Are Holliday’s strikeouts a sign he’s selling out for power?

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Once the Yankees traded Brian McCann, it was clear they had two offseason priorities. They wanted another high-end reliever to replace Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, who were traded away at the deadline, and they wanted a big bat to plug into their designated hitter spot. The Yankees reportedly wanted another starting pitcher too, but that didn’t happen.

Rather than go for a big name DH like Edwin Encarnacion, the Yankees instead settled on Matt Holliday, who had never been a full-time DH before and had seen his offensive output, by wRC+, drop from 146 to 132 to 124 to 109 from 2013-16. Not a good sign for a 37-year-old! The Yankees took the plunge though, partly because Holliday would take a one-year contract, and partly because there were indications his underlying skills hadn’t slipped as much as his numbers indicate.

A little more than one-third of the way into the season, Holliday has been a central figure in an offense that leads baseball with an average of 5.72 runs scored per game. He’s hitting .270/.375/.516 (137 wRC+) overall, and his 14 home runs give him a chance to hit 30 for the first time since 2007. (Even during his best years with the Cardinals, Holliday was more of a 25-28 homer guy.) Home runs like his walk-off against the Orioles …

… show the ball still flies off Holliday’s bat. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him hit a ball like that and think it’s a routine fly out off the end of the bat, only to watch it carry and carry and carry. He did it twice in the series in Toronto two weeks ago. Holliday hits the ball the other way with so much power. It’s no wonder why he’s been such a great hitter throughout his career.

Holliday is hitting better now that he has in years, especially for power, and in all likelihood there are several reasons for that. One, he now plays his home games in Yankee Stadium, a hitter’s ballpark. Two, he’s a full-time DH who doesn’t have to deal with the wear and tear of playing the field. At this point of the season, 67 games in, no one is 100% physically. Holliday is probably closest on the Yankees because he’s off his feet so much.

And three, there are some indications Holliday is a different hitter now than he was last year and really the last few years. The single biggest difference between Holliday right now and the Holliday of the past is the strikeouts. He has a 25.4% strikeout rate at the moment, by far the highest of his career. His previous career high was 19.6% as a rookie in 2004. His career average is 16.7% strikeouts. Look:

matt-holliday-strikeout-rate

Usually when a player on the wrong side of 35 sees his strikeout rate spike that like, it comes with a massive drop in production. That isn’t the case with Holliday. He’s been more productive this season than he has been in three or four years now. I don’t doubt that Holliday has lost some bat speed — he is 37, after all — but clearly he hasn’t lost so much that he is incapable of being an impact hitter.

Soon after Holliday signed with the Yankees, he said he wanted to do a better job getting the ball airborne. He hit way too many grounders last season. Exactly half his batted balls, in fact. So far this season Holliday’s ground ball rate has dropped to 45.1%, his lowest since 2010, and he’s also pulling the ball more often. His 39.2% pull rate is a career high and quite a bit above his career 35.1% pull rate.

More strikeouts plus more fly balls plus more balls pulled to left field? Could it be an indication Holliday is selling out for power this season? I think it’s a possibility. I should note that while a 39.2% pull rate is high for Holliday, it’s actually below the MLB average. The league average pull rate is 39.9% this year. We’ve seen some really pull happy hitters over the years, like Brian McCann (50.0% in 2016). Holliday isn’t pulling the ball that much.

What I think may be happening is Holliday is selling out for power selectively. In certain situations he’ll look for a pitch, really try to unload on it, and hope he connects. If he does, great! If not, well, better luck next time. Holliday may be selling out for power, but he hasn’t completely sacrificed his all-fields approach either. Like I said earlier, we’ve seen him really muscle some balls out to center and right-center. Here’s his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

matt-holliday-sprau-chart1

If Holliday is selling out for power — and I don’t know that he is, it’s just a theory — he’s managed to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise his ability to take the ball the other way. McCann, for example, looked to pull just about every pitch because, as a left-handed hitter, he would be rewarded for doing so at Yankee Stadium. Holliday, as a righty, still has incentive to go the other way.

