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Yankees 2020 Season Preview: Masahiro Tanaka

What will the new season have in store for the Yankees’ longest tenured pitcher?

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

After the Gerrit Cole signing, Masahiro Tanaka was in theory the Yankees’ number four starter. While he has his foibles, you wouldn’t find many starters better than him that low in a rotation. Then the injuries started.

James Paxton was ruled out for the start of the season with back trouble in February. Shortly after that, it was revealed that Luis Severino needed Tommy John surgery, and suddenly Tanaka was the number two starter.

Any delays to start the season may mitigate that somewhat, especially on the Paxton front, but either way, Tanaka will have a higher spot in the rotation than otherwise expected. So when baseball does return, what can we expect from Tanaka in 2020?

2019 Stats: 182.0 IP, 4.45 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 7.37 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, 1.38 HR/9, 1.24 WHIP, 3.3 WAR

2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 180.0 IP, 4.45 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 7.97 K/9, 2.06 BB/9, 1.60 HR/9, 1.26 WHIP, 2.7 WAR

One of the main overarching stories of baseball over the past couple seasons has been the ball itself. That’s something that has affected Tanaka in arguably multiple ways.

For one, there’s his issues with home runs. It should be noted that Tanaka’s HR/9 rate last season was down from 2018, which itself was down from 2017. However, the 1.38 he allowed in 2019 was 19th among all qualifying pitchers. Of the 95 runs he allowed last season, 47 were plated by home runs. They still are an issue for him, and the ball and whatever changes made to it haven’t helped him.

The other problem the ball caused him were the issues he had with his splitter in 2019. In Japan and early on in his career with the Yankees, the splitter was his signature pitch.

Baseball Savant
Baseball Savant

In his debut 2014 season, Tanaka got batters to whiff on the pitch 44.6% of the time. Last season, that dropped all the way to 13.6%. It got bad enough that at a point last season, he changed his grip for the pitch citing that the ball felt different. His performance with the pitch improved after that, but there wasn’t a massive jump in whiff rate.

Baseball Savant
Baseball Savant

That brings us to this season, and questions about how the ball will perform in 2020.

If the ball plays differently, like it did in the playoffs, then his home runs will almost certainly go down, just as they will for everyone. That could give him the chance to get back to using his splitter more effectively.

If the ball is still flying out, one way Tanaka could try to offset that is with his cutter. After not using it much in 2019, he’s reintroduced it in spring training this year, and early results have been pretty good. In total, he allowed just three hits in 8.2 spring innings, while striking out 11.

This is a big season for Tanaka in a couple different ways. For one, this is just a big season for the Yankees in general. With the Cole signing, they’ve fully gone all-in, and this represents a really good chance at a World Series title. For Tanaka himself, he’s going to be a free agent at the end of the season. An impressive 2020 could do wonders for whatever contract he would get from the Yankees or someone else next offseason.

That is, if any baseball is played at all in 2020. Just kidding. Maybe.