Brett Gardner and the Tale of Two Seasons [2015 Season Review]


The Yankees had a lot of players coming into the season with health and performance concerns, and Brett Gardner was no exception. The team’s longest tenured non-A-Rod player played through an abdominal injury in the second half last year, an injury so bad it required offseason surgery. The surgery came with a four-week recovery time and Gardner was 100% come Spring Training.

With Derek Jeter retired, Gardner was certain to hit near the top of the lineup in 2015 after being the club’s best offensive player a year ago. (His 111 wRC+ led guys who were with the Yankees for all of 2014.) Whether he hit leadoff or second really didn’t matter. Gardner was one of the team’s best hitters and there was now a clear path to at-bats at the top of the order, which was a step in the right direction for an offense in need of help.

A Normal Spring

Abdominal injuries — Gardner had surgery to repair a core muscle near his ribs, specifically — are a pretty big deal in baseball. In all sports, really. Hitting and throwing requires a lot of quick-twitch movements. Gardner had no physical problems in camp but he didn’t hit at all: .186/.294/.220 with 16 strikeouts in 22 Grapefruit League games. Did anyone even mention that? I don’t remember that being talked about at all. Either way, Gardner was healthy and in the lineup come Opening Day, because duh.

An All-Star First Half

When the season started, Joe Girardi opted to use Jacoby Ellsbury at leadoff and Gardner as his No. 2 hitter. There was really no bad way to order them as far as I was concerned. As long as those two hit in the top two spots of the lineup, the Yankees were good. The first of the team’s 764 runs in 2015 came on Opening Day, on Gardner’s sixth inning solo home run.

That was the only run the Yankees scored in the Opening Day loss to the Blue Jays. Gardner nearly went deep in the first inning too, but Jose Bautista made a nice jumping catch at the wall. Here’s the video.

The Opening Day home run was the start of an outstanding first half for Gardner. He basically never slumped. Only four times in the first half did Gardner go back-to-back games without a hit and he never once went three straight games without a hit. He started the season by reaching base in each of his first eleven games and in 31 of his first 32 games. From April 18th through May 15th, a span of 25 games, Gardner reached base 40 times.

During his best hot streak of the season, an eleven-game stretch in late-June, Gardner went 25-for-50 (.500) with seven doubles, a triple, and four home runs. That’s a .500/.545/.920 (300 wRC+) batting line. It’s both an extremely small sample and cool as hell. The performance helped earn Gardner a spot on the AL All-Star Final Vote ballot, though he was later named to the All-Star Team as an injury replacement for Alex Gordon.

Gardner went 3-for-5 with a home run that afternoon. He came off the bench in the All-Star Game in Cincinnati and went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts against Clayton Kershaw and Mark Melancon, his former teammate at several levels. He also played one inning in left field and three in center.

Gardner finished the first half with a .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) batting line. He had ten homers and 15 stolen bases, making him the only AL player with 10+ homers and 15+ steals at the break. Also, Mike Trout (179 wRC+), Nelson Cruz (154 wRC+), J.D. Martinez (146 wRC+), and Bautista (138 wRC+) were the only AL outfielders with better offensive production in the first half. Gardner was a monster. The Yankees scored a lot of runs in the first half and he was a huge reason why.

A Disaster Second Half

Believe it or not, Gardner started the second half fairly well, going 10-for-39 (.256) with a homer and more walks (nine) than strikeouts (eight) in his first eleven games after the break. It all collapsed from there. Gardner put up a .208/.304/.257 (60 wRC+) line in August then a .198/.271/.321 (62 wRC+) line in September (and October). Ice cold like too many of his teammates.

Gardner hit six home runs in the second half and three of them came on the same day. The Yankees played a doubleheader against the Blue Jays on September 12th, and Gardner went 4-for-9 with three homers and a walk on the day. He drove in seven of their 12 runs in the doubleheader.

The overall numbers are ugly. Gardner hit .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+) in the second half, dragging his overall season slash line down to a still respectable .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+). He stole 15 bases (18 attempts) in the first half and only five (seven attempts) in the second half. Brett was two totally different players in 2015. He was unbelievable in the first half. Legitimately one of the most productive outfielders in baseball. Then, in the second half, he ranked 145th out of 156 qualified hitters with that 66 wRC+.

Gardner started the wildcard game in the leadoff spot — Ellsbury was benched against Dallas Keuchel in favor of lefty masher Chris Young — and went 0-for-4 with three ugly strikeouts. He grounded out in the eighth inning and heard loud boos from the Yankee Stadium crowd, which was dumb, but whatever. Fans were frustrated. The Yankees went from leading the AL East (by seven games!) to barely hanging on to a wildcard spot and Gardner’s disaster second half was a huge factor.

