Confession time: I’m a big fan of Masahiro Tanaka.
One of my favorite things about Tanaka is his willingness to reinvent himself. Prior to the 2015 season, he made the somewhat surprising decision to reduce his velocity. He suffered an elbow injury in 2014 and was confident enough in his craftiness to succeed with diminished stuff. Last season, in an effort to go deeper into games, Tanaka pitched to contact, foregoing strikeouts. The results were universally successfully.
The strikeouts, however, have returned during Grapefruit League play. In dramatic fashion, too. In nine spring training innings this spring, he has racked up 13 strikeouts. He managed just nine last spring. He posted 13 total in 14.2 innings prior to 2015, for reference. Tanaka has been adept at missing bats in the early going this year.
Following Saturday’s dominant start against the Tigers, Tanaka revealed that he was particularly happy with how he finished batters. Having registered seven strikeouts across four perfect innings, it makes sense that he was pleased. He opened the game by striking out six consecutive batters. He was virtually unhittable in two strike counts.
This begs the question: why was Tanaka so pleased with finishing batters? Michael Pineda’s struggles in two strike counts have been well documented. Perhaps Tanaka suffered as well? Could this explain his sense of accomplishment? A quick look at the data reveals otherwise.
Masahiro Tanaka’s Two Strike Counts
For context, league average with two strikes last year was .187/.246/.286. Tanaka held batters to lines far below those marks. So he wasn’t bad in those situations. If anything he was above average.
This information is important because it reveals two trends. First, Tanaka is a perfectionist. He has a reputation for being extremely self-critical. He even downplayed his results following Saturday’s game! It shouldn’t be a surprise that he wants to improve on an already strong aspect of his game.
Second, and relatedly, this indicates he’s building on a strength. That’s good! The Yankees need Tanaka to be as dominant as ever if they want to compete in 2017. Another elite season from Tanaka would go a long way. A key to that success is being able to put batters away with two strikes.
Spring training statistics are notoriously suspect, especially when concerning a pitcher. Tanaka owned a 7.36 ERA in Grapefruit League play last season. He finished the season in the Cy Young discussion. Stuff proves more illuminating than results when it comes to these small sample sizes. By all accounts Tanaka’s pitches have been electric this spring.
His offspeed stuff looked especially good on Saturday:
That will play just fine.
The Yankees are having a great spring training. There has been home runs, prospects who look better than advertised, and Tanaka striking out nearly every batter he’s faced. Whether this good fortune will carry over into the regular season remains to be seen. What we know for sure is that Tanaka is pitching with dominant stuff. His success and the Yankees are directly intertwined. So far things look so good.