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Breaking down Masahiro Tanaka’s Opening Day mistakes

This was not a shining moment for the Yankees’ ace, but it’s definitely fixable.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have not had a good run of Opening Day starts. They have lost six straight Opening Day games, and eight of their last nine. Yesterday, one of the culprits was Chris Archer tossing a great game, but the loss was primarily Masahiro Tanaka’s fault, as he allowed seven earned runs over two and two-thirds innings. It was one of the worst starts of his career, and nearly everything went wrong. Let’s walk through what those mistakes were, and how they can be remedied in the future.

First inning, no outs: Corey Dickerson single

This is the second pitch of the game, and he already places a hanging 86 mph splitter at the knees. Location is Tanaka’s biggest problem, but usually with the four-seamer or the sinker, so this was a red flag from the beginning.

First inning, no outs: Kevin Kiermaier double

Yet another location issue. This one’s a 90 mph sinker, and he leaves it a few inches too high; Kiermaier laces it into left-center field.

First inning, one out: Logan Morrison single

This was a big single—it brought in two runs—and once again, look at the location and pitch selection. It was a 90 mph sinker, elevated. I wasn’t at the point where I felt his start was doomed just yet, but this was the third hanger in a single inning.

Second inning, two outs: Evan Longoria home run

Tanaka almost escaped the second inning unscathed, and there was a part of me that thought he was going to settle down. Well, this is what sunk that narrative. It was pretty clear there was no recovering from this; he just did not have it. After walking Kiermaier, Evan Longoria launched this 87 mph splitter over the left field wall. And once again, the culprit is location.

Third inning, one out: Logan Morrison home run

This one’s a 91 mph—you guessed it!—sinker, and it’s an even worse location than all of his other mistakes. This one’s a no-doubter, and you almost expect a major league hitter to crush it.

He allowed one more run, but that’s really just an afterthought. He sunk himself from the first inning, and this start can actually be summed up pretty simply: fastball command. He didn’t fall behind batters, and his stuff and velocity didn’t look weak whatsoever. But if there’s one thing that’s a weakness for Tanaka—and it’s not like we didn’t know it already—it’s his fastball/sinker command. Look at the heatmap for opposing slugging percentage against the sinker:

The most important lesson to take from this heatmap is that the opposing slugging percentage jumps severely when going from the lower sixth of the zone to just one sixth higher, and then higher and higher from there. While he usually paints the corner, he raises it just above the knees. Against pretty much any major league lineup, that’s the difference between a foul ball/ground out and a home run/double.

What separates Tanaka from the very best in the league is that singular weakness, and it’s something that will require constant attention. It is a necessity to establish the fastball early in the game, and unfortunately, he doesn’t have a very good one. It has to be nearly perfect, or the opposing offense has to fumble, for him to get in a groove.

This was not a great way to start the season. But Tanaka is still the ace, and we’ve seen him make adjustments many times over the past few years. It was that initial adjustment to lessen the quantity of sinkers that made him the formidable starter he is today. Just next time, put it a few inches lower.