Before & After

Something changed this season. There has to be an explanation for Gardner going from great in the first half to a replacement level in the second half. Realistically, his true talent is somewhere in between the two halves. In fact, it’s right where he finished the season. Gardner hit .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) in 2015 after hitting .267/.350/.397 (108 wRC+) as an everyday player from 2010-14, so yeah.

The easy way out would be to blame it on simple regression. He was so insanely hot in the first half and then the other shoe dropped, bringing his numbers where they belonged. That is … unsatisfying. For instance, we know Gardner had some kind of wrist injury this year. We don’t know how much it affected his performance, but it would be silly to ignore it. Wrist injuries are kind of a big deal.

We know the raw stats, the 137 wRC+ in the first half followed by the 66 wRC+ in the second half. Let’s look at some batted ball data to see if anything else was going on.

Brett Gardner batted ball

Gardner hit considerably more fly balls in the second half than he did in the first half, which at least somewhat explains going from a .363 BABIP to a .247 BABIP. Fly balls are bad for BABIP business.

Even worse for BABIP business: not hitting the ball hard. Gardner’s hard contact rate fell big time after the All-Star break — he had a 27.5% hard contact rate from 2013-14, so his first half number isn’t unusual, but his second half number is way down — and that’s another BABIP killer. Unless you can expertly place the ball like peak Ichiro Suzuki, less hard contact generally leads to fewer hits. The wrist could be one possible explanation.

Gardner’s spray rates didn’t change much. He’s always been pretty good at hitting to all fields and in the second half he hit some more balls back up the middle rather than the other way to left field. That’s not really a huge deal in my opinion. Had Gardner suddenly started pulling like 50% of his balls in play, that would be a red flag. There’s only a slight change. No biggie.

More fly balls and less hard contact is a really good way to reduce offensive production. I can’t explain why it happened — I’m not even sure Gardner and the Yankees can explain it right now — but it happened. It would be nice if the wrist was behind all this, that way we could point to an injury and simply wait for it to heal. Injuries are a pretty good excuse most of the time.

It could also be that Gardner wore himself down in the first half. He has a history of being better in the first half — career 115 wRC+ before the All-Star break and 88 wRC+ after — and a few reports this summer indicated the Yankees are concerned Gardner’s hard-nosed style of play causes him to wear down late in the season. That’s a plausible explanation too. It also could be Gardner was a mechanical mess and lost his swing. It happens.

My guess as to the cause of Gardner’s second half fade: everything. It was a little of everything. The wrist, being worn down, some swing issues, some poor ball-in-play luck, everything. This could all be connected too — the wrist injury led to bad hitting mechanics, etc. I don’t think Gardner is suddenly a true talent 66 wRC+ hitter. He didn’t forget how to hit during the All-Star break. Something happened and I don’t know what.

Looking Ahead to 2016

There have been more than a few Gardner trade rumors this winter — we know the Yankees have talked to the Mariners about him — and while that’s nothing new, it does seem like there is a bit more validity to them this year. He’s one of their few (only?) movable veteran players and the Yankees would be able to replace him internally after picking up Aaron Hicks. For now, Gardner remains the team’s starting left fielder. I think a trade is a very real possibility though.

If the Yankees are planning to spend when huge contracts end, they should do it this offseason instead

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

It’s the offseason, which means we’re seeing constant updates about the Yankees and how they don’t want to spend money or trade their best prospects or give up their first round draft pick. We hear the same stuff every offseason and inevitably the Yankees do some of that, either spend money or give up prospects. They can’t not do anything, not when they continue to push “World Series or bust” mantra.

The offseason is still young and the Yankees have made just one notable move so far, swapping John Ryan Murphy for Aaron Hicks. They’re trying to get younger so trades figure to be the focus this winter — just like they were the focus last winter — because that’s how you get younger. Free agents aren’t young. They’ve put their 6+ years in and have earned the right to test the open market. Guys in their mid-20s like Jason Heyward are extremely rare.

The Yankees had relatively little money come off the books this year, roughly $20M total between a bunch of low cost one-year contract guys (Stephen Drew, Chris Capuano, Chris Young, Garrett Jones). Next year some of the huge contracts begin to expire. Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran will be free agents next offseason, then Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia come off the books the offseason after that.

“The last couple of years, the money that has come off, we’ve had to put it back in,” said Hal Steinbrenner to Ken Davidoff. “Fill voids because we haven’t had the young players to do it with. The guys that we picked up two years ago, the McCanns and the Ellsburys, they’ve been great. Glad we did it. A couple of years from now, the payroll situation will be different. I’ll have flexibility. We will be active on the free agent market. We always are. But I’ve got other options.”

