Pitcher Profile: New York Yankees Starter Masahiro Tanaka

The season is early, but the New York Yankees have some work to do. While the bullpen is still waiting for their offseason acquisition to return from his suspension, their platoon-heavy lineup has not lived up to expectations. Ian York uses PITCHf/x to examine New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka who serves as the club’s ace.

The New York Yankees have two pitchers who could be aces in 2016, but both have question marks beside them. Neither one is C.C. Sabathia, who hasn’t been an ace since 2012. One is Luis Severino, whose rookie season in 2015 was very impressive. However, he is just 22 years old in 2016, and his 10 good games in 2015 have not carried over into 2016 so far. The other is Masahiro Tanaka, who followed up a strong transition to MLB in 2014 with an above-average 2015. The question about Tanaka is not with his performance, as much as his health. A partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow makes him a perennial candidate for Tommy John surgery, and he had surgery on a bone spur in his right elbow after the 2015 season. These and assorted other issues have limited him to 20 and 24 starts in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Tanaka has shown that, when healthy, he can be an effective pitcher. He had a number of mediocre games in 2015, giving up 7 and 6 runs in consecutive June starts, but generally minimized damage and ended the season with a 112 ERA+.

Tanaka throws a complicated repertoire, consisting of six different pitches: four-seam fastball, sinker, split-finger fastball, cutter, curve, slider, and changeup. The curve, cutter, and sinker are used less than the other three pitches, but he throws a fairly balanced attack, mixing in all his pitches.

While each pitch forms its own cluster in terms of speed and vertical and horizontal movement, the clusters are not clearly defined, with five of the pitch types blurring into each other.

The automatic PITCHf/x algorithms also have trouble sorting out some of the pitches (for example, some curves are mislabeled as sliders or splitters), and his pitches weren’t manually recategorized for the charts above. Brooks Baseball, the gold standard for pitch categorization, shows his mix like this:

Sometimes looking at pitches by inferred spin direction and speed can show pitch clusters more clearly, but that doesn’t help much with Tanaka’s repertoire:

Even setting aside the mislabeled pitches, his four-seam, sinker, cutter, and split-finger clusters overlap each other without distinct borders.

Tanaka’s most effective pitch is his slider, which FanGraphs shows as the fourth-most effective in baseball by linear weights, behind those from Zack Greinke, Dallas Keuchel, and Francisco Liriano. His splitter and cutter are also positive pitches, while his fastball grades out below average. When considering pitch value, though, it’s important to remember that it is context-dependent. Tanaka’s slider would be far less effective if he threw it all the time, without using his fastballs to set it up.

Without elite velocity (his fastball averages just 92.7-mph in 2016, according to Brooks Baseball), Tanaka has to rely on mixing pitches to upset timing, and good location. He targets the edges of the strike zone with his fastball, sinker, and slider, while his splitter typically drops out of the bottom of the zone. His splitter is relatively fast as splitters go, averaging 86.6-mph (2 to 3-mph faster than the league average for splitters), making it difficult for batters to identify and lay off the splitter among the rest of Tanaka’s pitches. In 2015, however, his four-seam fastball had a tendency to stay near the middle of the strike zone to right-handed batters, which might help explain the poor results that pitch has had.

Tanaka has shown over two seasons that his set of similar but different pitches can baffle batters, and he has started off 2016 very well, giving up exactly two earned runs in each of his first four starts.  His history of consistency in Japanese baseball offers some reassurance that he can continue to confuse hitters if he can maintain his health. However, that is a big “if”; he has not shown that he can stay on the field for a full season, and his medical issues are considered a serious concern. If Tanaka does remain healthy, the Yankees have a better chance of a respectable season. If something does go wrong, the Yankees will have to rely on an unproven 22-year-old to be their ace in 2016.

Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

All data compiled from PITCHfx and Baseball-Reference.com.