After a strong start, Masahiro Tanaka’s season has hit a speed bump. Since his May 28 start against the San Diego Padres, Tanaka has thrown three straight duds, coughing up a four-run inning in each of them. With Domingo German hurt and J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia both unreliable, the Yankees need Tanaka to get back on his game.
Unfortunately, bouncing back might be easier said than done for Tanaka. His recent downturn can’t just be chalked up to bad luck. There is a legitimate problem with Tanaka’s game, and even more worryingly, the problem is with his best pitch. Tanaka has inexplicably lost his splitter, and it’s getting hammered by MLB hitters.
To wit: so far this year, hitters are teeing off on Tanaka’s splitter to the tune of a .318 average and a .561 slugging percentage. Compare that to the numbers prior to 2019, when the same pitch held opposing hitters to just a .187 average and a .297 slugging percentage. Tanaka’s biggest strength has now turned into his greatest weakness.
Yet, there’s still hope for Tanaka. Normally, losing a signature pitch would be a back-breaking loss for a pitcher. However, that might not apply to Tanaka, because he still has another deadly “out”pitch in his arsenal; namely, his slider.
Tanaka’s slider has always been a quality pitch, but it was overshadowed by his notorious splitter throughout his career. This year, though, the slider has stolen the spotlight. The offering has held hitters to a .164 average and .279 slugging percentage this season, and boasts the highest whiff rate out of all the pitches in Tanaka’s repertoire, at a whopping 18 percent. Though Tanaka may currently be without his signature splitter, his slider is a more than worthy candidate to take its place.
Indeed, forgoing the splitter for the slider might be the best course of action for Tanaka going forward. Although fans may say that Tanaka isn’t the same pitcher without his splitter, his current ERA of 3.58 and FIP of 4.01 suggests that, actually, he more or less is. As long as Tanaka’s slider remains at its elite level, he doesn’t necessarily need his splitter to maintain an ERA in the mid to high 3s.
Tanaka, ever the cerebral player, knows this. That’s why this year his slider usage rate (37.9%) is at a career high, while his splitter usage (23.5%) is the lowest it has ever been. However, there’s reason to believe Tanaka can go even further with this tactic. While his slider rate already ranks 4th-highest in MLB, the three pitchers ahead of him - Jakob Junis, Chris Sale, and Clayton Kershaw - are all north of 40%. Junis has struggled due to the rest of his repertoire being awful, but Sale and Kershaw are thriving with their slider-heavy approach. If Tanaka’s splitter continues to sputter, there’s still room for him to increase his slider usage.
Everybody knows at this point that Tanaka isn’t his usual self. His splitter has gone AWOL, and no one knows when it’s going to return. In terms of his actual results, this year’s Tanaka looks pretty familiar, even when you account for his recent slide. For that, we can thank his slider. It’s an excellent pitch, and throwing it could be the key to getting Tanaka back on track after his last three starts. Sure, it would be swell if the splitter came back. Tanaka can do just fine without it, though, so long as he has his slider.