Between Teixeira and Beltran, the Yankees will dump $40M or so in payroll next winter. Another $50M or so disappears thanks to A-Rod and Sabathia the following year. That’s an awful lot of money. But where does that money go? Hal can say they “will be active on the free agent market,” but have you seen the upcoming free agent classes? Here’s my quick ranking of next offseason’s top ten free agents:

  1. Stephen Strasburg – really great when healthy
  2. Carlos Gomez – kind of annoying but really good
  3. Jose Bautista – like the Blue Jays are letting him leave
  4. Kenley Jansen – like the Dodgers are letting him leave
  5. Edwin Encarnacion – he’s a DH
  6. Adrian Beltre – he’ll be 37 in April
  7. Justin Turner – looks like a human-sized leprechaun
  8. Matt Wieters – oh geez
  9. I got nothing
  10. Really, that’s it

So yeah, the Yankees are freeing up a boatload of cash soon, but quality free agents aren’t going to magically appear just because the Yankees have money to spend. If anything, the 2016-17 free agent class will only get worse because a few of the actual good players will sign extensions.

The more I think about it, the more I believe the Yankees need to look at this free agent class as their best opportunity to bring in quality players for nothing but cash over the next few years. They could really use a high-end starter, and right now guys like David Price and Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann are available. Next year it’s Strasburg and Jered Weaver. Want a second baseman? Either sign Ben Zobrist or Howie Kendrick now or pretend Martin Prado is comparable next year.

The Yankees have not increased payroll significantly in a decade now, which is both total crap and something we can’t do anything about. Hal Steinbrenner has established his payroll comfort zone in that $200M to $220M range — well, aside from the fact he’s made it clear he wants to get under the luxury tax threshold as soon as possible — and if the Yankees are going to stick to that next year, they won’t be signing any notable free agents this offseason. The math doesn’t work.

For the Yankees to take advantage of this deep free agent class, Hal would have to step out of his payroll comfort zone for a year before the bigger contracts come off the books next winter. Live with a bigger than usual payroll in 2016 before things return to normal in 2017 and beyond. Spending the savings now, basically. It’s either that or sit out the best free agent class in years and look for other ways to improve the team in future offseasons.

The Yankees have gotten burned by big money contracts and I get that. I’m actually in favor of avoiding huge money long-term deals for guys at or over 30. There are very valid baseball reasons to not sign, say, David Price. Heyward is a special case because of his age and a long-term contract makes sense for him. Otherwise the mid-range free agents are where the Yankees can benefit the most, guys like Zobrist or Hisashi Iwakuma, who likely could be had for high-salary three-year deals. (Iwakuma might take two years.) The money’s not really the issue — at least it shouldn’t be for the Yankees — the years are the sticking point.

Long story short, the upcoming free agent classes stink and there won’t be many good places for the Yankees to spend the Teixeira, Beltran, Sabathia, and A-Rod savings. The smart thing to do in my opinion is to target free agents this offseason — get the help you need to contend and maybe actually win a postseason game — and live with the high payroll for a year. (That’s easy for me to say, of course.) Waiting for the contracts to come off the books before spending comes with a high opportunity cost. They’ll miss out on a lot of good players who fill obvious needs.

Dallas Keuchel wins 2015 AL Cy Young award; Miller and Betances get votes

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)
(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

Thanks in part to his dominance of the Yankees, Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel was named the 2015 AL Cy Young award winner tonight. Tigers and Blue Jays southpaw David Price finished a relatively close second while Athletics righty Sonny Gray finished third. The full voting results are at the BBWAA’s site.

Both Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances received down-ballot Cy Young votes. Miller received one fourth place vote and one fifth place vote, finishing tenth overall. Betances received one fifth place vote and finished 14th in the voting. No other Yankees received Cy Young votes, as expected. None of the starters had a good case for even a fifth place vote.

Cubs righty Jake Arrieta between out Dodgers co-aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke for the NL Cy Young. The MVPs will be announced tomorrow night. The Yankees do not have any finalists, but as with the Cy Young, I’m sure one or two players will get down-ballot votes. Someone will vote for Alex Rodriguez, right?

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Here’s a fun David Schoenfield post highlighting ten interesting nuggets from the latest Bill James Handbook. Apparently pitchouts are dying. It’s close to impossible to notice while watching games but the numbers show teams are calling fewer pitchouts than ever before. Also, no one throws 125+ pitches in a start anymore. That doesn’t surprise me.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Nets are the only local sports team in action this evening, and there are only three college basketball games going on. Good night to catch up on Netflix, I guess. I really enjoyed Narcos, if you’re looking for a recommendation. Talk about whatever here.

