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How Masahiro Tanaka can attack Cleveland’s lineup

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Tanaka has a favorable matchup against the Indians in Game Two.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Fresh off a Game One victory, the Yankees are just one win away from eliminating the Cleveland Indians in the Wild Card round and advancing to the ALDS. Fortunately, the Yankees’ postseason ace is on the mound tonight – the man with the 1.76 postseason ERA and 0.78 postseason WHIP, the man who has already beaten Cleveland before with the season on the line, back in 2017. Masahiro Tanaka is here when the Yankees need him most.

That was three years ago, but the lineup that Tanaka is facing tonight is actually quite similar to the one he faced back then, at least at the top. Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana are all still in Cleveland, and their scouting report is still the same. Tanaka had a vintage start that night – he threw just 21.7 percent fastballs, and relied heavily on his slider and splitter. This has been how Tanaka has been getting outs for years now, and in the biggest game of the season, he obviously shouldn’t deviate from it.

He’s throwing his four-seamer a little more often this year, but for Tanaka to succeed tonight against Cleveland, he can look back to how he beat them in 2017. It’s all about sequencing against the Indians’ lineup, which has one of the better sets of batter’s eyes in the bigs.

The Indians really aren’t a great hitting team. They scored the sixth-fewest runs in baseball this year, hit just .228 with a .688 OPS, and popped the third-fewest home runs in the league. However, their plate discipline is elite. They drew the second-most walks in baseball (behind only the Yankees), had the ninth-best team whiff rate, and had the sixth-best chase rate. The Indians don’t have the boppers the Yankees do, so to keep pace with them on offense, they need to work the count and find hittable pitches. Luckily for the Yankees, this is the kind of team that Tanaka can thrive against.

Cleveland doesn’t pounce on first-pitch heaters, and they don’t have any serious power threats. They play the long game on offense, and that’s where Tanaka is at his best. Tanaka’s stingy 4.1 percent walk rate this year was in the 94th percentile this year among pitchers, so the Indians shouldn’t expect a ton of free passes. The key for Tanaka will be to get ahead early, so he can finish the Indians off with his breaking balls. The Indians only swing at the first pitch 27 percent of the time, below the league average, so Tanaka should be able to get ahead with the heat more than a few times.

From there, he can go to work with his breaking pitches, which the Indians’ best hitters collectively struggle against. Now, just about every team hits the fastball better than the breaking ball, but the Indians’ top five hitters (Lindor, Cesar Hernandez, Ramirez, Santana and Franmil Reyes) hit just .194 off breaking balls this year with only nine total home runs. They hit the fastball far better, in large part because they succeed when they get in advantageous counts. However, Tanaka is above MLB average at throwing first-pitch strikes, so the Indians’ usual offensive plan of attack might not work against him. If he can get ahead with the fastball and then finish them with the offspeed pitches, he should be on his way to victory.

By now, the Yankees know what they are getting when Tanaka takes the mound, especially in the playoffs. As long as he keeps succeeding with what’s gotten him this far, he gives the Yankees as good a chance to win as anyone can.