The Yankees avoided the big flashy move over the winter, which would have been signing Encarnacion, and they opted for the most sensible move in signing Holliday to a one-year contract. And so far, it couldn’t be working out any better. Holliday has transitioned to DH seamlessly — lots of guys struggle with that after playing the field every day basically their entire lives — and he’s producing more than he has in years. And he seems to be a positive influence on the young players too.

As an older player, Holliday has inevitably had to make adjustments to remain successful, and it seems his latest adjustment may involve picking his spots to swing out of his shoes. If he swings and misses, so be it. That’s the trade off. That he’s been able to do that, pull the ball and get it in the air more often, without sacrificing his all-fields ability is pretty damn impressive. Yeah, Holliday may be striking out more than ever before, but the strikeouts have come with his best offensive season in years.

Decoding Didi

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

From the outside way back in 2014, blending in was probably a reasonable thing for fans to expect of Didi Gregorius. He was a fairly nondescript player at that point, having gone from the Reds to the Diamondbacks–hardly high-profile organizations–and he was taking over one of the game’s most important positions from a player that his new fan base had practically canonized. But in that time, Didi has stuck out and become a fan favorite. And in 2017, he’s having himself a career year. After going 2-5 with a double and a homer in last night’s drubbing of the Orioles, Didi is now hitting .325/.346/.497, good for a .357 wOBA and 125 wRC+, all career highs.

When a guy has a big jump in production like this, it’s natural to want to know why and how. Has his approach changed? Has he done something different? At first blush, things seem pretty similar to last year. 2017’s and 2016’s walk and strikeout rates are nearly the same for Didi–in the low 3’s for the former and around 14 for the latter. Maybe he’s hitting the ball harder or distributing his batted balls differently? Nope. Everything looks to be in line with last year and his career norms; in fact, his line drive rate is actually down a bit. To boot, per Statcast, Didi’s exit velocity this year is just a tick below 85 MPH. Where was it last year? Exactly 85 MPH. 2015? 84.8

There also doesn’t seem to be anything to telling in his basic plate discipline profile. He’s swinging more often, by a decent amount, but as evidenced above, he’s not necessarily hitting the ball any harder than he did last year or the year before that. But, he’s still getting more hits. And with that, we go to the last resort: BABIP.

As his exit velocity hints at, Didi has never been one to really sting the ball; that’s reflected in his career BABIP of just .293. Before this year, his career high was in 2015 when he BABIP’d .297. Last year, the mark was .290. This year, Didi’s just hitting ’em where they ain’t, racking up a BABIP of .344. That’d be high regardless, but it looks even more the outlier considering his career mark. There’s a chance we could see a dip in his numbers coming as that BABIP begins to correct itself down towards Sir Didi’s career norms. However, he can still remain productive, given that his HR/FB% is still near 10% , like it was last year.

Didi appears to have changed very little between last year–a previous career year–and this year. The only big change we can see is that big discrepancy in BABIP. Is this looking a gift horse in the mouth? Yeah, probably. But at the same time, a drop in production from Didi won’t sink this team; they’ve got–for the first time in a while–a steady supply of strong bats so that Gregorius doesn’t need to be a leader on offense. While it keeps up, though, it makes this team damn near unstoppable at the plate.

The Blue Jays and Red Sox have found a way to attack Aaron Judge, and now it’s up to him to adjust

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night the Yankees put a hurting on reigning AL Cy Young award winner Rick Porcello (lol), and they did it without getting anything from Aaron Judge. He went 0-for-4 with a walk and two strikeouts, which dragged his season batting line down to a still incredible .321/.428/.668 (190 RC+). There ain’t much BABIP luck in there either. Judge tattoos the ball on the regular.

Over these last six games against the Blue Jays and Red Sox, Judge has gone 6-for-22 (.273) with eleven strikeouts, though he also has six walks and three extra-base hits (two doubles and a homer). He hasn’t been bad by any means. That is a lot of strikeouts though, and it seems the Blue Jays and Red Sox have found a way to attack Judge: with high fastballs.