Rosenthal: Tigers asked about Andrew Miller before K-Rod trade

"Trade rumors are dumb." (Patrick Smith/Getty)
“Trade rumors are dumb.” (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Earlier today the Tigers made a move in hopes of improving their perpetually shaky bullpen, acquiring Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers for an infield prospect. K-Rod, who is somehow still only 33, had a 2.21 ERA (2.91 FIP) in 57 innings this past season. There is $9.5M left on his contract and the last thing a rebuilding team like the Brewers needs is an expensive closer.

A few hours before the trade Ken Rosenthal reported the Tigers had inquired about the availability of Andrew Miller, though they weren’t comfortable with the asking price. Rosenthal says the Tigers are not eager to move the players they acquired in the David Price and Yoenis Cespedes trades, who are basically their top prospects. Detroit also checked in on Aroldis Chapman.

The Yankees are said to be “shopping everyone,” and it makes sense to at least see what the market is for Miller given the haul the Padres received for Craig Kimbrel last week. In addition to the Tigers, the Diamondbacks have also asked about Miller in recent weeks. I’m sure a bunch of other clubs have as well. High-end relievers are always in demand. The asking price is high and it should be. Also, for what it’s worth:

I suppose it’s possible the Yankees and Tigers could rekindle their Miller trade talks at some point — after all, the Tigers need relievers, plural — though unless the Yankees lower their asking price, I don’t think it’ll happen. And there’s no reason to lower the asking price. Miller’s great and his contract isn’t onerous. If he were on another team and being shopped, we’d want the Yankees to get him.

The Yankees tend to keep things pretty close to the vest — the Aaron Hicks trade came of nowhere, for example — and the fact all these Miller rumors are leaking leads me to believe there are no serious talks. If things go quiet, it could either mean they’re in serious talks or nothing is going on. I guess that’s part of the intrigue. We’ll see.

Prospect Profile: James Kaprielian

(Staten Island Advance)
(Staten Island Advance)

James Kaprielian | RHP

Kaprielian is a Southern California kid who was born in Orange County and grew up in Tustin. He played football as well as three years of varsity baseball at Beckman High School, going 33-3 with a 0.96 ERA overall. Kaprielian threw eleven shutouts and two no-hitters in his career, and he didn’t walk a batter his junior year. “He was a special player to get to coach,” said coach Zach Reeder to Tim Burt.

Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Kaprielian as the 73rd best prospect in the 2012 draft, though bonus demands and a strong commitment to UCLA caused him to fall to the 40th round, when the Mariners grabbed him. Kaprielian did not sign out of high school and instead went to college. By the way, his name is pronounced “ka-pril-ian.”

As a freshman, Kaprielian had a 1.55 ERA with 53 strikeouts and 24 walks in 40.2 innings across 34 relief appearances. He pitched for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League after the season, where he posted a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings. He struck out 28 and participated in the league All-Star Game.

The Bruins moved Kaprielian into the rotation his sophomore year and he immediately took over as their Friday night starter. He blossomed into one of the best starters in the nation, pitching to a 2.29 ERA with a conference leading 108 strikeouts and 34 walks in 15 starts and 106 innings. That performance earned him All-Pac-12 honors.

Kaprielian pitched for the US Collegiate National Team during the summer and struck out a dozen in six shutout innings against Chinese Taipei. He pitched soon after losing his mother to breast cancer and his effort was recognized as the USA Baseball International Performance of the Year.

Kaprielian had a 2.02 ERA with 114 strikeouts and 33 walks in 106.2 innings spread across 16 starts and one relief appearance as a junior this spring, earning him Second Team All-American honors. On May 15th, he threw nine no-hit innings against Arizona in the first no-hitter in UCLA history. (They won in ten innings.)

Prior to the 2015 draft, Baseball America and Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Kaprielian as the 19th and 27th best prospect in the draft class, respectively. The Yankees, who were linked to Kaprielian all spring, grabbed him with their first round pick, the 16th overall selection. He signed a few days before the deadline for a $2.65M bonus, slightly more than the $2.43M slot value.

Pro Debut
UCLA’s season ended June 1st and Kaprielian didn’t sign until July 15th, so the Yankees eased him into things to start his pro debut. He made two quick tune-up appearances with the Rookie Gulf Coast League Yankees before moving up to Short Season Staten Island, where he made three more starts. Kaprielian allowed six runs (five earned) on ten hits and four walks in 11.1 innings in his pro debut. He fanned 14.

