Talk to any Yankees fan a few years ago about Masahiro Tanaka, and the first concern they’d have is about his partially torn UCL. It could explode at any minute, they said, so it’s almost like rooting for someone with a ticking time bomb attached to them. That’s probably still the case—we don’t know when he could get hurt again—but we’re at the point now where other concerns start to hit the forefront.
First among them is his propensity towards allowing home runs, and the overall weakness of his fastball. The thinking was that as long as runners were not on base, maybe he could merely “live” with the home runs in exchange for what has been a mostly stellar performance since the second half of last year.
I would imagine Tanaka does not merely want to live with this as a reality, but counteract it with a new way of pitching that more so emphasizes his strengths. The strength of his splitter is well known, and the fastball is often needed in conjunction with this to convince the hitter that it could either scrape the corner as a four-seamer, or dip below as a splitter. Yet there’s another pitch he could use even more often, and that is his slider. He has already started deploying this, and it has essentially become his primary pitch since last season:
In his first start against the Blue Jays, he made good use of the pitch. Twice against Josh Donaldson, in fact...
...and used another against Russell Martin...
That doesn’t mean it was all roses in his eight-strikeout, one-run performance game, because he did lob one meatball to new Blue Jay Randal Grichuk:
That pitch was, unsurprisingly, a four-seam fastball. What this means is we should be pretty optimistic about Tanaka’s chances in 2018, even just from one start. The fact that he is generating whiffs on sliders and splitters means he will likely be incredibly effective, but his serious fastball weakness means that he could be a bit high variance; when he gives up the homer with runners on base, that could drain a whole start down the toilet.
Tanaka has been learning and adapting, as all pitchers should, but he probably still has some more learning to do. That is why adding a cutter into the mix more often, using that in place of and in complement to his four-seamer, could give another edge against hitters being able to square up on the fastball. It’s not a guarantee—his cutter has only been worth about 0.1 runs per 100 pitches according to FanGraphs, but it’s certainly better than the four-seamer’s -2.02.
Based on the depth of the Yankees’ rotation and the always-looming possibility of a deadline deal, I’m not too concerned about Tanaka, sans home runs. He has learned so much since coming stateside, and I think it’s remarkable to see the adjustments he has made to make him the pitcher we saw in October. I expect to see even more in the near future.