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Has Masahiro Tanaka righted the ship?

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Tanaka’s last ten starts have shown plenty of promise. What is behind his improvement?

MLB: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This season’s narrative on Masahiro Tanaka has mainly been one of disappointment. After a great 2016 campaign that landed him in the Cy Young Award conversation, Tanaka has spent most of the 2017 season trying to find his way back to the effectiveness he displayed last year.

By the middle of June, Tanaka had just finished surrendering three home runs en route to a loss against Oakland, which elevated his already swollen ERA to 6.34. However, in his last 10 starts, Tanaka has pitched to a 3.09 ERA, which has brought his season ERA down to 4.86. It’s still not where Tanaka and the Yankees want it to be, but it is certainly an encouraging trend. So, what’s the difference between his last 10 starts and the first three months of the season?

Tanaka was great against the Tigers on Tuesday night, allowing three runs over seven innings without issuing a walk. He did surrender a home run; a two-run shot to Nicholas Castellanos in the seventh inning shortly before turning it over to the bullpen. The real story was how effective his splitter looked after resting his inflamed shoulder for 10 days, and how valuable that rest may have been for Tanaka.

The splitter is Tanaka’s bread and butter, but it has also been his Achilles heel at times this season. Far too often have we seen Tanaka go to his splitter while ahead in the count, and the ball winds up in the seats for a home run. That has not been the case lately, particularly during his three starts in August. Take a look at how much more movement Tanaka is getting on his splitter this month:

Clearly, his splitter has made a significant jump in movement this month, after a much more gradual increase during the month of July. Tanaka is so enjoyable to watch when that splitter is falling off the table, and it looked awfully nasty in Tuesday night’s start against the Tigers.

A livelier splitter helps Tanaka keep the ball in the park while racking up ground balls and strikeouts. His first strikeout on Tuesday night, a 2-2 splitter to Victor Martinez, was vintage Tanaka. It was a filthy pitch that dropped out of the zone and left Martinez chasing. Too many times this year, that splitter stays in the bottom half of the zone that hitters can drive. Tanaka has cut back on those mistakes considerably since the beginning of this 10-start stretch in June.

The power numbers against Tanaka’s splitter and sinker have dropped considerably when he began to get back on track. There have still been some blemishes along the way, but this version of Tanaka is much preferred over what we saw through April and May of this season.

Tanaka has also done a better job of locating in his past 10 starts, in addition to increased movement on his breaking balls. Compare his location through mid-June to how he has looked since:

That’s too much time spent in the middle of the strike zone. The result was a ton of dingers. This is where Tanaka has been spending his time through his last 10 starts:

Much better. Again, judging by his improved control and adding more bite to his splitter has helped Tanaka climb out of the mess that was the first half of his season. Hopefully this spike in movement doesn’t add any stress to the shoulder that landed him on the DL. If this is the Tanaka we see down the stretch, the Yankees are in a good place as they head toward the final push for the AL East crown.