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Masahiro Tanaka, Aaron Boone, and what to do when it goes so wrong so fast

Sunday’s fourth inning shows us just how hard it is to be in the manager’s seat

MLB: Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

If I have one major beef with Aaron Boone, it’s his in-game bullpen management. All I really need to say is “Lance Lynn in the ALDS” and you probably all understand where I’m coming from. All of the greatness of the Yankees’ bullpen doesn’t mean much if the resources therein are deployed incorrectly.

Now consider Sunday’s game against the White Sox. Masahiro Tanaka is the starter, and he has been the Yankees’ best pitcher in the early goings of 2019. He’s brilliant early, striking out six Sox in the first three innings — five down swinging — and walking none. It looks like he’s bound for another great start, right?

Wrong. The play-by-play for the fourth inning goes like this:

  • Yoan Moncada singles to right field on a ball with a 107.4 mph exit velo.
  • He’s thrown out at second on a terrific assist from Aaron Judge.
  • Jose Abreu doubles to left on a ball with a 107.7 mph exit velocity.
  • Yonder Alonso and Eloy Jimenez then walk.

The bases are loaded, there’s one out, and Tanaka has completely fallen apart.

The two batted balls had xAVGs of .820 and .700, indicating pretty much ideal contact and launch angle. The White Sox were clearly seeing Tanaka well the second time through, and when they weren’t making contact, Alonso and Jimenez were able to work walks. Tanaka is a man who lives in the bottom of the zone, but couldn’t get close and engender any swings — the complete opposite of his first three innings.

Now of course, when a pitcher keeps missing down, he has to come up. But Tanaka’s a guy who struggles with home runs, the bases are loaded, and well, see for yourself:

That’s how the pitch plot looks. In real life, Tim Anderson dealt the major damage of the day:

In the span of about 15 minutes, Masahiro Tanaka went from being the Yankees’ best starter to having one of the worst outings of the season. With the hindsight of knowing the result, I can say that Tanaka should have been taken out after the Abreu double. It was the third batted ball in four innings that had been hit at least 107 mph, and giving up that kind of contact isn’t sustainable.

Or again, with hindsight, I could say that Tanaka should have been taken out with the bases loaded. Two successive hard hit balls in play, followed by two walks, should have shown that he had lost whatever feel he had earlier. Instead, he faces Anderson, and that’s the difference in the ballgame.

If I could see this, albeit with hindsight, surely the Yankees, one of the most analytically-driven team in the game, did too? The biggest criticism Yankee fandom writ large has for the organization is that they’re too robotic, too beholden to the numbers and data piped in from the nameless and faceless analysts buried in a dark corner of Yankee Stadium. That data would have said that Tanaka’s in trouble.

The data would have called for a high-leverage, strikeout arm. The data probably would have pointed to Adam Ottavino coming in, with one out in the fourth inning. The Tim Anderson at-bat had a leverage index of 3.27, by far the highest of the game. You need a guy who can get a strikeout in that situation, and on a per inning basis, there’s nobody on the team better at that than Ottavino.

Yet the gut feeling would say you’re bringing a reliever in with the bases loaded, and taking our your best pitcher, who just an inning before was carving through this very same lineup. This was the kind of decision that comment threads and Twitter wars rage over, the analytics against the manager’s gut feeling.

It sure seems like Boone went with the gut feeling, the instinct that his best pitcher would pitch his best and get out of this fourth-inning jam. It didn’t work, and the four runs Tanaka gave up on the grand slam sealed their fate.

Managing an MLB team in 2019 is different than it used to be. Shorter benches and a more orthodox offensive approach means there’s less substitution and fewer times for squeezes and hit-and-runs. The key skills required by a modern manager are to effectively communicate the goals of the front office and manage a bullpen properly. Aaron Boone, by all the evidence we have, does the first part well, and leaves a lot to be desired in the second part. On Sunday, however, he was faced with an impossible question as Tanaka loaded the bases and had just one out.

Sometimes, there is no right answer.