Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Starting Pitcher

Masahiro Tanaka



Status: Active
Position: Starting Pitcher
Bats/Throw: Right/Right
How Acquired: Free Agent, 2014
Contract: 7 years, $155 million (2014-2020, opt out after 2017)
Awards: None
World Series Championships: None
Shop for Masahiro Tanaka merchandise

Spring Notes: Tanaka, Sabathia, A-Rod, Castro, Nova, Davis

Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)
Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)

Pitchers and catchers are due to report to Spring Training in just six days. Many — or most, it seems — are already in Tampa though, so some early camp notes are starting to trickle in. This is good. I am ready for baseball. Here’s a roundup of recent news and notes from Tampa.

Tanaka begins throwing, may be behind other starters in camp

Masahiro Tanaka has gotten back on a mound after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow in October. According to Ronald Blum, Tanaka threw a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium last week in front of pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Bryan Hoch says Tanaka played catch in Tampa today. Afterwards he said he needs to “get innings in (to) see how I feel” before knowing whether he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild told Dan Martin Tanaka’s “throwing program was right on target,” though Brian Cashman was a bit more conservative. “He will enter Spring Training maybe a little behind for precautionary reasons. He may be behind going off the bullpen from the beginning, but he is healthy. There are no issues, there are no hiccups,” said the GM to George King.

CC Sabathia was behind the other starters in Spring Training 2013 after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow early during the 2012 offseason. He was ready to start the season on time; the club limited his bullpen work early in camp, and had him make his first few spring starts in controlled minor league games rather than regular Grapefruit League games. Tanaka could do the same this spring. We’ll see.

“When you pitch a good game, you’re the hero,” said Tanaka, who worked out with his former Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates in Japan this offseason, to Brad Lefton. “When you have a bad game, everyone says, ‘Something’s wrong with the elbow.’ There’s no way to handle it other than to just accept that’s the way it’s going to be. If you want to stop such talk, then you just have to go out and keep winning ballgames.”

Sabathia and his knee are feeling great

You can file this in the classic early Spring Training everything is awesome category: CC Sabathia’s knee feels great and he’s doing very well following his stint in an alcohol treatment center, he told Laura Albanese and Mark Feinsand. “I feel great and I’ve been working hard for the last three months and I’m ready to go,” said Sabathia. “I’m excited … This is the best I’ve felt in three years.”

Sabathia, now 35, usually throws year round, but he took a month off from throwing a baseball while in rehab. He’s been throwing off a mound for three weeks now. “I’m definitely in a good place. You’ve never got this thing beat; it’s always there and I’m always going to be a recovering alcoholic, but I’m in a good place,” he said. “This is my 16th year in the big leagues and you can take it for granted. This whole experience has put a new lease on my career and the way I’m viewing it.”

I’d be lying if I said I have even medium high hopes for Sabathia this coming season — I’ve done the “overly optimistic about CC” thing a few times these last three years — but I’m glad he feels great and his alcoholism recovery is going well. That goes beyond baseball and he’ll be fighting it the rest of his life. On the field, if the new knee brace allows Sabathia to give the Yankees, say, 180 league average innings in 2016, that would be an enormous upgrade over what he gave them from 2013-15.

Cashman reiterates A-Rod will be a DH only

As if it was not already clear, Cashman reiterated the Yankees see Alex Rodriguez as a DH and a DH only going forward. “You’ve got to stop asking Alex questions,” said Cashman to Billy Witz. “He’s not playing any position anymore. He’s a DH. He’s a very productive DH. For us to get maximum value out of Alex Rodriguez, he’s going to only DH. If we have to put him in the field somewhere, we’re in trouble.”

I wish the Yankees would at least entertain the idea of giving Alex some time at first base in Spring Training, but obviously that’s not going to happen. Greg Bird is done for the season, leaving Dustin Ackley as the backup first baseman. It would be nice if A-Rod were at least capable of being an emergency fill-in at first base for a few innings. Alas. The DH spot is his and his alone.