Here, via Baseball Savant, are two strike zone heat maps. The heat map on the left shows the fastball location Judge saw in April and May. The heat map on the right is the fastball location he’s seen in June, which, conveniently, are these last six games against the Blue Jays and Red Sox (click to embiggen):

aaron-judge-fastballs

Not surprisingly, pitchers tried to attack Judge down and away earlier this season, even with heaters. He’s 6-foot-7 and they wanted him to reach as far as possible for the ball. Judge has shown he can handle that down-and-away pitch so far this season. How many times have we seen him flick that outside pitch to right field? More than a few.

These last two series though, against Toronto and Boston, two division rivals who figure to really dig in and study Judge, Judge has seem many more fastballs upstairs. That’s not easy to do! The guy is 6-foot-7. A high fastball to a normal hitter would be at the letters for Judge. You’ve got to go higher than high against him.

Judge has been getting hosed on low called strikes all season (the numbers confirm it) and now he has to worry about high pitches too. All those high fastballs from the Blue Jays and Red Sox have resulted in a lot of swings and misses from Judge lately. Here are the pitch locations of his swings and misses against fastballs these last six games:

aaron-judge-fastball-whiffs

Yep. They’re going upstairs against him and Judge has chased. Not to the point where he’s been completely neutralized — like I said, he is 6-for-22 with a homer these last six games — but enough to stop him from being the planet-eating monster he was in April and May. They’ve (mostly) kept him in the park and generated more empty swings. That’s a win for them. They’d love to stop Judge. They’ll settle for containing him.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Maybe not the high fastballs specifically, but the fact opposing teams have found a way to keep Judge in check. The Blue Jays and Red Sox are going to see an awful lot of Judge going forward. They did their homework and hey, look at that, they both came up with the same plan. (Perhaps the Red Sox are copying the Blue Jays. Who knows.)

The league has started to adjust to Judge and now it’s up to Judge to adjust back. That’s baseball. And you know what? In his relatively brief big league career, Judge has already shown he can make adjustments. He looks like a completely different hitter now than he was last year. That’s not a fluke. That’s the result of hard work and baseball smarts. Now Judge will have to work to combat all these high fastballs.

Because he made the adjustment from last year to this year, and has a history of making adjustments in the minors, I am completely confident Judge will figure out how to handle this sudden barrage of high fastballs. Hopefully he can make that adjustment soon, but if it takes some time, then it takes time. Baseball is hard. The Blue Jays and Red Sox have come up with a bit of a blueprint though. Want to slow Judge down? Go upstairs. It’s only a matter of time until other teams start doing it too.

The Yankees and their uncanny ability to get opposing hitters to chase out of the zone

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

Last night, five days after manhandling the Athletics, Masahiro Tanaka got hit hard for the third time in his last four starts. He was behind everyone, and when he left a pitch out over the plate, the Orioles made him pay. We’ve seen a lot of that from Tanaka this season. His location wasn’t there and he didn’t have a finish pitch.

The O’s don’t have the most patient lineup in baseball. They have the fifth highest chase rate (31.7%) and the ninth highest swing rate (46.6%) in baseball, so they’re going to take their hacks. And yet, Tanaka could not get them to expand the zone and chase off the plate. From Baseball Savant:

masahiro-tanaka-oriolesNot many swings out of the strike zone there, especially on pitches down and away to righties. (The O’s had eight righties in the lineup tonight.) Luis Severino did a good job getting the Orioles to chase Tuesday, both with his slider and changeup. They’re a lineup prone to expanding the zone and chasing off the plate. It’s what they do.