The Yankees turned Kaprielian loose during the NY-Penn League postseason. He made two starts for the Staten Island Yanks in the playoffs and they were both great: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K in the first one, then 6.1 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 6 K in the second one. The Baby Bombers were swept in the Championship series but Kaprielian, who started Game One in both postseason series, was pretty great. Between college and pro ball, Kaprielian threw 130.1 total innings in 2015. He then participated in Instructional League after the season.

Scouting Report
At 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., Kaprielian is a big and sturdy guy with an ideal pitcher’s frame. He has the basic four-pitch mix — fastball, curveball, slider, changeup — and he uses all four pitches regularly. This isn’t a guy with a show-me changeup or something like that. Kaprielian has good feel for each of his pitches and all four are weapons. His deep arsenal is the reason he was fifth pitcher taken in this summer’s draft.

Kaprielian’s fastball sat 90-93 mph for most of his college career before jumping to 92-95 mph with a few 96s late this spring. He sustained his newfound velocity in his pro debut as well. Depending on the day, either the curveball or slider is Kaprielian’s best breaking ball, though both are above-average pitches. The slider is a mid-80s offering with short and sharp break, so much so that it almost looks like a cutter. The curve mostly sits in the 78-82 mph range and Kaprielian can throw it for strikes or bury it in the dirt for swings and misses.

The changeup is Kaprielian’s fourth pitch and was a point of emphasis after turning pro. The Yankees had him throw it a bunch with Staten Island and it’s really more of a circle change with tumbling action in the low-80s. He tends to spike it in the dirt when he misses. Kaprielian’s command rates as above-average and he pitches aggressively, going after hitters rather than nibbling and trying to set them up.

Kaprielian’s delivery is not textbook — he lifts his leg up then brings it down before striding forward, and his shoulders dip along with his lower half — but it’s not violent or anything that needs to be changed. It’s almost like a halfway drop-and-drive delivery. The Yankees really value good makeup and it’s no coincidence Kaprielian drew raves for his maturity and work ethic at UCLA.

2016 Outlook
After three years in the Pac-12, including the last two as the best starting pitcher in the conference, Kaprielian is on the very fast track. He’s ready for High-A Tampa and his time there may be brief. As a four-pitch guy with command and maturity, Kaprielian could jump on the Ian Kennedy track and make his MLB debut late in 2016. Kennedy made ten starts with High-A Tampa, nine with Double-A Trenton, six with Triple-A Scranton, then three with the Yankees in 2007, his first full pro season. Even if Kaprielian doesn’t make his MLB debut in 2016, he should be a big league option no later than the first half of 2017. This isn’t a guy you draft in the middle of the first round then hold back in the minors. Kaprielian’s potential to move very quickly was part of his appeal at the time of the draft.

My Take
I really like Kaprielian and think he got a raw deal from may fans at the time of the draft, being labeled low upside and things like that. If the velocity spike is legit — he held it from spring all through the summer in pro ball — Kaprielian has significant ceiling and could pitch near the front of a big league rotation. Even if the velocity increase doesn’t last and he reverts back to 90-93 mph, he’s still a no doubt starter with the frame to be a workhorse. The Yankees have started to lean on their farm system a little more and I’m excited to see Kaprielian cut through the minors quickly and make his debut as soon as next season.

The Ups and Downs of Masahiro Tanaka [2015 Season Review]


Last season Masahiro Tanaka was everything the Yankees hoped he would be after handing him a massive seven-year, $155M contract. He was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, both in terms of traditional stats and advanced stats. Tanaka was selected to the All-Star Game and a candidate to start, and he was very much in the AL Cy Young conversation.

It all came to a crashing halt in late-June, when Tanaka felt a twinge in his elbow and missed three months with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. The rest and rehab protocol worked and Tanaka made two starts at the end of the season because why not? Additional rest wasn’t going to help, the doctors said. The Yankees didn’t want the elbow to give out, but, if it did, they wanted it to happen late in 2014 rather than early 2015.

The elbow injury lingered over Tanaka all summer in 2015. Every time he had a bad start — heck, every time he made a bad pitch — there were questions about the health of his elbow. It was unavoidable. The elbow stayed intact this past season, though Tanaka’s performance was not as excellent as his rookie season. He was occasionally good, occasionally bad, and mostly in between.

A Healthy Spring, Please

I still haven’t forgotten how I felt watching Tanaka’s first Grapefruit League start. I remember figuratively sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for him to throw a pitch, grab his elbow, and walk off the mound. It was gross. After the injury last season, it felt like only a matter of time until the elbow blew out for good.

