Masahiro Tanaka got off the Opening Day schneid yesterday. Tanaka’s first few Opening Day starts in pinstripes were uneven, and though some of that stemmed from some poor fortune, as Kunj elucidated earlier this month, it was great to see Tanaka at his best from the jump this year.
It was just one start from the Yankees’ current nominal ace, and as always, we can never jump to concrete conclusions in the season’s opening weeks. Tanaka looked excellent, keeping Baltimore’s bats mostly silent over the course of 5.2 innings, but, as some might say, it’s a long season. We can, however, note the most interesting and potentially lasting developments from even the very first starts of the season. It just so happens that Tanaka made what appears to be an intriguing strategic choice in his opening outing versus the Orioles.
Much has been made in recent years of Tanaka’s tendency to pitch backwards. Aware of his fastballs’ relative ineffectiveness, Tanaka relies heavily on his sensational splitter/slider combo. His sinker and four-seamer didn’t exactly collect dust last season, but his fastballs, counter-intuitively, profiled clearly as his true secondary pitches.
On Thursday, Tanaka took his pitch mix to an extreme. His sinker, once his primary fastball, has been on the decline the past few years, dipping in usage from 21% in 2016, to 18% in 2017, all the way to 6% in 2018, but on Opening Day, the sinker was almost nowhere to be found. He used that sinking fastball just twice all day, both in a fourth-inning at-bat by Trey Mancini.
Instead, Tanaka relied far more on his four-seamer than is typical. He used it on 23 out of 83 pitches, good for a 28% rate, a threshold he surpassed just five times all last year per Statcast. Tanaka found success with the four-seamer against Baltimore, generating seven called strikes, and producing four whiffs on 10 swings.
This blueprint for Tanaka would represent a full embrace of modern pitching orthodoxy. In today’s baseball, the sinker has fallen out of fashion; as more and more players tailor their swings towards an upper-cut, in order to take advantage of pitches low in the zone and rip them into the air for doubles and home runs, pitchers are encouraged to stay away from the low danger zone with their two-seamers.
Rather, pitchers are encouraged to more aggressively attack the upper part of the zone with higher spin four-seam heaters. Hitters attempting to golf low pitches into the air leave themselves vulnerable to spinning high heaters above the belt. Think of the strategy the Astros and Gerrit Cole adopted last year, as Cole discarded the sinker the Pirates had him use, in favor of moving up with his four-seamer. Cole, you may recall, ran a 2.88 ERA across more than 200 innings in his first campaign with Houston.
Again, we only have one start on record from Tanaka. His sinker usage was already on the decline last season, and he did have a few starts last season in which his sinker usage dwindled well below double digits. Perhaps Tanaka will return to using his sinker with at least some frequency, rather than relegating it to one mere at-bat, and perhaps he’ll curtail his four-seamer back to the 18% usage it averaged over the past two years combined.
Or, maybe his opening start against the lowly Orioles will prove prescient. On paper, the strategy he unveiled on Opening Day makes abundant sense. His sinker has long been his worst-performing pitch, and increased four-seamer usage jibes perfectly with current pitching philosophy. A Tanaka that essentially leaves his sinker in the dust bin and darts between attacking hitters with heaters at the letters, splitters at the knees, and sliders in the dirt might just be the best possible version of Tanaka. Don’t draw any definitive judgments from Opening Day, but Tanaka’s strategy going forward is absolutely something to keep a close eye on.