For the Yankees, starts like last night’s are uncommon. Their pitching staff collectively excels at getting hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. No team in baseball is better at it, in fact. Here’s the chase rate leaderboard:

  1. Yankees: 34.1%
  2. Dodgers: 33.1%
  3. Astros: 32.3%

Pretty big gap between the Yankees and the Dodgers. This isn’t some fluky small sample size noise either. Well, it might be, but look at last season’s chase rate leaderboard:

  1. Yankees: 33.5%
  2. Astros: 32.1%
  3. Mariners: 32.0%

Again, there’s a huge gap between the Yankees and everyone else. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 14. From 2014-16, New York’s pitchers generated baseball’s highest chase rate at 32.6%. The Nationals were a distant second at 31.9%. The MLB average was 30.5% those years. The Yankees were well above that.

On an individual level, it’s no surprise the Yankees dominate the top of the chase rate leaderboard this year. Michael Pineda (40.3%), Jordan Montgomery (36.8%), and Tanaka (37.0%) have three of the five highest chase rates among qualified starters, alongside the great Zack Greinke (40.8%) and, uh, Clayton Richard (37.5%). Last season’s chase rate leaders:

  1. Michael Pineda: 37.8%
  2. Masahiro Tanaka: 37.6%
  3. Noah Syndergaard: 37.2%

Corey Kluber was a distant fourth at 35.4%. Go back to 2015 and Tanaka would have had the second highest chase rate in baseball at 36.6%, behind only Carlos Carrasco (38.7%), but he fell six innings short of qualifying for the ERA title.

Things are a little different among New York’s relievers this season when it comes to getting chases out of the zone — Jonathan Holder (41.6%) is third among all relievers and the only Yankee among the top 30 relievers in chase rate — though those guys haven’t thrown many innings. The starters have much more influence over the overall team chase rate.

Intuitively, getting hitters to chase out of the zone is a good thing. When they’re offering at pitches out of the strike zone, they’re usually either swinging and missing, or either getting jammed or hitting the ball of the end of the bat, resulting in weak contact. To wit:

  • 2017 swings on pitches in the zone: .301 AVG and .519 SLG
  • 2017 swings on pitches out of the zone: .177 AVG and .245 SLG

There is a pretty clear advantage to getting hitters to swing out of the strike zone. Every once in a while you’ll see a hard-hit ball on a pitch out of the zone, but it doesn’t happen often. When it does, you usually tip your cap to the hitter. Sometimes you get got.

It makes sense that Pineda and Tanaka would be near the top of the chase rate leaderboard given who they are as pitchers. For all his faults, Pineda has a nasty slider, and he gets hitters to chase it out of the strike zone. Those sexy strikeout and walk rates aren’t an accident. Tanaka, when at his best, excels at keeping hitters off balance and getting them to expand the zone, mostly with his splitter but also his slider. He usually doesn’t beat guys in the strike zone. He beats them on the edges.

Montgomery is new to the mix this season and it’s still a little too early to say anything definitive about him as a pitcher. He’s more Tanaka than Pineda in that he relies on a deep arsenal and messing with the hitter’s timing rather than blowing them away, though we don’t know if his sky high chase rate is the real him yet. Could be general baseball randomness. Pineda and Tanaka, on the other hand, have long track records with this stuff.

So the question begs to be asked: why have the Yankees consistently posted an elite chase rate in recent years? One possible answer is this is all one big coincidence and there’s nothing really to it. Can’t rule that out. I don’t that’s it though. Do something once and it’s a fluke. Do it year after year, like the Yankees leading the league in chase rate, and it’s a trend. Again, the Yankees have baseball’s highest chase rate since 2014. That covers thousands and thousands of innings.

Why do the Yankees consistently post elite chase rates? I think it’s by design. They value swings on pitches not over the plate, so they design their pitching staff accordingly, and they create their daily game plans to get those swings out of the zone. That seems much easier said than done, like everything else. To make hitters chase, you need to make your balls look like strikes, and it takes a certain level of talent to have the movement and command to do that consistently.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I just find it fascinating the Yankees have been able to lead the league in getting chases out of the zone for several years now. This almost certainly isn’t a fluke. It’s intentional. And there’s an obvious benefit to getting swings out of the zone too, especially since the Yankees play in an unforgiving ballpark and in an unforgiving division with other unforgiving ballparks. Being able to get swings on pitcher’s pitches is a nifty little skill the Yankees seem to have perfected.