That never happened. Tanaka went through Spring Training with no issues. He made four Grapefruit League starts plus one more in a minor league game, allowing five runs (four earned) in 14.2 innings. Tanaka struck out 13 and walked one. That is pretty damn good. That anxiousness watching him pitch and waiting for his elbow to give out still existed, but it started to fade, at least for me.

“I feel good that I was able to come through camp healthy, right now. So that being said, yeah, I am a bit relieved,” said Tanaka to reporters following his final spring start.

Four & Out

For the first time in six years, someone other than CC Sabathia started Opening Day for the Yankees. Joe Girardi & Co. tabbed Tanaka for the Opening Day start and it didn’t go well: five runs (four earned) in four innings against the Blue Jays. Tanaka struck out six and walked two. A two-run Edwin Encarnacion homer was the big blow.

Tanaka’s second start wasn’t much better. He allowed four runs (three earned) in five innings against the Red Sox, this time allowing a solo home run to Hanley Ramirez. Tanaka fanned four and struck out three. He walked five batters in his first two starts of 2015. It wasn’t until his sixth start last year that Tanaka walked his fifth batter of the season.

Needless to say, the back-to-back poor starts to open the season led to questions about Tanaka’s health and his effectiveness with a compromised elbow. They were absolutely fair questions to ask given the circumstances. Then, in his third start of the season, Tanaka manhandled the Rays, holding them to two hits in seven shutout innings. He struck out eight and walked none.

That was the Tanaka we saw for much of the first half last year. He recorded strikeouts on his fastball, slider, and splitter, pitched quickly and efficiency, and had the Rays completely off balance. When Tanaka is at his best, he’s totally unpredictable. He throws anything at any time.

Tanaka started again five days later and again pitched well, holding the Tigers to one run on three hits and two walks in 6.1 innings. So despite those rough first two starts, Tanaka owned a 3.22 ERA and held hitters to a .175/.236/.313 batting line in his first four starts. It was uneven — two bad starts, two great starts — but it was still early.

The Injury We Didn’t Expect

After those first four starts, Tanaka landed on the 15-day DL with a mild right forearm strain. He reportedly felt a little something down near his wrist, the Yankees sent him for tests, and shut him down. The plan was no throwing for 7-10 days, then a throwing program. There was no firm timetable for his return but Brian Cashman guessed it would be a month or so.

“Let’s conservatively just throw a month out there until we get him back in the rotation,” said the GM. “It could be sooner, but he’s a starter. You’ve got to build him back up. You shut him down. At the very least, 7-10 days of no throwing, and that’s the least, so it could be more. When he feels better, we’ll get him going. You get him on a throwing program, then you get him back on the mound as long as all that goes fine. Then he’s got to get his pitch count back up, get him back into rehab games. Because he’s a starter, it’s a little bit more time because of that.”


The Yankees placed Tanaka on the 15-day DL on April 28th and he resumed throwing on May 7th. It wasn’t much — 50 throws at 60 feet — but it was something. The throwing program continued with no problems and Tanaka was able to make his first official minor league rehab start on May 21st, less than a month after getting hurt. He made another rehab start six days later and that was it. Two starts and he was back in the rotation.

It goes without saying everyone assumed the worst when Tanaka was first placed on the DL. That’s how it is with every injury. Guy pulls up lame running to first base? That’s a blown hammy he’ll be out six months. Outfielder crashes into the wall? That’s a separated shoulder we’ll see him next year. Pitcher goes down with a forearm injury? Schedule the Tommy John surgery. That Tanaka had the elbow trouble last year didn’t help matters.

Instead, the injury was nothing more than what the team said it was, a mild forearm strain. Tanaka was back in a month, as expected. It was curiously accordingly to plan. That’s … weird. It doesn’t usually happen like that.

Return of the Ace

Tanaka was as good as it gets after coming off the DL. He made his first start back on June 3rd and struck out nine Mariners in seven innings. They scored one run on three hits and no walks. Six days later he held the Nationals to one run in seven innings. He stuck out six and walked none. The run was a Bryce Harper solo homer which, you know, happens. Six days after that Tanaka allowed two runs in seven innings against the Marlins.

So, in his first three starts back from the injury, Tanaka allowed four runs on 17 hits in 21 innings. He walked no one. Literally zero walks against 21 strikeouts. Go back to his two starts before landing on the DL and Tanaka had allowed five runs on 22 hits and two walks in his previous 34.1 innings. The Yankees were scoring a boatload runs and the guy they effectively designated their ace before the season was pitching like an ace. It was wonderful.

