Masahiro Tanaka is perhaps the most fascinating Yankees starter in years. Yes, fascinating.
Tanaka is a clever, intelligent pitcher who has managed to navigate a near complete collapse of his fastball fairly well, given the league and ballpark he dwells in. When the fastball ceased to be effective, he leaned on his other offerings to a degree that many wouldn’t be comfortable. He pitches in reverse, as the YES Network commentators love to remind us, and it’s worked. If you play out these few seasons 100 times, how many go this well? Hard to say, but he’s a solid pitcher with some sterling postseason moments.
But at times, it feels like Tanaka is trying to outrun the storm. Whether it’s because of the elbow injury he’s managed to keep at bay, or simply the ever-creeping reach of time, Tanaka has to evolve to keep himself above water. All pitchers have to do this if they’re going to have long careers, but Tanaka feels like he had to do it sooner than other pitchers at his rank.
Now, it appears Tanaka has to adjust again. His splitter, always a reliable, quality pitch, has fallen apart in 2019. Never before has Tanaka allowed an xwOBA — which takes batted ball data to tell us how hitters should be performing against a given pitch — above .300 against his splitter. This year, he’s at .345, an alarming leap, driven in part by the six bombs he’s allowed off it. Tanaka is no stranger to homers, but the splitter was rarely the culprit; not so in 2019.
In fact, across the board, the splitter isn’t performing as well. The whiff rate is way down (18.3 percent, down from 36.2 last year); the exit velocity has soared (90.7 MPH, up from 87.5 MPH). The results aren’t good, but the reason why is tougher to nail down. It’s more than likely mechanical — Tanaka’s delivery is a little herky-jerky and timing issues can screw up any pitcher. Pitching is tough, my dudes, even tougher in the big leagues.
If this column has felt a bit doom and gloom, I apologize. Tanaka has been good in 2019! He’s thrown more than 80 innings with a 3.58 ERA. There are certainly worse ways to eat up those innings, and Tanaka’s saving grace has been his slider. The results are pretty sterling: plenty of whiffs (37.4 percent), a weak xwOBA (..219) and overall it ranks as the second-best slider in baseball by Fangraphs’ pVAL metric. He’s throwing it a lot — just below 40 percent of his offerings have been sliders — and the dedication has paid off.
The challenge for those of us who watch Tanaka regularly is to not let the visual experience overwhelm us. He can be a frustrating pitcher, especially aesthetically. Tanaka works deliberately, moving at a glacial pace in between pitches. His approach is careful, knowing his limitations, so he nibbles and nibbles, constantly working just below the zone. He knows he can’t just pound fastballs — or really anything in the zone — so he doesn’t, and he’s right to work that way. Doesn’t mean it’s thrilling, obviously, but all of this comes back to the reality. Tanaka is the pitcher he is because he has to be to survive in the AL East.
The question for Tanaka is how long can he manage to keep this up? It’s hard to be an above-average pitcher in the AL East with a middling fastball. He’s smart and has made plenty of effective adjustments, but that’s no guarantee of the future.