Grounded for the Month of May

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

On Friday night, with the game tied at 0, Chase Headley came to the plate with one out and two runners on–first and second. To say that my faith in Headley was low would be a bit of an understatement. Tragically for Masahiro Tanaka and the rest of the Yankees, Headley proved my lack of faith right by grounding into a double play, ending the inning. He didn’t even have the common freakin’ courtesy to just strike out or hit into the infield fly rule. Until now, I didn’t quite realize just how indicative of his descent into dumpster fire at the plate that play was.

We all know Headley started out the year on fire, tearing up the league, topping leaderboards for a few weeks in April. Since then, though, it’s been a steady decline to where he sits right now: a career low 82 wRC+ thanks to a .292 wOBA and a .228/.299/.367 batting line. Consider, folks, that he ended April with a .388 wOBA and a 148 wRC+; that’s one hell of a drop. And as his performance has dropped, so have the balls he’s been hitting, quite literally.

Per FanGraphs, Headley was quite adept at hitting the ball in the air for the first month of the season. In April, he sported a robust line drive percentage of 30.2% and hit fly balls 33.3% of the time. He generally avoided weak contact, evidenced by his low 4.8% infield fly ball rate. That script has flipped for the month of May.

Gone is the high line drive rate, down to 21.7%. Gone is the low ground ball rate, up to 54.3%. Gone is the high fly ball rate, down to 23.9%. Gone is the low IFFB rate, up to 18.4%. Thanks to TexasLeaguers, we can see the results of these drastic changes.

Here’s Headley’s April spray chart. Nine outs in the field, ten if we count that one behind the plate.

headleyapril

Now May:

headleymay

17 in the infield, including the foul balls. Also, there’s a huge cluster in right field that wasn’t really there during April, indicating that Headley’s hitting his grounders–at least as a lefty batter–right into the shift.

A trip–well, two trips to Brooks will show us just what’s going on here. In April, Chase was getting pretty decent lift on pretty much everything. Now in May, something is making him play right into the pitcher’s hands. Like they’d want him to, he’s hitting almost 56% grounders on sinkers, almost 77% (!) on change ups, 75% on curves and 100% on cutters.

The other alarming note on Brooks is the big uptick in whiffs/swing on fastballs, going from 13% and change to almost 23%; from April to May, Headley’s strikeout rate has climbed from about 20% to about 35%. Not so coincidentally, Headley’s walk rate has plummeted; he’s walked just once in May–and has been hit by one pitch. Also not so coincidentally, Headley’s been chasing the ball more in May than he did in April. The league average o-swing rate is a touch over 29%. While he’s been under that for the year, May has seen a spike. In April, there are four locations on the chart showing Headley swung at balls at a higher-than-league-average pace. Fast forward to May and the number goes up to eight.

Beating the ball into the ground–especially in this day and age of the fly ball–and chasing balls out of the zone are not a good combination for success. So, Chase, if you’re reading this, get on that, huh? I like you, I really do, but it’s getting hard to watch at this point.

The Masahiro Tanaka Problem

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

All things considered, it’s pretty incredible the Yankees are where they are even though Masahiro Tanaka has legitimately been one of the worst pitchers in baseball so far this season. Among the 94 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the batting title, Tanaka ranks 91st in both ERA (6.56) and FIP (6.07). Yankees starters have a 4.61 ERA (4.51 FIP) this year. Yankees starters other than Tanaka have a 4.10 ERA (4.00 FIP). Yeesh.

Tanaka hasn’t looked right pretty much all season, at least aside from the shutout in Boston, but things have been especially bad the last two times out. Especially bad as in 14 runs on 16 hits, including seven home runs, in 4.2 innings. This goes beyond the usual “he had a few bad starts” stuff. We are officially in Big Problem territory here. Something is not right with Tanaka. The question is what? No one seems to know.