Tanaka had back-to-back rough starts on June 21st and 27th, first allowing seven runs (five earned) in five innings against the Tigers, then allowing six runs in five innings against the Astros. He allowed three home runs in each start. The home runs were definitely a problem. Tanaka gave up some dingers last year but was giving them up even more often this past season. Even when he was pitching well, it seemed like he allowed one #obligatoryhomer per start.

The two bad starts were just that, two bad starts. They didn’t lead to a DL stint or an extended slump. Tanaka rebounded from the back-to-back duds and pitched well pretty much the rest of the season. From that point on, he posted a 3.31 ERA (3.96 FIP) in 15 starts and 100.2 innings. Homers (1.34 HR/9 and 16.3 HR/FB%) were still a problem, but Tanaka was missing bats (21.3%), limiting walks (4.3%), and keeping the ball on the ground (48.1%).

The Blue Jays eventually passed the Yankees in the AL East, mostly because they won nine of 13 games against New York in the second half. Tanaka was pretty much the only starter the Yankees had who could put up a fight against the high-powered Toronto offense. He made three starts against the Blue Jays in the second half: 22 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 20 K. That includes a complete game win on August 15th.

Aside from missing a start in September because he felt a tug in his hamstring running out a bunt, Tanaka stayed healthy after returning from the forearm issue in June. The Yankees did whatever they could to ensure he had an extra day of rest whenever possible too. Tanaka made 24 starts in 2015 and only five came on normal rest. He had at least one extra day for the other 19 starts.

Three of those five starts with normal rest came in September, when the Yankees were fighting for the AL East title and later a wildcard spot. Tanaka was pitching well and they needed him out there as often as possible. Expanded rosters meant they had spot starter options if they wanted to give him extra rest, but they opted to use Tanaka on normal rest three times. They protected him all season then turned him loose when they needed him the most.

Tanaka finished the regular season with a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP) in 154 innings. He had great strikeout (22.8%) and walk (4.4%) numbers, a good grounder rate (47.0%), and awful homer rates (1.46 HR/9 and 16.9 HR/FB%). Eighty-nine pitchers threw at least 150 innings in 2014 and only eight allowed home runs at a greater rate than Tanaka. At the same time, he had the sixth lowest walk and second highest chase rate. Only Carlos Carrasco (38.7%) generated more swings on pitches out of the zone than Tanaka (38.6%).

The Yankees selected Tanaka to start the wildcard game because he was clearly the best option. The only viable alternative was Luis Severino, and that went out the window when he started on the penultimate day of the regular season. Tanaka allowed two runs — solo homers, of course — in five innings in the wildcard game loss. It wasn’t a great start by any means, but maybe score some runs? Tanaka wasn’t the reason the team’s season ended that night.

The Home Run Problem

Like I said, Tanaka gave up a lot of home runs this season. Twenty-five, in fact. Here is a breakdown of the dingers:

Solo homers: 19
Multi-run homers: 6 (five two-run, one three-run)
Homers at home: 17
Homers on the road: 8
Homers by a righty: 12
Homers by a lefty: 13
Average distance: 404.6 feet (31st longest in MLB among 125 pitchers with 10+ homers allowed)

Anecdotally, Tanaka gets away with a lot of mistake pitches, and I attribute that to his general unpredictability. We see hitters swing through a lot of hanging sliders and things like that, and that’s because they’re looking for splitters down in the dirt and get caught off guard.

At the same time, when hitters do catch up to one of Tanaka’s mistakes, they crush it. They don’t hit a line drive single or rip a ball into the gap. It goes over the fence. Here are the pitch types and locations of Tanaka’s 25 homers in 2015:

Masahiro Tanaka home run locations

That’s a lot of belt high pitches over the middle of the plate. Most of the homers came on some kind of fastball too, a four-seamer or cutter or sinker. There’s a few sliders and splitters in there but most are heaters.

Tanaka gave up a league average amount of homers last season (0.99 HR/9) and I think he’s always going to be homer prone. Hopefully not as homer prone as he was this past season, I’d rather him be closer to 2012, but Tanaka’s pitching style seems conducive to dingers. He doesn’t have a huge fastball and he throws so many offspeed pitches that he inevitably hangs a few. Yankee Stadium doesn’t help either.

The silver lining is Tanaka’s ability to limit base-runners. He actually led all AL pitchers (min. 150 IP) with a 0.994 WHIP — Dallas Keuchel was second at 1.017 — because he doesn’t walk anyone and he’s generally hard to hit. Tanaka held opponents to a .221 AVG and a .242 BABIP this year. (.240 AVG and .299 BABIP last year.) There’s a reason 19 of those 25 homers were solo shots. He doesn’t put many guys on base to start with. (He only hit one batter too.)

