clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Early on, Masahiro Tanaka has been the pitcher the Yankees need him to be

The Yankee rotation hasn't been good this season, but they've had one reliable starter. Masahiro Tanaka has given the Yankees four, much needed, solid starts.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into 2016, a central storyline surrounding the Yankees was the importance of Masahiro Tanaka. How healthy and productive would he be? The Yankee rotation was viewed as the shakiest part of the team coming into the season. It was clear they'd need Tanaka to pitch like the $155 million man he is.

About three weeks into the 2016 season, Tanaka has been the pitcher the Yankees need through four starts. As expected, the rest of the rotation has been very shaky, to put it mildly. The combined ERA of starters not named Masahiro is 5.90. Tanaka has been the lone bright spot in the rotation with a 2.92 ERA and a 23:6 strikeout to walk ratio, and the Yankees have won three of his four starts. He has shown he can be a stopper of losing streaks, give length when it's needed, and battle through not having his best stuff to keep the Yankees in games.

All of Tanaka's starts this season have been solid. On Opening Day against the heavy-hitting Astros, Tanaka was still able to give the Yankees a good start despite not having his best stuff on a cold day in the Bronx. He pitched 5.2 innings, allowed just two runs, and left with the game tied 2-2. His next start was against Toronto's potent offense, and although he didn't have great control (walked four), he still battled through to give the Yankees five innings of two-run ball in a game the team came back to win. Neither start was great on the surface, but when you consider that they're the first two starts of the year, he didn't have his best stuff, and he was facing two of the best offenses in baseball, his performances become very impressive.

His last two starts have been more "ace-like." He has looked like he's worth every penny of that $155 million, similar to how he did in the first half of 2014. Last Sunday against the Mariners, he pitched seven innings, allowed just two earned runs, struck out six and didn't walk a batter. He earned the win to snap the Yankee's four-game losing streak and turned the ball over to Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller himself to shut the door.

Saturday against the Rays was more of the same. He again went seven innings and allowed just two earned runs, this time striking out seven with just one walk. He left the game with the team losing, but he put them in a good enough spot so the offense could rally and Betances and Miller could do their thing and keep breaking FIP. It was a great performance for a team that needed to win, having lost seven of nine.

There have been a number of keys to Tanaka's successful start. One factor is his always solid strikeout to walk ratio. In 2014, his K/BB was 6.71 and last year it was 5.15. So far, it's just 3.83, but that's still solid, and it's inflated because of his four walk performance against a patient, tough Blue Jay lineup. Tanaka only walked two batters in his other 19.2 innings and he's striking out almost a batter per inning.

Another reason for his success is keeping the ball on the ground when it's put in play. Tanaka has historically been a fly ball pitchers, and in turn, been susceptible to the long ball. This season, though his GB% is 56.7, (career rate is 47.6), and his FB% is just 23.9 (career rate of 31). As a result, he's giving up less hard contact than he ever has, and he has allowed just two homers this year.

A lot is made about Tanaka's vast arsenal of pitches, and it looks like he has made some adjustments this season that are working out for him. Back in January, I wrote about Tanaka's many pitches and how he can employ them to become a better pitcher. One of my suggestions was throwing fewer four-seam fastballs since they're so ineffective for him, and throw more of other fastballs like his cutter, sinker, and splitter. So far, he has done just that.

A couple of weeks ago, fellow PSA writer Jake Devin wrote about how Tanaka has really cut down on his four-seamer usage, throwing it just 5.98% of the time. As he said, it makes sense since it's his least effective pitch, but he speculated that it could be leading to his increased BB%. It's understandable that a pitcher's BB% and thus pitch count would rise if he cuts his four-seam usage down since it's the pitch most often thrown for strikes. He instead needs to get hitters to chase pitches that usually end up out of the zone, like his splitter.

Since Toronto though, Tanaka is pitching really well as he continues to throw less four-seamers. Here are his pitch repertoires from his past two starts.

4/17/16 vs. Seattle- Brooks Baseball

4/23/16 vs. Tampa Bay- Brooks Baseball

In those 14 innings, he has allowed just one walk despite throwing just 17 four-seamers. So while it's a fair concern that fewer four-seam fastballs will mean more walks, it seems like Tanaka is adjusting and improving.

The bottom line is that whatever Tanaka is doing, it's working. The Yankee rotation has been a mess this season, but every fifth game they know Tanaka is going to go out and give a strong performance. They can't ask for much more.