Here’s the weird part: Tanaka’s contact allowed is nearly identical to last season. I mean, it’s clearly not identical given the results, but look at the batted ball data:

LD% GB% FB% Soft% Hard% Avg. Exit Velo
2016 20.7% 48.2% 31.0% 18.5% 32.4% 88.2
2017 17.4% 49.7% 32.9% 18.5% 32.7% 89.4

A quick glance at that tells you everything is fine, no need to worry, Tanaka will be back to normal in no time. La la la, I can’t hear your screams.

In all seriousness, the biggest difference between 2016 Tanaka and 2017 Tanaka is this right here:

masahiro-tanaka-splitter

That’s the splitter Tanaka threw light hitting Jesus Sucre in the second inning Saturday, the splitter Sucre smashed back up the middle for a two-run double. That pitch is flat as a table. It spins and spins and spins, and does nothing. It stayed up and Sucre hammered it. We’ve seen plenty Tanaka splitters over the years. The pitch should dive down into the dirt. That one did nothing.

“When Spring Training ended he looked like he was back to before the injury. Now he doesn’t look the same,” said a scout to George King over the weekend. “He isn’t finishing his pitches, and he’s making mistakes with the fastball.”

For whatever reason Tanaka’s pitches have been much flatter this year, and it’s not just the splitter. We’ve seen him thrown some junky sliders too. Tanaka is not a blow-you-away pitcher. He succeeds by tricking hitters and keeping them off balance, and he can’t do that when his splitter and slider aren’t behaving. His fastball isn’t good enough to make up for the shortcomings of the secondary pitches. Never has been even though his velocity is fine. Everyone keeps saying Tanaka’s velocity hasn’t been the same since his 2014 elbow injury, but:

  • 2014: 92.8 mph average (96.6 mph max through May)
  • 2015: 92.8 mph average (96.2 mph max through May)
  • 2016: 92.1 mph average (95.5 mph max through May)
  • 2017: 92.9 mph average (95.8 mph max through May)

Tanaka’s velocity and overall pitch selection this season have been right in line with previous years. Much like the batted ball data, nothing has changed, and yet something has very clearly changed. The overall numbers say one thing. The individual pitches tell you another. Tanaka had no trouble getting ahead Saturday — he threw a first pitch strike to 13 of 21 batters, and went 0-2 on nine batters — but the finish pitch wasn’t there, and hasn’t been for much of the season.

With Tanaka, a bad start or string of bad starts are never just bad starts. They’re an indication of injury, right? The partially torn elbow ligament is in the back of everyone’s mind, and whenever he has a bad start or even just throws a bad pitch, it’s because of the elbow. That seems to be the most common reaction. Tanaka did something bad? Blame the elbow. Everyone insists Tanaka is healthy though. Tanaka, Joe Girardi, Larry Rothschild, everyone. “There’s no indication of (injury),” said Rothschild to Bryan Hoch over the weekend.

Having watched every one of his starts this season, Tanaka doesn’t look injured to me. Remember Aroldis Chapman‘s last few appearances? That’s an injured pitcher. A dude laboring and putting everything he has into each pitch just to get to his normal velocity. Tanaka is still throwing free and easy. His location sucks and he’s throwing more cement mixers, and I suppose that could be injury related, but I feel like there would be more red flags in that case. A dude pouring sweat on the mound (like Chapman) and throwing max effort. Tanaka hasn’t done that.

The way I see it, the Yankees have two realistic options with Tanaka right now:

1. Put him on the disabled list. The Yankees could stick Tanaka in an MRI tube and inevitably find something that would justify a trip to the disabled list. Every 28-year-old pitcher with nearly 2,000 career innings is bound to have something that doesn’t look right in his arm. The disabled list stint would be a time out, effectively. Tanaka could figure things out on the side while one of the club’s depth starters (Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, etc.) steps into the rotation for the time being. Perhaps he’d figure things out quickly and return after missing only one start. It is a ten-day disabled list now, after all.

