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Masahiro Tanaka’s struggles leave him no margin for error

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The Yankees right-hander has trouble his stuff isn’t there.

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Masahiro Tanaka continues to disappoint. How long can Yankees fans wait to see the if the 2016 version of Tanaka resurfaces? After another frustrating start in Seattle on Saturday, the Yankees continue to search for answers to where exactly their ace has gone. More importantly, will he ever come back?

Possible explanations only lead to more questions. Obviously the home run has been his Achilles heel, so is the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium dooming Tanaka on the mound? Not quite, as opponents are actually slugging at a higher clip in their own parks (.515) than in the Bronx (.495). Even more puzzling is how right-handed opponents run an inflated .513 slugging percentage against Tanaka in Yankee Stadium, but left-handers own a much lower .462. That’s despite the short porch in right field.

Some like to return to the injury possibility. That is hard to prove since his velocity is the highest it’s been since his rookie season in 2014. There hasn’t been a whisper from Tanaka about any kind of discomfort in his elbow, either. The ticking time bomb scare seems to be behind him.

Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that Tanaka is getting killed by the long ball, and it only takes one or two misplaced pitches to doom the team. Tanaka had one bad inning in his last start, but it resulted in two home runs which the Yankees offense couldn’t overcome. Tanaka gives himself no margin for error when he’s on the mound because the slightest mistakes almost always end up in the seats.

Perhaps that is what’s most frustrating about Tanaka this season: He doesn’t seem to be missing by much. A slightly elevated slider here, or a splitter with not enough bite there, and the result is a crooked number on the board. If Tanaka isn’t going to have his best stuff when he takes the mound, he needs to learn to grind through a start and limit the damage. At the very least he has to keep the ball in the park and let his team stay in the game.

Tanaka should pay close attention to another rotation stalwart, CC Sabathia. Look at the Yankees’ last series in Seattle. Sabathia wasn’t at his best, and he knew it early on. Despite his lack of command, he was able to grind through five innings and only allow one run. How? Half of the balls in play were on the ground, and he didn’t give up the big home run. Despite having to battle through multiple games of this nature in 2017, Sabathia hasn’t allowed multiple home runs since April 28th. Tanaka has allowed multiple dingers in a game seven times since the end of April.

So how can Tanaka emulate Sabathia’s ability to be effective despite not having overpowering stuff? First, he needs to recognize his lack of command early on and adjust accordingly. Hitters are carrying a .342 BABIP during Tanaka’s first trip through the order. That’s when he tries to establish control of his off-speed pitches. Too many times this season, Tanaka has found himself in an immediate hole that the offense cannot always escape.

He also needs to compensate for when his pitches aren’t moving like they’re supposed to. How many times have we seen a flat breaking ball hit a mile off of Tanaka? He needs to venture further down in the zone on his off-nights to prevent fly balls. When almost a quarter of fly balls allowed end up in the seats — 23% of fly balls have been home runs off Tanaka — you have to keep it on the ground.

Tanaka has struggled with location on his splitter and sinker this season, which are usually his out pitches. When looking at where he’s been locating these pitches, one can see he’s spent way too much time in the middle of the plate.

Compare that to his spectacular 2016 season.

Tanaka was getting right-handers with his splitter low and away last year, and it was beautiful to watch. Now the pitch doesn’t seem to have the same bite, and the added velocity doesn’t matter if there is no movement. Perhaps that’s why right-handed hitters are hitting for more power than lefties at the Stadium against Tanaka.

A lazy breaking ball over the outer half of the plate with added velocity is a solid pitch to take the other way and put over the right field wall. Plenty have done so against Tanaka this season. Take for example his pitches on the outer half, specifically in both at-bats against George Springer:

The Yankees will have to see if Tanaka can adjust, but maybe he should consult Sabathia before his next start. Sabathia struggles with walks and command at times, but he’s having a great year. He knows when he needs to pitch to the defense and force ground balls. If Tanaka is pitching to the defense, then his fielders are beyond the outfield wall in the bleachers. Maybe it’s time to stop searching for the old Tanaka and start grinding out quality starts, at least until his nasty breaking balls return.