Masahiro Tanaka is arguably the craftiest pitcher the Yankees have had in the last 20 years. He succeeds not by power, but through finesse – by dipping and darting his pitches across the strike zone (and oftentimes out of the strike zone) and rarely throwing the same pitch twice. In kind, Tanaka’s pitch mix over his six major league seasons has varied drastically, as he’s kept hitters on their toes with a six-pitch mix.
Last year, Tanaka simplified things somewhat, going mostly with his slider, splitter and four-seam fastball. His curveball is strictly a change-of-pace offering, and he nearly eliminated his sinker and cutter. This year though, Tanaka is working to re-introduce the cutter, according to Aaron Boone.
For a pitcher as reliant on deception as Tanaka, adding a cutter seems like a good idea. He threw his straight four-seamer more than ever last year to mixed degrees of success, and his splitter lost some of its trademark effectiveness. Although his slider was filthier than ever, there were more than a few nights last year when Tanaka only had one trustworthy pitch instead of the three he usually has.
In that respect, the cutter could make sense to try again. Boone suggested that the cutter could be used primarily inside against lefties in an effort to back them off the plate and set up Tanaka’s offspeed offerings. This tried-and-true approach makes sense, but how have Tanaka’s previous experiences with the cut fastball gone?
Tanaka threw his cutter the most from 2015-16, when he threw it against both righties and lefties. At his most, he used it 10 percent of the time, quite a bit higher than last season’s 1.6-percent usage rate.
Look at the differences in the heat maps (courtesy FanGraphs) from Tanaka’s cutter in 2015-16 compared to 2017-19:
It’s subtle, but the pitch is less sharp in the second graph, less focused on the corners and hanging more over the plate. It’s also far more erratic and sometimes dips lower in the zone, instead of in on the hands of lefties. Whatever mechanical adjustment caused this discrepancy led to Tanaka losing confidence in the pitch, never throwing it more than 5.2 percent of the time over the last three seasons.
So, there isn’t really a large track record of success for Tanaka with the cut fastball, particularly over the past few years. However, the fact that he’s already working on the pitch this early in spring training and that his manager has mentioned it as an area of focus to the media makes one think that maybe this time is different for Tanaka and his cutter.
He didn’t need the pitch for much of his career thanks to his deadly slider-splitter combo, but maybe this is a sign that Tanaka still isn’t as comfortable with his splitter anymore. If that’s the case, he’ll need a new way to fool hitters. At the very least, the cutter will serve as another fastball that’s a little harder for hitters to square up.
Tanaka had an inconsistent 2019 – he looked like an All-Star at times, but had a few too many clunkers too. Entering a contract season, already his seventh (!) with the Yankees, it’s a good thing that Tanaka is willing to try something new in camp. Whether it works or not is a different story, but the desire to add a new element to Tanaka’s repertoire is there.