Castro will play some third base in Spring Training

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

As expected, the Yankees will have Starlin Castro play some third base in Spring Training this year, Cashman told Ryan Hatch. Castro has not played third since rookie ball years and years ago, and that was only a handful of games. He’s played shortstop most of his career, so he is familiar with being on the left side of the infield. Castro moved to second base last August, and I’m not sure giving him another new position to learn right now is the best idea, but we’ll see.

“It’s too early to tell (if he can handle third), so we’ll take the time in Spring Training,” said Cashman. “If (he) can swing over and play some third for us and spell Chase (Headley), that’s a huge benefit for roster flexibility, but if he can’t, we’re not going to force it … If it’s something he’s not comfortable with we’re certainly not going to force that either. But we’ll certainly find out when we get to know him a little better and see how he looks.”

Nova wants to start, because duh

Ivan Nova, who is currently sixth on the rotation depth chart, told Martin he wants to start this year but will pitch out of the bullpen if necessary. “I’m a starting pitcher. I’m not a reliever, but if that’s what they tell me to do, that’s what I’ve got to do,” he said. “If I feel bad going to the bullpen, what’s that going to change?”

The Yankees sent Nova to the bullpen briefly last September, but he never did make a relief appearance and instead moved back into the rotation when Tanaka pulled his hamstring. I firmly believe Nova is going to end up making something like 20-25 starts this year. One or three of the other starters will get hurt and he’ll be the guy to step in. The sixth starter always works more than expected, it seems.

Nova, now 29, had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery last year. He didn’t blame his struggles on the elbow — “Whatever happened last year wasn’t because of the Tommy John. I just didn’t pitch good. If I didn’t feel good, I would have said it,” he said — but I do think it’s fair to expect him to improve as he gets further away from the procedure. That’s common. This is also Ivan’s contract year too. I’m sure he’s extra motivated to pitch well, and the Yankees will happily take it if he does.

Beltran, McCann do not want to play first base

Although both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have briefly played first base for the Yankees, neither wants to do it going forward, they told Anthony McCarron and Brendan Kuty. “No, no, no. I would do anything. Except (play first). It’s a different animal,” said Beltran. McCann added “I don’t think they want me over there. I don’t move too good. I don’t think they want that.”

Both Beltran and McCann have played some first base in pinstripes, so they’re clearly not opposed to the idea, but they don’t want to do it regularly. I understand that. The Yankees shouldn’t want Beltran or McCann to do it at all. Ideally Mark Teixeira stays healthy at first base and mashes taters all season with Ackley backing him up. If it gets to the point where Beltran has to play first, something very bad has happened. By the way, Beltran told Hatch he dropped ten pounds this offseason and joked he “might try and steal some bases this year.”

Cashman confirms Yankees have spoken to Davis

In the wake of Bird’s injury, the Yankees have indeed spoken to free agent Ike Davis, Cashman confirmed to Anthony Rieber. “We’ve talked to Ike Davis. That’s all I can tell you, really. We’ve talked to a lot of people,” said the GM. “Again, in terms of the Greg Bird scenario, we clearly have a need for an everyday first baseman at Scranton. So anybody that we feel is of quality and can fit that bill and is interested and willing to play in Scranton, then we’re going to have those conversations with a number of different people. But we have talked to Ike as well.”

Ken Davidoff says Davis is expected to sign a minor league contract — not necessarily with the Yankees — at some point soon. Davis, 28, hit .229/.301/.350 (83 wRC+) with three homers in 74 games for the A’s last season. He is a year removed from a 109 wRC+ season, however. Davis is a dead pull lefty hitter with power, making him a very good third string first base candidate for the Yankees. At this point of the offseason, he’s the best option to replace Bird in Scranton. Steve Simineri explained why the Yankees should side Davis in a guest post recently.

