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Masahiro Tanaka should be fine in 2018

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2017 wasn't a banner year for Masahiro Tanaka in terms of ERA and homers. In other ways, it was.

New York Yankees Photo Day Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There were times during the 2017 season where I absolutely dreaded the thought of Masahiro Tanaka starting for the Yankees. His Opening Day clunker against the Rays would set the tone for the first half of his season, in which he posted an unsightly 5.47 ERA and gave up four trillion homers. His second half was much more palatable, but it was marred by random dumpster fires as often as it featured absolutely dominant outings. Tanaka was bad, and then he was maddeningly inconsistent. His postseason was great, but what is his outlook for next year?

The important thing to determine is whether Tanaka's 2017 performance represents a random blip on his career trajectory or the start of his decline. To that end, let's look at the skills and tendencies Tanaka exhibited last year. If there is a noticeable decline there, we can conclude that Tanaka more or less deserved to be roughed up. If there isn't, that suggests that we can believe in a return to form for Tanaka this year.

Firstly, let's look at what caused Tanaka's pronounced dinger-itis last year. Now, 2017 wasn't the first time Tanaka had trouble with the long ball, as he also ran a 1.46 HR/9 in 154 innings back in 2015. However, in 2014 and 2016 Tanaka kept his HR/9 under 1 en route to stellar seasons, so it's safe to say that 2017 was a significant departure from his career norms in this regard.

There are many culprits to blame for a home run spike. Changes in batted ball profile could be a factor, as Tanaka could have struggled to generate ground balls and was prone to airborne contact. However, looking at Tanaka's batted ball profile, this doesn't seem to be the case. In fact, Tanaka set a career high in ground ball rate with a 49.2% mark, while his fly ball rate of 32.6% was only marginally higher than his 2016 mark of 31%. In addition, his line drive rate of 18.2% was a career low. Generally speaking, Tanaka did a good job of avoiding fly balls and line drives, while succeeding in keeping the ball on the ground.

If Tanaka’s fly balls and line drives weren’t to blame, what was? Batters weren’t hitting him harder. Tanaka's player card on FanGraphs tells us that Tanaka's 2017 Hard% (percentage of hard contact) was 31.4, which is more or less around league average and actually lower than his 2016 mark (32.4%).

Statcast gives us a more detailed answer - Tanaka was prone to being barreled up. He allowed an average exit velocity of 93.8 MPH for fly balls and line drives in 2017, up more than one full MPH compared to 2016. In addition, Tanaka gave up way more Barrels - that is, hard contact in the air, hit at angles most likely to end up in the seats - than in 2016, posting a Barrel rate (total number of Barrels divided by total batters faced) of 5.9 %.

All this seems like an indictment of Tanaka's performance, but it may not be. For all the rage about Statcast and contact quality, nobody has actually succeeded in establishing that yearly contact quality allowed for pitchers have predictive power. This isn't to say that pitchers have no control over the batted balls that they give up; it's well known that pitchers are able to induce ground balls/fly balls depending on their pitch mix, and guys like Kyle Hendricks and Marco Estrada do exist. It's just that we can't really say that Tanaka will be hit hard in 2018 because he was in 2017. After all, the ball was juiced in 2016 too, and Tanaka seemed okay with it.

Hitters have more control over how hard they make their contact than Tanaka does. What Tanaka can control, however, is whether they hit more grounders or air balls. We've established that Tanaka is plenty good at keeping the ball on the ground. Not to mention, Tanaka is also good at denying hitters contact altogether, and last year he set career highs in K/9 (9.79) and swinging strike rate (15.1%). In short, Tanaka is good in almost all of the ways that a pitcher can be good, and that was true even in his 2017 season. Who's to say he can't enjoy results closer to his true talent in 2018?

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.