Masahiro Tanaka is a polarizing player. When he’s on, the 29-year-old right-hander is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. Just ask the Houston Astros during last year’s ALCS.
However, for the better part of the past two seasons, Tanaka has not been the pitcher the Yankees expect him to be. While there have been some gems thrown in there, Tanaka just has not seemed like himself since the 2016 season.
The numbers paint a picture of a pitcher in decline. Tanaka’s ERA rose from a 3.12 figure over his first three seasons to a 4.85 over his last two. He has allowed the most home runs in the big leagues over that timespan, and has made just two homerless starts this year out of his 10 trips to the mound. Tanaka’s walk rate is at an all-time high, and his strikeout rate is at its second-lowest.
This is more than just a small sample size. These numbers have been collected over Tanaka’s last 40 starts, which makes up over a third of his big-league career. The Yankees’ highest-paid pitcher has seemingly lost his mojo.
But Tanaka is an interesting case when you look beyond the numbers. In most of his starts, he is not getting rocked. In fact, his batting average against is just .226, better than his career average. He is still winning ballgames, going 18-14 the past two years, including 5-2 this year. He doesn’t have severe home-road or righty-lefty splits, which have dogged pitchers like Sonny Gray and CC Sabathia in years gone by.
Since Tanaka’s beginnings as an MLB pitcher, his greatest strength has been his impeccable command. However, Tanaka has slowly begun to walk more batters every year in the big leagues. The process was gradual though, and he was still striking out batters at a solid clip. Even last year, Tanaka had his best K/9 yet, striking out well over a batter per inning.
In May 2018 though, Tanaka has just 13 strikeouts in his four starts. He had 15 strikeouts in his first two starts this year! Clearly, the ability to miss bats is still there. But Tanaka has had issues with his trademark control. In his most recent starts, batters have been spitting on Tanaka’s slider and splitter, letting it bounce for ball four far too much.
Tanaka’s worst stats this season come when he’s behind in the count and when there are runners on base. While this is natural for most pitchers, Tanaka is getting hammered in these situations. He has a 6.39 ERA and 1.97 WHIP when behind in the count. Tanaka hasn’t been aggressive enough getting ahead of hitters, and he’s paid the price for it.
Tanaka’s repertoire is one that relies on a lot of deception, and sometimes that means intentionally throwing balls that break out of the zone to generate whiffs. However, as hitters have learned this, Tanaka has become almost predictable.
In the fourth inning of Tanaka’s Monday start against the Texas Rangers, Joey Gallo, a player with over 260 strikeouts in the last two years, went from being down in the count 1-2 to working a walk as he stared at low breaking balls. The next batter, Rougned Odor, launched a game-tying home run. If even undisciplined hitters have figured out Tanaka, this could be a problem.
His most recent starts show that he is trying new things. Against the Washington Nationals last week, Tanaka threw more fastballs. Against the Rangers, Tanaka threw more breaking pitches. He allowed just seven hits in these starts, but three of them were long home runs. No matter what Tanaka has tried lately, he has not avoided the long ball.
Home runs were always an issue for Tanaka, but it has been magnified more recently. Over these past two years, he has cut down his overall fastball usage, but has thrown significantly fewer sinkers and cutters, and more of his straight four-seamer. Sinkers and cutters are classic ground ball pitches. For a pitcher like Tanaka who relies on location and finesse, and averages around 92 mph on his fastball, he can’t get away with throwing straight heat past batters.
At this point, something has to change when Tanaka takes the hill. Opposing batters are slugging .429 off Tanaka. Last year, established power hitters like Evan Longoria, Chris Davis, Hanley Ramirez, Todd Frazier and Andrew Benintendi slugged within 6% points of that figure. Effectively, every single batter that faces Tanaka this year is as good a power hitter as these sluggers. Whether it’s pitch selection or a confidence problem, Tanaka has to get himself right.
Interestingly, Gary Sanchez has caught all of Tanaka’s starts this season. While manager Aaron Boone wants to stay away from personal catchers, it might not hurt to let Tanaka try and work with Austin Romine for a start or two, just to change things up. Tanaka has always pitched better on extra rest, so maybe structuring his turns in the rotation around off days when possible could help. Sometimes, a pitcher as talented as Tanaka just needs one good game to get the ball rolling again. While Tanaka hasn’t been his old self recently, he still gives his club a good chance to win in most of his games, and is far from a red flag on the mound.
Masahiro Tanaka is a big-game pitcher. He was the Yankees’ best pitcher in September and October of last year and is not that far removed from dominance. His next projected start, Sunday at home against Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani, is a game that many around the globe will be viewing. Maybe it will spur a big performance out of the Yankees’ former ace.