Searching for Innings

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In bolstering their pitching staff this year, the Yankees opted to continue their recent trend of bullpen dominance. From Mariano Rivera to Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Andrew Miller, the Yankees have had the ninth inning on lockdown for years. Robertson, Dellin Betances, and others have helped secure the earlier innings over the past few seasons as well. Going into 2016, Betances and Miller will be joined–dubiously–by Aroldis Chapman to form a veritable Fluffy in the late innings. There’s little doubt that the Yankees’ relief corps will be elite in 2016 and just like 2014 and 2015, it’ll be expected to anchor the Yankees’ pitching staff. That proposition isn’t all that bad when considering the talent in the bullpen and Joe Girardi‘s generally awesome management thereof. However, there is a chance for the Yankees’ great relievers to be overworked due to the potential lack of innings from their starters.

The 2016 ZiPS Projections–which Mike discussed here–do not think highly of the Yankees’ starters’ workload. They predict that no Yankee pitcher will reach 160 innings and that 2/5 of the Yankee rotation–CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda–will be under 130 IP. This is obviously a concern, though not a new one. In 2015, the Yankees ranked 12th in innings by starting pitchers and were also 12th in innings pitched per start. It is worth noting, however, the the Yankees’ starters were 5th in fWAR in 2015 despite the lack of innings. Talent, it appears, is not necessarily the problem, but there’s still a problem.

Each of the Yankees’ starters carries some level of concern. Four of them–Sabathia, Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka, and Nathan Eovaldi–missed time with injuries last year and the other one–Luis Severino–is going into his first full season as a starter in the Majors. With all that said, it’d make sense for the Yankees to look to bolster their rotation with a trade or free agent acquisition. But, at this point, those options don’t seem likely. The organization doesn’t have a ton to offer in a trade and any potentially impactful starting pitcher is long-gone off the market. Additionally, most of the rotation has enough upside–Sabathia being the exception here–that it’s worth gambling on.

Regardless of that gamble, regardless of underlying talent of much of the rotation, the pressure will be on for the starters to add length to their games this year. The addition of Chapman does help push Betances and Miller back an inning each, but this isn’t a video game; those guys can’t pitch 7-8-9 every single game. Going deep into games is certainly rare these days, and the Yankees and Royals showed last year that you can ride a bullpen to the playoffs (and deep into it). Still, the Yankees need to get more length from their starters. No one’s expecting them to toss 7 innings and hand the ball to someone every fifth day, but upping the average innings by a starter to six would be a good start.

Guest Post: Masahiro Tanaka Can Anchor The Rotation

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.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

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.

Year Soft% Med% Hard%
2014 17.6% 47.6% 34.8%
2015 19.3% 50.1% 30.6%

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:

Year LD% GB% FB% HR/FB
2014 24.4% 46.6% 29.0% 14.0%
2015 19.2% 47.0% 33.8% 16.9%

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!

Yankees lack reliability in the rotation, but not upside

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

So far this offseason the Yankees have worked to improve their lineup (Starlin Castro), their bench (Aaron Hicks), and their bullpen (Aroldis Chapman). They’ve been looking for rotation help all winter, particularly a young starter they can control beyond 2017, but so far they’ve come up empty. With another seven weeks until Spring Training, the Yankees still have time to find another starter.

At the moment, the Yankees do have six starters for five spots, so they have some depth. I’d call it warm body depth rather than quality depth, but depth is depth. And the Yankees are going to need that depth too, because no team gets through a season using only five starters these days. Heck, teams are lucky if they get through a season using only seven starters. That’s the nature of the beast.

The concern with the rotation is the dubious health of the incumbent starters. Every one of them except Luis Severino missed time with an injury last season. All of them except Severino and CC Sabathia had an arm injury. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow and Michael Pineda still hasn’t made it through a full season in one piece in his four years with the Yankees.

“I think there’s depth there but there’s questions about health,” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings. “You have Tanaka coming off a minor surgery — I guess you can say there’s no surgery that’s really minor when it’s to a pitcher’s arm — you have Michael coming back after throwing a lot of innings last year. (Ivan Nova) should be better a year removed from his surgery. I think until you see him throwing in Spring Training and throwing the ball like he’s capable of, you wonder a little bit.”

