his batting averages against on those pitches have been the worst marks of his career.
Contrary to popular belief, Tanaka hasn’t lost any velocity on any of his pitches, but he has lost movement. We’ve never seen Tanaka throw more cement-mixer sliders or flat splitters than he has this year, and the reasons behind this are hard to figure out. Tanaka himself has been stressing working on the fundamentals again, and paying close attention to the little things in his game, but what Tanaka really needs the most is just one good, solid, start to get his mind right again.
One interesting anecdote on Tanaka’s season has been the stark difference between his stats when Gary Sanchez has been his catcher instead of Austin Romine. Obviously, Sanchez has caught more of Tanaka’s starts, but Tanaka has been significantly worse with Sanchez behind the dish than he has been with Romine. This could just come down to pitch selection and game-calling, but maybe it is something more. It is imperative that Girardi notices this trend, and sends out Romine to catch Tanaka’s next start.
If Tanaka truly is healthy and his velocity isn’t down, then the only reasons Tanaka could be struggling come down to pitch selection/game planning, and a confidence crisis. Yankee fans should consider themselves fortunate that Tanaka isn’t seriously hurt, because this means he’s just one small adjustment away from getting right back to being his usual dominating self.
Let’s flash back to Spring Training, 2017. Tanaka nearly had a perfect Spring Training, allowing one earned run over 23.2 innings. Spring Training results are vastly different from regular season results, but the fact of the matter is that Tanaka has shown this year that he can still pitch at a high level. The Cy Young-level Tanaka is still alive and well, the Yankees just need to find a way to help Tanaka rediscover himself again, and fast.