It is important in sports analysis not to overreact to small sample sizes. However, sometimes things stand out far enough from the established norm where you can’t help but wonder, “What’s going on here?”
Masahiro Tanaka has been one of the most consistent Yankees for the last six years. His strategy is well-established. Tanaka has not historically had a great fastball, and has instead relied on his offspeed pitches and breaking balls to keep hitters flustered. It’s an approach that has worked for him, to the tune of two All-Star game selections, a 3.75 ERA, stellar 1.13 WHIP, and a consistent flirtation with 200 innings when healthy.
Under former pitching coach Larry Rothschild, the Yankees from 2016-2019 embraced an anti-fastball approach. Tanaka was one of the shining stars of this strategy. His total fastball usage cratered to just 32 percent in 2018, and stayed there for 2019. This is a guy who threw heaters 48.1 percent of the time in his rookie season! Again, still well below MLB average, but the gradual abandonment of Tanaka’s fastball (a pitch that he gave up most of his home runs on) became one of his signature elements.
Tanaka has only made one start in 2020, but it was so different from his six-year MLB norms that it stands out. Of the 51 pitches Tanaka threw vs. the Red Sox (again, an extremely small sample size), 30 of them were fastballs. That’s a whopping 58.8 percent! It’s been accepted that Tanaka throws his fastball less because it’s not as good a pitch as his other offerings. But, what if that changed? What if Tanaka has gotten his fastball back?
There were actually some signs of this last year. Tanaka’s splitter, his nastiest offering, wasn’t the same in 2019. His sinker had been consistently pounded over the last three years. Unable to throw those pitches with the same conviction, Tanaka increased his four-seam fastball usage from 22.6 percent in 2018 to 27.3 percent in 2019. He actually threw the four-seamer slightly more often than his famous splitter last season.
The real interesting part of that development was how Tanaka used that four-seamer. He used it more often in put-away situations, notching 31 strikeouts on the heat last year. The most strikeouts Tanaka had ever gotten on four-seamers before 2019 was 22, way back in 2014 and 2015, and again in 2018. The pitch recorded its two highest whiff rates in 2018 and 2019, and is trending for a similar track this year.
So, how has Tanaka garnered more whiffs on the heat? His spin rate hasn’t increased that much, and although his velocity was higher than usual in his 2020 debut, it’s far too early to suggest that Tanaka has miraculously gained significant fastball speed at age 31. Instead, his placement of his fastball has improved in a big way.
First, here’s the heat map on Tanaka’s four-seamer from 2016-2018, when he threw that pitch the least:
That’s a lot of red right down the middle, huh? Now check out his heat map of the same pitch since 2019:
There appears to be a more concerted effort to avoid the middle-middle portion of the strike zone, a greater emphasis on the corners, and a much higher focus on attacking the upper part of the zone. A 91-mph four-seam fastball is the easiest pitch to hit in baseball if it’s thrown right down the middle, but if it’s elevated, it appears faster to the hitters and is a difficult pitch to lay off. Tanaka’s refined location with his fastball may have saved the pitch for him.
One more interesting thing to note with Tanaka is that he debuted a new, over-the-head windup in his first start of 2020:
Over-the-top windups have declined in popularity around baseball, as they involve more moving parts and thus have a greater risk of mechanical discrepancy, but if it feels more comfortable for Tanaka (and has anything to do with his more aggressive approach on the mound) then it’s a change worth keeping. At the very least, it’s something to monitor moving forward.
Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t changed much over his first six years in the big leagues. He found what worked for him, doubled down on it, and it became his signature. This new-look Tanaka opens up more possibilities for the Yankees’ hurler, though. If these changes stick over the course of the season, the Yankees should have no problem opening up their checkbook and keeping the fan favorite pitcher in town for years to come.