The health concerns with the rotation are legitimate. The Yankees don’t have anyone they can reasonably count on to stay healthy and take the ball every fifth day without incident. Yes, all pitchers are injury risks, but you can safely pencil guys like David Price and Zack Greinke and Jeff Samardzija in for 30 starts a year. They have the track record of durability. The Yankees don’t have anyone like that. At least not with Sabathia at this point of his career.

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

What the Yankees do have, however, is a lot of upside in their rotation. I feel like this is getting overlooked this offseason. Tanaka is a true difference maker when healthy. He’s an ace on his best days, and even on his worst days he’s merely ordinary and not awful. Severino has all the potential in the world and we’ve seen Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi have extended stretches of dominance (Pineda in 2014, Eovaldi in 2015).

I don’t have high expectations for Sabathia, not even with the new knee brace, but at least Nova will be further away from Tommy John surgery. He’s been very up and down in his career. The ups have been really good though! The downs? Well they’re why he’s the sixth starter and not assured a rotation spot. And who knows, maybe the new knee brace is the magic cure-all Sabathia needs. Even becoming a league average innings eater would be a huge upgrade.

Tanaka turned 27 last month and is the third oldest of the team’s six starters. Sabathia is the elder statesman at 35 and Nova’s the second oldest. He’ll be 29 in two weeks. Pineda (26) and Eovaldi (25) are in their mid-20s and Severino’s just a kid at 21. It would be one thing if the Yankees had a rotation full of Sabathias — veteran guys trying to stave off Father Time and remain effective in their twilight years. That’s not the case. The rotation is pretty young aside from CC.

The best way to describe the Yankees rotation is boom or bust. There’s a lot of injury risk and the bust rate is quite high. Much higher than I think anyone feels comfortable with. There’s also the boom potential that is being ignored for whatever reason. Tanaka, Severino, Pineda, and Eovaldi are a helluva quartet. That’s three young power starters with swing-and-miss stuff — now that Eovaldi has the splitter — plus Tanaka, a master at getting hitters to chase.

The rotation as is doesn’t make me feel very comfortable because there are so many health question marks. I’m not sure adding a reliable innings guy would make me feel much better though. The Yankees may add a young controllable starter, but, for the most part, they’ll sink or swim with this rotation in 2016. The injury risk is scary. But don’t forget the upside either.

“I think our guys are capable of getting it done. But the thing is, you have to keep them out there for 30 to 32 starts,” said Girardi. “I think our rotation has a chance to be good. But we’ve got to keep them out there.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Funny of 2016 ZiPS Projections

2016 ZiPS

Yesterday morning, 2016 ZiPS projections for the Yankees were released over at FanGraphs. There are an awful lot projection systems out there but ZiPS has emerged as the most reliable — especially when it comes to translating minor league or overseas performance — of the bunch. Dan Szymborski’s system is pretty rad.

Anyway, projections are always fun to look at, though you have to take them with a grain of salt. (Those are the WAR projections in the image above.) Remember, projections are not predictions of what the player will do next season. They’re just an attempt to estimate the player’s current talent level. Got it? Good. Here are some Yankees projections that caught my eye for one reason or another.

Aaron Judge

Judge has maybe the most LOL worthy projection, and I mean that in a nice way, not a ZiPS is stupid way. The system him pegs him for 30 home runs … and a 35.0% strikeout rate. That’s just perfect. Judge still has some work to do to combat soft stuff away and I think if the Yankees did stick him in the show right now, he would strike out 30% of the time or more. Then again, 30 dingers! That’s fun. No other Yankee projects for 30 homers.

Greg Bird

In terms of OPS+, Bird projects as the best hitter in the organization right now. ZiPS has him at .252/.324/.486 (122 OPS+) with 26 dingers in 2016. Mark Teixeira (119 OPS+) and Alex Rodriguez (115 OPS+) are the only other players close to Bird. I can buy this. Bird showed a lot of Yankee Stadium friendly pull power in his cameo this year (eleven homers in 46 games) though I do worry teams will LOOGY the hell out of him. Then again, the only non-Yankee lefty starters in the AL East right now are David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Drew Smyly, and Matt Moore. Not exactly Murderer’s Row of southpaws there aside from Price.

