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Masahiro Tanaka might have played the long con

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By throwing his least effective pitch more often than usual, Tanaka caught the Astros off guard.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees Workouts Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

By now, pretty much everyone knows that Masahiro Tanaka has a flat four-seam fastball. Even Tanaka himself knows that, hence why he's stopped throwing it as much. Since his stateside debut with the Yankees in 2014, Tanaka has decreased his four-seamer usage every year. This year, he's reached an unprecedented level of four-seamer avoidance.

Brooks Baseball tells us that Tanaka has thrown his four-seamer just 14.3% of the time in 2017. It's a bold strategy, but one that makes sense. Tanaka's worst pitch is his four-seam, so he's throwing it less often. His best pitches are his secondaries, and so he's using them more often. It's an entirely logical optimization of his repertoire.

In his crucial ALDS Game Three start, Tanaka stuck to his guns. Of his 92 pitches, only 13 were four-seamers, about the same rate as his 2017 average. Nearly every pitch he threw had break, and it worked wonders: He went seven scoreless with seven strikeouts. The morning after, Jeff Sullivan mused that one day Tanaka just might not throw a fastball at all.

If there ever was a time to try that strategy, it seems to me that ALCS Game One would have been it. The Houston Astros have a historically great offense, and they've crushed fastballs all year long. If Tanaka was going to hold their bats at bay, he would have to avoid the four-seam at all costs, keep throwing junk out of the zone and hope they whiff - or so I thought.

Far from avoiding the four-seam, Tanaka brought it back. According to Brooks Baseball, 25 of Tanaka's 89 pitches were four-seamers, good for a rate of 28.0 percent. That's nearly twice as much as his 2017 average. What's even stranger is that the strategy worked.

While Tanaka wasn't good enough to get the win, he held a lineup which collectively hit for a 121 wRC+ to two runs on four singles and a walk across six innings. In short, Tanaka pitched a quality start against the best lineup in baseball by throwing his worst pitch twice as often as usual. Never have I written a sentence that made less sense.

I dug deeper for an explanation, and decided to look at his previous start against the Astros. It came on May 14, Derek Jeter Day, and Tanaka decided to supply some of his own fireworks. He gave up eight runs on four homers in 1.2 innings of work.

What piqued my attention, however, wasn't his results, but his pitch usage. That day, Tanaka threw one measly four-seam out of 61 pitches. He relied heavily on his sinker, slider and splitter, and the Astros teed off on them. It's clear that Tanaka didn't have his best stuff that day, but also that the Astros' hitters were waiting for his breaking balls and punishing them. They know the drill as well as we do - Tanaka rarely throws fastballs. Rather than wait for a fastball that might never come, the Astros geared up for Tanaka's secondaries. When he slipped up, they made him pay.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that hitters and pitchers constantly adjust to each other. I'm willing to bet that Tanaka did just that on Friday night. He knew that the Astros were banking on him to rely on his breaking pitches. That was where he saw his chance.

By altering his modus operandi and throwing heaters in two-strike counts, Tanaka was able to catch the Astros off guard and keep them off balance. Exhibit A: George Springer. Tanaka didn't give the Astros what they wanted, and Houston couldn't do much with what they were given. Even a bad fastball can be good if the hitter's geared up to hit 86 with movement.

In short, Tanaka doesn't throw many four-seamers. The Astros took advantage of this and clobbered him in May. Accordingly, Tanaka capitalized on the Astros’ approach and limited them to four singles in six innings. He didn't win, of course, but considering the circumstances it was still a heck of a start. The interesting part is where the matchup goes from here. Let's hope that Tanaka has a few tricks still left up his sleeve.