Masahiro Tanaka is the longest tenured member of the Yankees’ rotation now that CC Sbathia has retired. Signed in the winter of 2014 after being posted from Japan by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka has been a stalwart of the rotation for the past 6 seasons. He was tabbed for an opening day start in four of those seasons, and everyone is well-aware of his postseason prowess. He is the first pitcher in MLB history to give up 2 or fewer earned runs in his first 7 postseason starts, and he has the 3rd lowest postseason ERA in history for starting pitchers with 1.32. He’s a big game pitcher and I hope he stays with the team for years to come after his original 7 year deal is up at the end of this year.
Last season was strange for Tanaka, in large part due to the new ball affecting his splitter. In 31 starts and 182 innings, he pitched to a 4.45 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 4.29 xFIP, and 4.46 SIERA. He struckout 19.6% of batters (career low) while walking 5.3% and recording 3.3 WAR. Even in a poor season by his standards, Tanaka was a solid middle of the rotation pitcher.
Despite struggling at various points in the year, Tanaka had the best start of any current Yankee pitcher by game score last year in his June 17 start against Tampa Bay. He pitched to the following line: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K, Game Score 92. Here’s what I wrote about that start:
Tanaka was electric in this CGSO of new rival Tampa Bay and he even had 10 K to go along with it which is rare for him. Tanaka only needed 111 pitches to finish the game off, and in this day in age, anytime a starter can pitch a complete game is impressive. Even more impressive, the Yankees only won this game 3-0 which meant Tanaka had to have it every inning and stay locked in. When he’s on, there’s nobody more equipped to go through a lineup like this than Tanaka.
Tanaka was quite the roller coaster last season. He pitched well through June, even making the All-Star team. July, however, was a terrible month for Tanaka especially against the Red Sox. We all remember the games in London where he couldn’t get out of the 1st inning, And on July 25th, he gave up 12 runs and 4 home runs in just over 3 innings which was the worst start of his career. Those struggles led to the reinvention of his signature pitch – the splitter.
In a great article by Jake Malihot of FanGraphs, it’s clear the ball had an effect on Tanaka’s signature splitter. Tanaka used to grip his splitter along the seams, however, one of the changes with the new ball was lower seams. Without the high seams, Tanaka felt he wasn’t able to get traction or depth on his splitter, and the data back it up. His splitter dropped 1 inch less than before, and batters whiffed half as often as before. According to FanGraphs pitch values, his splitter was worth -6.2 runs last year after being worth at least 6 runs in each of the 5 previous seasons. That is a HUGE difference.
The change came exactly a year ago with Tanaka changing the grip on his splitter. This photo from Jack Curry shows what it looked like for the remainder of 2019:
This is the grip Tanaka used on his splitter yesterday. He told Japanese reporters, “I made big adjustments” after allowing 12 ERs vs Boston. Tanaka had 3 bullpen sessions between starts, two more than usual, and told Japanese reporters he’s “headed in the right direction “ pic.twitter.com/imKQ1KNOob
Rather than being directly on top of the seams, you can see Tanaka’s fingers straddling the four seam grip. This change led to an increased drop on Tanaka’s splitter once again and a slightly improved whiff rate. After making the change, August was Tanaka’s best month of the season and he was nails as usual in the postseason.
The other change Tanaka made as the year went on was to his pitch mix. Specifically, he upped his breaking ball and splitter usage while decreasing his fastball usage. Interestingly, he upped his four-seam % while drastically cutting down his cutter/sinker %.
Tanaka has always been one of the most anti-fastball pitchers in the league, and he took it to an extreme at the end of last year once he fixed his splitter. In September, he was barely throwing 30% fastballs compared to 70% off-speed pitches. He still has an excellent slider, and if his splitter is working well, that’s a good approach for him.
As a low-velocity, low spin rate pitcher, Tanaka doesn’t grade out well in his Statcast profile:
The concerning element in there is the low K% and Whiff % when just a year ago, Tanaka was in the 66th and 77th percentiles respectively. He only struckout 19.6% of batters last year and his whiff rate was at 23.5% which is below league average. The splitter struggles hopefully account for those issues.
One really cool thing about Tanaka is his confidence in each of his pitches no matter the count. Take a look at his pitch breakdown by count:
Aside from an automatic fastball in 3-0 counts, Tanaka is clearly comfortable throwing any pitch in any count. That keeps batters guessing, and is another way Tanaka is able to remain effective despite top-end stuff. That variety also helps him when he’s behind in the count. Tanaka is better than the league average pitcher whenever he is behind in the count (89 sOPS+) due to great command and pitch mix.
Here are some fun GIFs which show how much fun it is to watch Tanaka when he’s going well:
In short, fix the splitter. If Tanaka’s splitter is back to its usual levels, I have no doubts he will be an effective pitcher this season. Hopefully the changes made last August carry over and Tanaka has confidence in his splitter. Despite those struggles last year, Tanaka still had the 4th highest chase rate among all pitchers at 36.9%. However, batters made contact on pitchers out of the zone 67% of the time. An improved splitter should reduce contact on those pitches and improve Tanaka’s whiff and K rates.
One other area Tanaka can improve in is against the 3rd time through the order. Tanaka was dynamite the 1st and 2nd times through the order last year, but struggled the 3rd time through. Batters slashed .309/.347/.596 in their 3rd at-bats. We all remember watching Tanaka cruise through the first few innings only to have his start ruined by a home run in the 5th or 6th inning. Again, hopefully the improved splitter will help Tanaka work his way through lineups multiple times.
Plan for this year
The first aspect: is he healthy? Tanaka got hit in the head with a Giancarlo Stanton line drive during Summer Camp. Thankfully all reports are that he is healthy and recovered from any concussion-like symptoms. Concussions are no joke, and this will need to be monitored for a long time. With questions about James Paxton and Luis Severino out with Tommy John, Tanaka may need to be the #2 starter this season. There’s nobody I have more confidence in rising to the occasion than Tanaka.