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Breakdown of Masahiro Tanaka's return: Reasons why you should continue to be hopeful

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For the first time since July 9th, Masahiro Tanaka took the mound. We will break down what he did in his return.

Andy Marlin

It was a day that many did not think would come without a detour on the surgeon's operating table but Masahiro Tanaka managed to make a long-awaited return to the mound for the first time since partially tearing his ulnar collateral ligament. The Yankees' ace was brilliant in his return, going five and a third innings while giving up five hits and one run with four strikeouts on 70 pitches. The final stat line is immaterial to how his pitches looked and, most importantly, how he felt during and after the game.

Depending on the source, Tanaka's average velocity readings fluctuated but each system agreed that his velocity was down roughly one mile per hour from what he averaged pre-injury. From Brooks Baseball, Tanaka averaged 91.8 mph on his four-seam fastball which is down from his season average of 92.8 mph. A similar trend can be seen with his sinker, cutter, slider, curve, and trademark split-finger, which all saw a decrease of roughly one mile per hour when compared to the season line. Considering the right-hander missed nearly three-months due to his injury, it is not too unusual that his velocity would suffer a small amount.

Tanaka's velocity appeared to be the only thing that really suffered in his long layover. Against Toronto he showed outstanding control of his entire repertoire to go along with impeccable command and efficiency. Out of the 70 pitches thrown, 48 of which went for strikes. Not all strikes are quality and, once again, Tanaka showed little of the rust one would expect. The charts below, courtesy of Texas Leaguers, show the total pitches thrown by the Yankees ace. One can see the heavy concentration down and away with the majority of offspeed pitches either out of the the zone or on the edges of the strike zone.

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via pitchfx.texasleaguers.com

This is in stark contrast to his July 8th start, which was Tanaka's last before being placed on the disabled list. Looking at the chart below from that game, one notices how many pitches were left hanging in the middle of the zone. It was especially concerning how many sliders had been thrown dead center.

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via pitchfx.texasleaguers.com

The ulnar collateral ligament stabilizes the elbow when it moves, so injuries to it such as tears tend to drastically affect command. Tanaka being able to properly locate his pitches with his characteristic command can be taken as a positive that his elbow was not bothering him on Sunday. Another positive to take from the start is that Tanaka did not alter his pitch selection. Against the Blue Jays, he threw 19 sinkers, 18 four-seamers, 15 splitters, 11 curveballs, and 7 sliders. Tanaka has shown throughout the year that he prefers to throw all of his pitches in almost equal amount. The fact that he continued to follow this trend upon his return, rather than alter his approach by emphasizing his fastball more or throwing fewer split-fingers, shows he has confidence in his arm.

The only negative that one can take from the twenty-five year old's start was that he only generated a swinging strike on only 8.6% of his total pitches; far lower than his season line of 13.5%. Even with that said, one should consider that will likely get better as he readjusts to pitching against Major League competition. This start was a big step for Masahiro Tanaka, and with him reportedly playing catch before Monday's game against the Orioles, it looks likely that he will be able to take his next step Sunday when he faces off against Boston.