Friday, January 30, 2015

Yankees again crossing fingers with Masahiro Tanaka

Just over one year ago the New York Yankees and their fans were full of excitement with the signing of Japanese right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. While not certain his success in Japan would translate in the states, there was something about his makeup which suggested he could. The club crossed their fingers after making a $175 million total investment and right off the bat, Tanaka put their minds at ease.

Fast forward and there is still excitement about Tanaka taking the hill, but it is still accompanied by finger-crossing and now a sense of dread because of the partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) suffered in July of last season. You see, this could become a full out tear at any point – soft tossing, long tossing, bullpen session, spring training, regular season, 2016 and beyond. You get the point; Tanaka’s elbow is a ticking time bomb.

At the moment Tanaka is said to be doing fine. Via The Japan Times, Kyodo reported Thursday that the 26-year-old recently participated in offseason drills with former Rakuten Eagles teammates. He even threw some offspeed pitches during the session.

“So far, so good – including that (the elbow),” said Tanaka.

The constant questioning about Tanaka’s elbow will continue throughout the rest of his career. Even if he suffers a complete tear and has Tommy John surgery or pitches healthy for an extended time – as in years without issue – he will be under the microscope. Unfortunately, the likelihood of the latter happening is not great considering Tanaka will not hold back when on the mound.

“Whether I’m the ace or I’m used in different roles within games, I’m always thinking I’m going to win, so I’m not going to change anything I do,” Tanaka said.

No one wants him to change either. Some pitchers have been able to succeed while pitching with partial tears – St. Louis Cardinals’ hurler Adam Wainwright and Minnesota Twins’ righty Ervin Santana are among the more prominent names.

Tanaka did make two starts at the end of the season after taking just over 10 weeks off. He fared well in his first appearance against the Toronto Blue Jays (one earned run in 5.1 innings), but was pummeled in his final start versus the Boston Red Sox (five earned runs in 1.2 innings) which bumped his ERA up 0.30 points.

It’s uncertain how the Yankees will monitor Tanaka’s time on the mound this season. They were more than happy to have Tanaka go deep into games in 2014 – he averaged 6.8 innings per start. But with an incredibly strong bullpen, it is possible the Yankees’ brass decides to take it easy on their prized righty.

Tanaka is a big piece of the puzzle for the Yankees in 2015. If he can replicate his 2014 marks through an entire season, he will establish himself as the ace of the organization for at least the next few seasons – Tanaka has an opt-out clause in his seven-year deal after completing the fourth season.

In 2014, Tanaka led the club in wins with 13 against just five losses. He compiled a 2.77 ERA (3.04 FIP) in 20 starts (136.1 innings). He was impeccable around the plate, racking up 141 strikeouts and allowing just 21 walks.

When Tanaka was not striking batters out with his nasty splitter, he was generating a healthy amount of groundballs to the tune of 46.6 percent of balls put in play. If he had a knock it was a tendency to give up the long ball, particularly early in games. He allowed 15 homers in all, but never seemed to get flustered when it happened.

Tanaka’s home/road splits suggest he is completely comfortable in front of the home crowd and not afraid of the visiting field. He posted a 2.07 ERA (3.29 FIP) at Yankee Stadium in 69.2 innings, striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings. On the road, he pitched to a 3.51 ERA (2.79 FIP) in 66.2 innings.

It also didn’t matter much from which side of the plate batters faced Tanaka. Lefties slashed .237/.269/.363 against Tanaka, while righties managed a .239/.280/.407 line and struck out 11.09 times per nine innings against him.

Assuming health, Tanaka could certainly replicate his 2014 results. Steamer, via FanGraphs, is predicting above average but not elite performance for Tanaka in 2015. They peg Tanaka with a 13-10 record, 3.44 ERA (3.54 FIP) in 192 innings. They show a downward movement in K/9 rate (8.04 from 9.31) and an uptick in BB/9 (1.77 from 1.39). Still very good numbers, but the Yankees and he would want more. Tanaka always expects more.

Tanaka’s demeanor was something that elated the Yankees front office, coaches and fans. He never complained, he always put the onus on himself when he erred (to a fault at times when he was actually very good but unhappy all the same) and simply put forth the appearance of always expecting to win. It was marvelous to see him seamlessly transition from his incredible success in Japan, to being mentioned among the elite pitchers in Major League Baseball.

This is what makes the matter of his elbow so disturbing. He’s a true talent and fierce competitor. Tanaka is a difference maker. The Yankees absolutely need him to be on the mound for 33 starts this season in order to have a chance to compete for a postseason slot.

Whether he succumbs to a full tear of the UCL in 2015 or later, he’ll miss minimally one full year of baseball, and he might never be the same again. So, hold your breath when Tanaka strides toward the plate and puts immense torque on his elbow to produce that filthy split-finger fastball. It might be his last pitch that matters for the Yankees, or anyone else.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Photo of Masahiro Tanaka courtesy of Arturo Pardavilla III via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer and sports media strategist. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.