Before & After

A partially torn elbow ligament is a serious injury. Most of the time it leads to Tommy John surgery and it still might for Tanaka, but he made it through 2015 in one piece. Most pitchers who attempt to rehab the injury don’t even make it back on the mound. The rehab doesn’t work and they go under the knife before picking up a ball.

As soon as he returned to the mound last season, Tanaka was way ahead of the game. He was one of the exceptions and continues to be. Tanaka is looking more like Adam Wainwright, who pitched five years with a partially torn ligament before needing surgery, and Ervin Santana, who has been pitching with a partial tear for years now, than guys like Matt Harvey, Drew Hutchison, and Cory Luebke. Those guys got hurt, tried to rehab, then had surgery because the rehab didn’t take.

Now, that said, Tanaka’s elbow has physically changed. His elbow ligament has been compromised to a reportedly small degree, but compromised nonetheless. I spent a whole bunch of time clicking around on Brooks Baseball, so here’s some PitchFX data comparing pre-injury Tanaka to 2015 Tanaka.

Average Velocity

Masahiro Tanaka velocity

There was a time very early this season when Tanaka was leaning on his offspeed pitches, weirdly leading many to say he was protecting his elbow by not throwing fastballs. That seemed completely backwards. A pitcher worried about his elbow would throw more fastballs and fewer breaking balls, not vice versa. There has been all sorts of research showing breaking stuff is more hazardous to the elbow than heaters. It was … weird.

Anyway, Tanaka’s average velocities held pretty steady this year, includes his various fastballs and trademark splitter. In fact, his velocity improved this year. (He added almost three miles an hour to his curveball!) I was curious to see the velocity comparison and I’m relieved to see nothing that worries me. Next.

Pitch Selection

Masahiro Tanaka pitch selection

Woof. What a mess of a graph. Blame Tanaka for throwing so many different types of pitches. I wanted to looked at his game-by-game pitch selection graph to see what kind of changes Tanaka made this year. It’s going to change from start to start of course, but I wanted to see if there were any significant changes after the elbow injury and after the forearm injury this year.

Instead, it looks like Tanaka leaned heavily on his splitter and slider down the stretch, which is what I boxed out in the graph. He didn’t shelve his fastball, no pitcher can do that and succeed, but Tanaka really emphasized the slider and splitter late in the season. Again, that goes against what you’d expect from a pitcher with an elbow ligament issue. If he was worried about the elbow, you’d think the last thing he would do is throw so many splitters and sliders. Weird.

Anyway, there doesn’t appear to be any significant difference in Tanaka’s overall pitch selection after the elbow injury. I was looking to see if he scaled back on his splitter or stopped throwing his slider, something like that. That didn’t appear to be the case while watching Tanaka pitch this summer and the PitchFX data backs it up. Tanaka threw everything.

Release Point

Masahiro Tanaka vertical release pointTanaka’s release point gradually dropped as the season progressed. It dropped significantly in his fourth start of the season, the one prior to his DL stint, which I guess makes sense. But even after he returned, it gradually got lower and lower. The difference between April and September is about 4.5 inches.

It’s not unheard of for a pitcher’s arm to drop as the season progresses — everyone’s release point drops over time — and it’s mostly a fatigue thing. They get tired as the innings build up and they aren’t strong enough to keep the same arm slot. Tanaka has thrown a lot of innings in his career, and while he didn’t see his arm slot drop last season, we have to remember he missed almost the entire second half.

It is definitely possible the partially torn ligament contributed to Tanaka’s falling arm slot, though I don’t think we can say that with any certainty. It could be fatigue. Tanaka pitched only half a season last year and the Yankees gave him a ton of time off between starts this season. Maybe it was too much. I’m not really sure. I consider this a red flag because I’m not sure what else to consider it. Sweeping it under the rug seems wrong. Let’s see what happens next year.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Tanaka did indeed have elbow surgery after the season, but not Tommy John surgery. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow. Apparently it’s been in there since his time in Japan. Who knows how long that was bothering him this year. He’s not having the surgery just because. It didn’t bother him in the past but bothered him enough this year to have it taken out.

Anyway, Tanaka is expected to be ready in time for Spring Training and I’m sure the Yankees will treat him the same way next season. That means extra rest whenever possible — on paper, they have better rotation depth than they did last year, but who knows what things will look like in April and May — and another Opening Day start. Tanaka remains the team’s best starting pitcher.