The goodwill following Masahiro Tanaka’s start against the Oakland A’s didn’t last long. After a promising 13-strikeout performance raised optimism about Tanaka’s possible turnaround, his clunker against the Baltimore Orioles effectively extinguished it. Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild are scratching their heads as they try to figure out what is wrong with their ace. Tanaka was bombed for seven runs in 5.2 innings in his last start, and is 0-4 with an 11.21 ERA over his last four appearances.
The right-hander’s velocity is consistent with his Cy Young caliber season in 2016, and the team doesn’t think there’s an injury at play. So what exactly is wrong, and what will it take to return to form? Girardi mentioned Astros ace Dallas Keuchel after Tanaka’s latest clunker in Baltimore, and how Keuchel saw a major drop in efficacy last season after winning the 2015 Cy Young Award. The Yankees manager sees Keuchel as a sign of hope given the southpaw’s turnaround this season, as he is 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
The two pitchers are much alike in style of pitching. They both live off their breaking balls, and use movement to initiate soft contact instead of blowing hitters away with velocity. Given their similarities, maybe Tanaka is suffering from the same problems Keuchel did last season.
To start, it makes sense to look at Tanaka’s location on off-speed pitches this season:
Clearly, he’s spending too much time in the middle of the plate, or way off of it. From watching Tanaka pitch, it’s not hard to tell that he has been having trouble locating his breaking balls. As a result, he has relied more heavily on his fastball for strikes. Tanaka threw 190 fastballs last year, with hitters batting .250 against it. This year, he has already thrown 206 fastballs with an opposing batting average of .356. It’s easier to sit dead-red when the off-speed stuff isn’t up to par.
Hitters can also sit on a first pitch fastball with Tanaka struggling with his breaking balls. Hitters batted .393 with a slugging percentage of .661 against Tanaka on first pitches last season, and that number has jumped to .529 and 1.206 this season. Tanaka isn’t just giving up hits on the first pitch - he’s giving up bombs.
How does this run parallel with Keuchel? Here is his heat map from 2016:
Compare that to his in 2017 to date:
How’s that last one for command? For whatever reason, the difference in Keuchel’s control is night-and-day compared to his 2016 season. He is making a living off his breaking balls on the corner again. Keuchel has also thrown a quarter of the amount of fastballs that Tanaka has this season, and is enjoying a much more productive season.
Can Tanaka experience a similar turnaround? The issue here is that Keuchel admitted in spring training that he pitched through pain in his shoulder for most of 2016. In fact, he was sidelined late in the year due to shoulder inflammation. Tanaka and the Yankees continue to assure us that there are no injuries to report, so what is the problem?
Pitchers go through slumps just like hitters do. We have seen the old Tanaka in fleeting moments this year, like his starts against Oakland and Boston. He was also nearly unhittable in spring training. Is he just going through an extended slump like Keuchel last season, or is it time to see the trainer? Whatever the issue is, the Yankees badly need him to find his groove and bring some stability to a rotation that could use some help since the Yankees aren’t scoring eight runs a game anymore.