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What is behind Masahiro Tanaka’s recent success?

Tanaka’s last three starts have helped keep the Yankees on their recent winning surge.

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

After a rough regular season performance in 2017, Masahiro Tanaka turned in a trio of fantastic postseason starts to leave the Yankees hopeful for a productive 2018 season. His first start of the season did little to change that hope, but Tanaka followed with three-straight disappointing performances, including a rock-bottom clunker against the lowly Marlins, in which he allowed five runs over five innings in a 9-1 loss at home.

Like the rest of the Yankees, Tanaka rebounded from mediocrity to turn in three-straight quality starts since the Marlins massacre, helping the Yanks on their torrid stretch of winning that has put to rest any concerns of their early season troubles. Given the up-and-down trajectory of Tanaka’s career, it’s tough to say that the Tanaka we have seen over the past two weeks is the pitcher we will see for the majority of 2018. However, there are noticeable trends over Tanaka’s past three starts that have been driving his recent success, and can help Tanaka find some extended consistency as the season continues onward.

Tanaka’s bread and butter is no secret. He likes to live down in the zone and ground ball teams to death with his splitter. If Tanaka’s pitches aren’t dropping out of the strike zone, he runs into trouble. Here is a look at where his pitches were landing through the first four starts of the season. Again, his first start was fantastic, forcing the Blue Jays to swing at 51.3-percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That’s still the highest mark of the season for Tanaka. Despite that effective outing, Tanaka’s heat map through four starts showed a lack of pitches below the knees.

That appears to be too much time spent in the strike zone for a pitcher like Tanaka, who relies on movement and location rather than velocity. Maybe the frustratingly brutal April weather played a part in Tanaka’s inability to command his breaking balls, as his worst starts during this stretch came in the northeast, aside from his Opening Day start in Toronto, where he was safe under the confines of Roger Centre’s roof. Whatever the reason, Tanaka has seemingly figured it out of late. His pitches are consistently finding the bottom of the zone, or dropping off the table completely. Here’s a look at his pitch locations over the past three starts:

That’s almost night and day. Tanaka has clearly been much better locating his pitches, and the results are showing. In his most recent start, Tanaka forced a formidable Astros lineup to swing at 42.6-percent of pitches out of the strike zone, his highest total since his first start of the season. When hitters are making contact, they haven’t been doing much. Tanaka’s low point against the Marlins saw opposing post a hard contact percentage of 52.9. That mark has consistently and drastically dropped since then, as the Astros finished the day against Tanaka with a percentage of 16.7.

The current trend is promising. Rust, weather or whatever the reason was, Tanaka didn’t have a feel for his pitches in the early going. For now, that seems to be behind him. Given Jordan Montgomery’s injury, the Yankees would love to not have to worry about a roller coaster season from Tanaka, and see some consistency from the former ace.