You’ll never convince me that Masahiro Tanaka isn’t a great pitcher. Sure, none of you reading this are likely to make that argument, but I think he’s a touch under appreciated outside of our pinstripe-tinted bubble. Of all the recent Yankee pitchers, I’ve always enjoyed watching him most. It seems that he never uses the same approach in consecutive games, yet he’s an effective pitcher. He can beat you with sinkers, sliders, and splitters all the same. Yeah, he gives up too many homers, but he counters that with plenty of grounders, good control and command, and a healthy dose of strikeouts. And since August, he’s been (mostly) dominant.
In his seven starts in the last month-plus, he has only one with more than one walk. In his seven starts in the last month-plus, he has had at least as many strikeouts as innings pitched four times. In his seven starts in the last month-plus, he has had a K/BB of at least 4.0 in six of them. He had a clunker of a start on 8/10 against the Rangers, which raised his season ERA to 4.08. Since then, he’s managed to lower it down to 3.61, good for a 122 ERA+, a marked improvement over last year’s below average figure. A big help with this has been his best pitch: the splitter.
Even before this good run, his splitter was his best pitch. It had a whiff/swing rate over 30%; a GB/BIP rate pushing 56%; and had the lost HR/(FB+LD) rate among all of his pitches. Even though his HR/(FB+LD) has climbed in the August-now sample, the other numbers have improved. His whiff/swing rate on the pitch is pushing 38% and he’s getting even more grounders with it at nearly 65%.
This little run is Tanaka at his best: mixing pitches, getting batters to chase, and putting them away with his splitter. It’s coming at a good time, too, just when the Yankees will need to solidify their postseason position. That it is coming now, in relative crunch time, is little surprise, given how well Tanaka pitched in the playoffs last year. With that in mind, is it possible Tanaka’s moved himself into the role of Wild Card Game Starter ahead of Luis Severino? Even a week ago, I would’ve said no, still stubbornly confident in Severino and his ability to turn it around. At this point, though, something is quite up with Severino–likely fatigue–and now I’ve shifted gears towards Tanaka. Of course, this is all recency bias and if Tanaka throws a poor start or two while Sevy does turn it around, my mind could easily change.
Peak Tanaka is just as good as any pitcher in baseball. He’s not always there, but when he is, he’s nearly impossible to beat. Regardless of whether he actually starts the Wild Card Game or not, I trust Tanaka in a big spot and you should, too.