While the exact reason is unknown, we all know that October Masahiro Tanaka is a different player from the one that toes the slab from April-September. October Tanaka is one of the most unflappable players on the roster, as his 3-2 record and 1.50 postseason ERA can attest.
Still, he’ll need all of his October magic to quell the mighty Twins lineup. No team has hit more home runs in big-league history, and Tanaka has been known to give up the long ball from time to time. Keeping the Twins in the park will definitely be Tanaka’s biggest challenge.
Luckily, there are a few factors leaning towards Tanaka’s favor for tonight’s matchup. For one, he’s pitching at home. Although it seems counterintuitive given his penchant for dingers, Tanaka is a much better pitcher at Yankee Stadium than he is on the road; his home ERA is 3.10 this year while his road ERA sits at 6.05 (thanks in large part to two clunkers against Boston). Every little edge helps, and Tanaka definitely knows the ins and outs of pitching at Yankee Stadium in front of the Bronx faithful.
In terms of his approach, Tanaka’s matchup against the Twins isn’t as bad as you’d think. With all of their power hitters, one would expect them to be a heavy fastball-hitting team, and sure enough, they are. Almost all of their key hitters fare far better against fastballs than breaking or offspeed pitches, which aligns with just about every MLB hitter.
This is important for Tanaka though, because he is one of the rare pitchers who throws more breaking balls than fastballs. Getting ahead in the count will be key for Tanaka. If he gets into an obvious fastball count where the Twins can sit dead-red for a heater, it could mean trouble. He has a 2.93 ERA and 0.81 WHIP when ahead in the count, but a 4.26 ERA and 2.19 WHIP when behind.
Pitch sequencing will also be crucial for Tanaka. The Twins’ lineup is not known for its patience; they had the fewest walks of any playoff team and only the 18th-most in the bigs, which doesn’t seem to make sense given their power production. Likewise, the Twins will chase pitches, as they had the worst chase rate of any playoff team. This is good news for Tanaka, who can feel confident pounding splitters and skirting sliders early in counts against this anxious Twins lineup.
Of course, Tanaka will still need to use his fastball some of the time, but selectivity will be key. He got more strikeouts on fastballs this season than any season since 2015, when he still threw almost 50% heaters. It’s his weakest pitch by far, but one that can sneak up on hitters when placed and called for properly.
Still, Tanaka is only getting the “W” tonight if he’s got command of his slider, and more importantly, his splitter. Tanaka’s slider has grown into one of the best in the league, but his splitter took a big step back this year as the right-hander struggled to adapt to the new baseballs. If Tanaka has his A-game throwing the slider and splitter, it’ll take the emphasis off of his fastball and let him do what he does best: confuse hitters.
The Yankees are turning to Tanaka tonight in Game Two because they know they can trust him. The Twins are a tough matchup for anybody, but Tanaka can beat them if he sticks to the gameplan that has helped him get to where he is today.