Starlin Castro vs. Rob Refsnyder

Projection for Castro: .274/.310/.405 (98 OPS+) with 2.2 WAR. Projection for Refsnyder: .248/.318/.395 (98 OPS+) with 1.9 WAR. That’s basically the same! I’m not sure if I buy that though. I’d bet on Castro outproducing Refsnyder by a pretty decent margin if given the same playing time. There’s also the “they acquired Castro because they think he’s going to get a lot better” thing. Either way, the objective projection system sees Castro and Refsnyder as basically equal.

Oh, and by the way, ZiPS projects a .253/.310/.415 (100 OPS+) batting line for Dustin Ackley next season. Am I the only one who would sign up for that right now, no questions asked? Ackley’s hit .238/.298/.365 (89 OPS+) in his last 1,900 plate appearances.

No Innings

ZiPS projects Masahiro Tanaka to lead the Yankees in innings with … 157.7. Yikes. Luis Severino is second with 154 innings. That just reflects the rotation’s health concerns — injury history is baked into the ZiPS algorithm — which are significant. After all, CC Sabathia led the team with only 167.1 innings this past season, so having no one reach even 160 innings next year would not be the most surprising thing in the world.

The Yankees need some arms. We’ve known this for weeks. This starting staff is risky as hell. Lots of upside and lots of downside, and when four of the five projected 2016 starters missed time with injuries in 2015, the downside outweighs the upside.

The Bullpen Shuttle

In terms of FIP, the best projection among the various bullpen shuttle relievers belongs to … Nick Goody at 3.68. Jacob Lindgren (3.73 FIP) is right there with him. Everyone else is at a 4.00-ish FIP or above. Lindgren and Goody lead the way with 29.5% and 27.3% projected strikeout rates, respectively. We all know about Lindgren, he was the top draft pick who zoomed to MLB, but Goody had a ridiculous 2015 season in the minors (1.59 ERA and 2.06 FIP with 33.2 K%). He might be getting overlooked as a potential bullpen factor in 2016.

The Comps

ZiPS works by comparing players to others with similar statistical profiles, so it spits out a list of comps for each player. The No. 1 comp is included in the FanGraphs post and I always enjoy these because they have a way of knocking you back down to Earth. Take Severino, for example. His No. 1 comp? Kris Benson. Benson was the first overall pick in the 1996 draft and a pretty big prospect back in the day.

Glancing at the list, Dellin Betances is the only Yankee to get a Hall of Famer as his No. 1 comp (Goose Gossage). Well, Pete Kozma drew a Leo Durocher comp, but that’s Leo Durocher the light-hitting infielder and not Leo Durocher the Hall of Fame manager. Andrew Miller drew a Billy Wagner comp and you could argue Wagner’s a Hall of Famer. Bird got a Roberto Petagine comp. Judge? He got Jesse Barfield. Gary Sanchez drew Todd Zeile and Eric Jagielo drew Mark Reynolds. Matt Nokes as the No. 1 comp for Brian McCann gave me a good laugh.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Teixeira, Eovaldi

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Yesterday morning, Brian Cashman went for some practice runs rappelling down the Landmark Building in Stamford for the Heights & Lights ceremony. This is an annual thing for Cashman now and it’s for a good cause, so don’t be a jerk and complain. Anyway, Cashman passed along some injury updates between runs. Here’s the latest, courtesy of Chad Jennings and Bryan Hoch.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) has finished his physical therapy following surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow. He’s heading home to Japan soon and will begin a throwing program. “He’s got a throwing program, so he should be good to go in the spring, but I’m sure we’ll be careful with him nonetheless,” said Cashman.
  • Mark Teixeira (shin) has shed his walking boot and is going through workouts. He’s not scheduled to begin running until after the holidays though. “He’s out of his boot. He’s, I’d say, healthy. He’s walking around, doing activities,” said the GM.
  • Nathan Eovaldi (elbow) is fine. He was ready to be added to the ALDS roster had the Yankees advanced. Eovaldi is going through his normal offseason routine. “No concern. He’s got a normal winter routine that he can execute,” said Cashman

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.