2. Keep running him out there. This is what the Yankees are going to do, for now. Girardi confirmed yesterday that Tanaka will make his next start Thursday, as scheduled. Tanaka needs to pitch to get things straightened out. He can’t go sit on the couch for a week and expect everything to go back to normal. He needs to pitch to right the ship, and the Yankees are going to let him to continue to work on things in the MLB rotation. And who’s to say Tanaka won’t figure it out during his between-starts bullpen session this week and then dominate Thursday?

“We have to get him right … We need to continue to work at it. He’s not making the pitches he was last year,” said Girardi to Hoch. Rothschild told Brendan Kuty, “I think we need to go back to the basics. He likes to change some things occasionally, but I think it’s easier when things are going well to make some adjustments than it is when things are going bad and you try to make too many adjustments.”

Tanaka shifted from the first base side of the pitching rubber to the third base side Saturday, an adjustment he’s made in the past, but obviously it didn’t help. He’s trying though. Tanaka said all thoughout Spring Training his mechanics weren’t where they need to be, and we all kinda laughed him off because he was dominating. Maybe we should have paid more attention? If he’s not hurt, this has to be something mechanical. What else would it be?

As long as he’s not injured, I think Tanaka will get things straightened out because he’s too good and too smart a pitcher not too. We’ve seen him go through rough patches in the past — nothing like this, but one or two rough starts in a row, that sort of thing — and he always bounced back well. The Yankees and Tanaka need to figure out exactly what is wrong first, and so far that’s proving to be quite the challenge. No one has an answer yet, and that’s the scariest part.

Tanaka and the Dingers 2017 Edition

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Before stepping to the mound yesterday afternoon in Tampa, Masahiro Tanaka had already surrendered ten home runs to opposing hitters. Then he gave up three more. His HR/9 currently sits at an unconscionable 2.44 and his HR/FB% is absurdly high at 24.5%. Tanaka’s always been prone to giving up home runs, but they’re flying out at a ridiculously rapid rate in 2017. How?

The first culprit that jumps out is the fastball. Per Brooks, that pitch had a 50% HR/(FB + LD) rate going into yesterday’s game. That pitch accounts for the lowest percentage of Tanaka’s pitches this season, and he’s famously avoided throwing it recently, sticking more to a sinker, splitter, slider mix. But two of the homers he gave up yesterday–the ones to Corey Dickerson–were both on the four seam fastball. The other homer, from Longoria, came against a sinker.

Then, there’s the splitter. As always, this has been a generally effective pitch for Tanaka. Its whiff/swing% is over 30 and its grounder rate is pushing 70%. But on the flip side, its led to three homers against Tanaka and batters are hitting it to a .229 ISO, not counting yesterday’s start. Its HR/(FB+LD)% is up at 27.27. For his career, it’s predictably low at 7.3%.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The slider, conversely, has been right along with his career rates in its success this year. Basically, all the hard stuff Tanaka throws is being hit equally hard, leading to lots of homers, lots of runs, and lots of frustration. Taking a look at the ISO marks against the hard stuff, it’s clear that Tanaka’s command of those pitches is off.

A solution to this problem isn’t necessarily easy to find. It’d be wrong to suggest a pitcher with elbow issues in the past begin throwing more sliders, but we can’t just click our heels or cross our fingers and expect Tanaka’s command to be back to form.

It's not what you want (Source: Getty)
It’s not what you want (Source: Getty)

Time is likely the best answer since this is such an extreme exaggeration of one of the few issues Tanaka has had on the mound since joining the Yankees. Were this a year like 2016, this might be less worrisome. But given that the Yankees seem to be, well, actually pretty good this season, Tanaka performing like his normal self is imperative. 2017 was lined up to be a ‘house money’ type of year for the Yankees. If they did well, great! If not, hey, at least there’s a bunch of young, exciting guys. Luckily for us, the two things seem to be converging. Regardless of that, one thing was true heading into this year–as it has been the last few years–if anything good was going to happen to this team, it needed Tanaka to be its strongest pitcher. That hasn’t happened so far in 2017. And given the rest of the Yankee rotation, if Tanaka doesn’t get back to his regular levels, the charm of an unexpected playoff season may not last too long.