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Can the Yankees get Masahiro Tanaka back on track in time for the playoffs?

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The Yankees’ best playoff starter has yet to regain his usual form.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Masahiro Tanaka has been the Yankees’ best postseason starter since joining the team in 2014. Across five starts and 30 innings in October, the right-hander owns a 1.50 ERA and 25 strikeouts to just seven walks. However, Tanaka’s struggles with his signature splitter this year make it hard to pencil him in for another stellar postseason as the Yankees seek to seal the division in the next few games.

In the wake of Tanaka’s August 11 start against the Blue Jays, in which he blanked them for eight innings and allowed just three baserunners, I wrote that “it would be jumping the gun to declare Masahiro Tanaka all the way back after one start”. His results since then haven’t exactly assuaged my doubts about his form. In the six starts Tanaka has made since his masterpiece in Toronto, he’s posted a 4.46 ERA across 34.1 innings. That mark isn’t at all bad, so to speak - league average is 4.53 this year - but it’s a far cry from Tanaka’s usual standards.

It’s important to note that it’s not all doom and gloom with Tanaka’s recent results. His peripherals paint a picture of a pitcher that’s better than a mid-four ERA. Tanaka has cut down on his walks since the Toronto start, running a walk rate of just 1.31 per nine. That’s the same mark as his HR/9 over the same timespan, which is not nearly as impressive, but still represents an improvement from his overall 1.41 pace this year. These developments are certainly encouraging.

Yet one thing is still missing from Tanaka’s game - strikeouts. Tanaka’s paltry 7.08 K/9 over his last six starts would represent a career-low mark for him if prorated over a full season. While Tanaka has shown flashes of his strikeout abilities from time to time - he struck out six in five innings in his latest start against Toronto, and punched out seven in as many innings in his August 27 start against the Mariners - he hasn’t been able to display that ability consistently.

The main reason for Tanaka’s declining strikeouts is his inconsistent splitter. Despite Tanaka adjusting his grip, the pitch still hasn’t recovered its usual vertical drop, and hitters just aren’t swinging at it and missing like they used to. Tanaka still has his slider to lean on when he’s got two strikes on a hitter, but who knows how much longer he can fake it with one true “out” pitch. Tanaka needs his splitter back, and soon.

Some of you may still be confident in Tanaka in the playoffs, and that’s perfectly understandable. His track record certainly speaks for itself, and the regular season doesn’t always dictate how a player performs in the postseason; Tanaka’s 2017 was a prime example of this. However, what’s different from then and now is that the effectiveness of Tanaka’s splitter is now in doubt. Time is running out for both Tanaka and the Yankees to either find his splitter again or make it work without it.