The following is a guest post from longtime reader Carlo Macomber, who goes by CoryWadeDavis in the comments. Carlo is a freshman at Colby College in Waterville, ME.
There has been plenty of talk this offseason (and last season) about the injury questions in the Yankees starting rotation. Perhaps the biggest one is Masahiro Tanaka. Over and over again, Yankees fans have heard about Masahiro Tanaka’s minor tear in his UCL. People have tried to claim he needed Tommy John Surgery, even though every doctor he visited advised against it. Every pitch he threw once he returned caused Yankees fans everywhere to hold their collective breaths. A return to the DL in 2015 once again had fans everywhere screaming for Tommy John Surgery. Now, Tanaka had surgery earlier this offseason to remove a bone spur from his elbow. Looking back at all of this, everyone’s reactions seem really crazy but somewhat justified. Tanaka teased everyone in early 2014 by pitching like an MLB ace. Every Yankees fan hopes that he can be that pitcher again.
While I cannot predict injuries, I believe that, when healthy, Tanaka can return to (at least) something close to his 2014 form. And, the Yankees desperately need him to do just that. We have all heard about Michael Pineda’s lengthy injury history since being traded to the Yankees in 2012. Luis Severino, while showing great promise in his two-month debut in 2015, is 21 years old. Young pitchers deal with growing pains and sophomore slumps, among other things. Nathan Eovaldi has even made himself into a question mark by missing the end of 2015 with a forearm injury. And CC Sabathia, at this point, is best described as CC Sabathia (#BelieveInTheKneeBrace).
As a result, Brian Cashman has made it extremely clear this offseason that the Yankees have been looking to add a young starting pitcher with under three years of service time. So far, this has not come to fruition. However, at least to me, this does not mean that the Yankees rotation is destined for disaster next year. Below, I present you with one positive outcome for the Yankees most important pitcher and why it could just happen in 2016.
Masahiro Tanaka: The Ace (or something close to it)
That’s right. I’m telling you that Tanaka could pitch like he did for roughly 130 innings in 2014 before the elbow tear. Well, not exactly, but I’m about to give you reasons to think Tanaka can approach that level of production over 180+ innings.
The two most noticeable differences between 2014 Tanaka and 2015 Tanaka are his not huge but not insignificant drop in K% and his spike in HR/9. Tanaka posted a 26% K rate in 2014 and a 22.8% rate in 2015. Naturally, fans may become worried when their team’s best pitcher begins to strike out fewer hitters. This means more balls are put into play, which can lead to bad things. Tanaka’s batted ball profiles from the last two years, however, may show signs that his drop in K% is not a huge deal.
As you can see, Tanaka produced more soft contact last season and less hard contact. This is obviously an encouraging sign. If a pitcher is going to experience a decrease in K%, he better make sure the increased number of balls put into play are not hit overly hard. Tanaka managed to do just that in 2015, which, if you choose to think positively and believe the trend will continue, may show signs that he can be ace-like with a slightly decreased K%.
Tanaka’s other noticeable difference from 2014, his spike in HR/9, definitely appears to be a more challenging obstacle in his quest of returning to ace status. Tanaka’s HR/9 jumped from 0.99 in 2014 to 1.46 in 2015 (so basically from 1 to 1.5). For a little context, Marco Estrada, who has long been considered to be HR prone, has a career HR/9 of 1.36. It goes without saying that a team doesn’t want its top pitcher to have a worse HR/9 than Marco Estrada.
Let’s look at a little more batted ball data to see if there’s anything obvious contributing to this spike:
The table shows a significant decrease in line drives surrendered by Tanaka, almost the same number of ground balls induced, a pretty significant increase in fly balls, and another noticeable increase in home runs per fly balls. It’s clear that the line drives Tanaka surrendered in 2014 essentially “became” fly balls this past season. On paper, this looks good; fewer line drives are turned into outs than fly balls. However, Tanaka saw a lot of these fly balls turn into home runs. This looks like a problem, but is it really one that will last?
The previous table revealed that Tanaka allowed less hard contact in 2015 than in 2014. One would think that if a pitcher were to allow more fly balls that were also home runs, the fly balls would have to be hit very hard. The data does not seem to back this up in Tanaka’s case, however. More fly balls but less hard contact wouldn’t seem to equal that many more home runs.
With this information in mind, I think it’s certainly possible that Tanaka’s home run problem ends up as a one-year aberration. I’m not sure if his Japanese stats mean much of anything at this point, but he never had a HR/9 of over 0.8 in Japan.
There seems to be reason to believe that his HR/9 will stabilize much closer to 1.0 as it was in 2014 than the 1.5 of 2015. If this is indeed the case, and he can either maintain his increased soft contact or increase his K% again, I think it’s entirely possible that Tanaka can return to something approaching his pre-injury 2014 form. That is, of course, if he can stay healthy for roughly a full season. Will any of this actually happen? We’ll have to wait and see. Opening Day can’t get here soon enough!