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Why the Yankees shouldn’t worry about Masahiro Tanaka this season

The veteran righty’s health has proven as reliable as any pitcher’s.

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

In light of reports of positive COVID-19 tests in different baseball organizations across the country, it’s clear this year’s abbreviated season will present pandemic-related health challenges. But even if the league were to somehow avoid any additional coronavirus trouble from now through October, the structure of the schedule carries other physical risks — especially for pitchers.

The upcoming three-week spring training allows little time for pitchers, whose routines have been reduced to workouts and home throwing sessions for the last few months, to ramp up to peak shape for the season.

Back in May, Yankees team physician Dr. Chris Ahmad cautioned that pitchers doing too much too quickly after an extended layoff could result in a spike of injuries that require Tommy John surgery.

After seeing Luis Severino suffer just such an injury earlier this year, Yankees fans might be leery about a rapid ramp-up for a different Bombers hurler with a history of elbow trouble: Masahiro Tanaka.

Tanaka originally suffered a partial UCL tear in his throwing elbow in 2014 — a diagnosis that often leads to Tommy John surgery. Instead of going under the knife, Tanaka and his physicians opted for a more conservative approach focused on rehabilitation. He missed about two and a half months before returning to action, and has been pitching with the small tear ever since.

Prior to the 2016 season, he had bone spurs removed from the same elbow, and recently underwent another round of that procedure this past offseason. Though he appears to be in full health headed into the 2020 campaign, its stop-and-start nature and his arm’s seeming vulnerability are enough to make Yankees fans queasy.

Yet after so many productive seasons without a sign of catastrophe from his elbow, there is reason to believe Tanaka is no more in danger than any other pitcher headed into the season.

As Dr. Ahmad asserted, there is some risk to Tanaka while building stamina during a shortened preseason — but he is hardly unique in that regard. On some level, every pitcher is susceptible to elbow injury, as the recent Tommy John surgeries of high-profile starters like Chris Sale and Noah Syndergaard prove.

Advancing age, inadequate strength, faulty or inconsistent mechanics, lingering issues caused by wear and tear, accumulation of previous injuries, or a host of other factors can also be responsible for a pitcher’s body breaking down.

Staying healthy is a balancing act every starter must navigate. Tanaka’s recent track record — 119 starts in the last four seasons — indicates he has successfully struck such a balance in the past.

He doesn’t rely on overpowering opposing hitters. Last season, he landed in just the 23rd percentile in MLB for fastball velocity, rarely cracking 93 miles per hour.

Masahiro Tanaka: 2019 Pitch Velocity
Baseball Savant

And some investigation suggests hard-throwing pitchers are more susceptible to elbow injury.

Tanaka has also been judicious in expending his energy, working efficiently to get out of innings. Last year he averaged 15.27 pitches per frame, fewest on the Yankees rotation and fourth lowest among qualified American League starters.

And despite understandable concern about his durability, Tanaka has expressed confidence in his elbow holding up, declaring that the old injury doesn’t even cross his mind.

Plus, the first time he had bone spurs removed from his pitching elbow in the offseason, as he did last October, he followed up with one of his best campaigns in pinstripes. In 2016, he went 14-4 with 4.7 fWAR on the strength of a 3.07 ERA, and a 1.08 WHIP.

But just as important as Tanaka’s ability to stay healthy and productive is the fact he — along with other hurlers across the game — won’t be alone in his efforts. Baseball is well aware of the boat pitchers are in, and the league has empowered teams to protect them.

In addition to other tools, the league’s temporary 30-man Opening Day rosters, which will be winnowed down to 26 after roughly four weeks, will provide some early alternatives to overworking pitchers. For the Yankees, this means Aaron Boone and new pitching coach Matt Blake can get creative to help keep their rotation’s longest-tenured member fit in August.

The team’s deep stable of arms, highlighted by up-and-comers like Jonathan Loaisiga, Clarke Schmidt, Mike King, and Deivi Garcia, could help staff mainstays soak up innings through bullpenning or piggybacking games. Such strategies could provide valuable reps for young players while preserving the health of veterans like Tanaka.

Of course, there are no guarantees. One fluky tweak or twinge could render everything written here irrelevant.

But the fingers we’re keeping crossed to ward off such an outcome are really for all Yankees and MLB pitchers, not just Tanaka. As worrying as his 2014 UCL injury was and continues to be, there’s little else in the ensuing five years that would distinguish Tanaka’s risk level from any other pitcher today.

So while it’s perfectly normal to fret over potential injury threats that might loom for Tanaka — especially after the last year-plus of bad injury news for the Yankees — the veteran righty’s health history should give fans the same feeling they get every postseason when he takes the mound: confidence.