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

Biggest issue for Masahiro Tanaka is trust in his elbow, not fastball velocity

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, the Yankees opened the 2015 season with a 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays. Masahiro Tanaka started out very strong, with dominant first and second innings, then quickly unraveled and allowed five runs (four earned) in the third. He pitched into and out of danger in the fourth and left the game after 82 pitches, the last 50 or so of which were pretty high-stress.

Tanaka’s velocity was a hot topic both before and after the game. It has been for a week or two now. Tanaka said in Spring Training he’s not focused on velocity because he’s throwing more sinking two-seamers, then he doubled down on Saturday by saying he doesn’t expect the velocity to return. Nothing was lost in translation. Tanaka made it clear velocity is a secondary concern this season.

PitchFX says Tanaka averaged 92.5 mph and 91.1 mph with his four-seamer and sinker yesterday, respectively, down negligibly from 92.7 mph and 91.4 mph last year. He did top out at 94.5 mph yesterday, so it’s not like he was out there with Jered Weaver velocity. Most pitchers add a tick or to as the season progresses and the weather heats up, and if Tanaka hadn’t done so much talking about his velocity this spring, we wouldn’t have even noticed it yesterday.

What stands out to me more than the raw radar gun readings is this: 27. Tanaka threw 27 fastballs out of 82 total pitches yesterday. Five four-seamers and 22 sinkers. That’s all. Before the elbow injury last year, Tanaka threw about 40% fastballs and 60% offspeed pitches. Yesterday it was roughly 30% and 70% overall and even more drastic late in his outing — only six of Tanaka’s final 33 pitches were fastballs (18%). He flat out abandoned his heater.

When asked about his lack of fastballs after the game, Tanaka said it was “because they were being hit,” which makes sense. It wasn’t just actual hits either. There were a lot of foul balls and balls in play off his four-seamer and sinker as well. The Blue Jays didn’t swing and miss once at those 27 four-seamers and sinkers, so they were getting the bat on his fastball each time they swung.

Clearly Tanaka is tentative with his fastball right now. Is it mental or physical? Who the hell knows. Considering he did reach back and top out 94.5 mph yesterday, my guess is mental. After the elbow issue last year, I would totally understand if Tanaka was hesitant to cut it loose. Heck, I had a tooth fixed last year and I didn’t chew on that side of my mouth for months even though the dentist said it was fine. I get it.

The weird part of all this is Tanaka is apparently holding back with his fastball but is still willing to throw sliders and splitters seven out of every ten pitches. We’ve heard for years and years that sliders and splitters are bad for the elbow, especially when thrown a lot, so if Tanaka is still concerned about his elbow, you’d expect him to throw fewer non-fastballs, not more. Right? Tanaka abandoning his splitter would be a major red flag. Tanaka abandoning his fastball is just weird.

As good as his offspeed pitches are — Tanaka threw 55 non-fastballs yesterday and got a dozen swing and misses (22%), which is outstanding — Tanaka can’t go through the season throwing 30% fastballs. No non-knuckleballer can. The lowest percentage of fastballs thrown by a non-knuckleball qualified starter during the PitchFX era is 35.5% by … wait for it … 2008 Mike Mussina. Even late-career Moose and his mid-80s gas threw more fastballs on average than Tanaka yesterday.

Hopefully yesterday’s game was just step one for Tanaka. Step one towards feeling normal and trusting the elbow. Like I said, I totally understand why he would be tentative to cut it loose, but this can’t last forever. Hopefully as the season progresses and he realizes that hey, I’m healthy, Tanaka will gain more faith in his fastball and get back to being where he was before the injury last year. The guy we saw yesterday was a reliever. Not someone who can turn a lineup over multiple turns. The Yankees need much more than that from Tanaka.

“Physically, he seems to be fine,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Chad Jennings yesterday. “I’ve watched him between starts all spring, play catch in between, and he’s building arm strength still. We went slow early in the spring, knowing that it’s going to be a work in progress, really. I think he’s holding his own right now. This isn’t the results that you anticipate or want, but I think you have to be reasonable the way you look at things. He is building arm strength and will continue to. There were positives with the split today, it was really good, and I think you’ll see him — as he stays healthy, you’ll see him pitch the way he has in the past.”

email

Yankees finalize Opening Day roster with latest round of roster moves

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3:25pm: The Yankees have officially announced their Opening Day roster. It is exactly as presented below. No surprises.

10:00am: The Opening Day roster has been slowly coming together over the last several weeks, and yesterday afternoon the Yankees made the roster all but official with their latest round of moves, including Austin Romine being designated for assignment. Here is the 25-man roster the Yankees will take into the regular season tomorrow:

CATCHERS (2)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy

INFIELDERS (7)
Stephen Drew
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Garrett Jones
Gregorio Petit
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Carlos Beltran
Brett Gardner
Jacoby Ellsbury
Chris Young

STARTERS (5)
Nathan Eovaldi
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Masahiro Tanaka
Adam Warren

RELIEVERS (7)
Dellin Betances
David Carpenter
Chris Martin
Andrew Miller
Esmil Rogers
Chasen Shreve
Justin Wilson

DISABLED LIST (4)
Chris Capuano (quad) — retroactive to March 27th
Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — retroactive to March 27th
Jose Pirela (concussion) — retroactive to April 2nd
Brendan Ryan (calf) — retroactive to April 1st

Pirela was placed on the 7-day concussion DL while Capuano, Nova, and Ryan were all placed on the regular old 15-day DL. Petit takes Romine’s spot on the 40-man roster, which is full. The Yankees can transfer Nova to the 60-day DL whenever they need another 40-man spot since he’s not expected to return until June. Romine, Petit, and the DL assignments were the moves announced yesterday.

Despite those injuries, the Yankees made it through Spring Training as the healthiest team in the AL East, just as we all expected. The rest of the roster is pretty straight forward. Warren was named the fifth starter a few days ago and it was clear Shreve and Martin were going to make the Opening Day roster once Chase Whitley was optioned to Triple-A. Joe Girardi is planning to use Betances and Miller as co-closers to start the season, which is pretty cool. Hopefully it works as planned. Carpenter and Wilson figure to be the sixth and seventh inning guys.

As always, the 25-man roster is going to change throughout the course of the season. Quite a bit too. Petit figures to be replaced by Pirela or Ryan, whoever gets healthy first, and those bullpen spots belonging to Shreve and Martin could be revolving doors given the team’s relief pitcher depth. That includes Capuano, who could wind up working in relief if Warren fares well as the fifth starter. For now, this is the group of Yankees to start the new season.

Masahiro Tanaka named Opening Day starter, rotation order announced

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As expected, Masahiro Tanaka was officially named the Opening Day starter by Joe Girardi this morning, according to the many reporters in Tampa. He will be followed in order by Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, and the fifth starter to open the season. Girardi declined to name the fifth starter but all signs point to it being Adam Warren.

Sabathia has started the last six Opening Days for the Yankees. The team’s last Opening Day starter before him was Chien-Ming Wang in 2008. Yeah, it’s been a while. It was clear Sabathia would not get the Opening Day nod when it was announced he is scheduled to start tomorrow’s game. The schedule doesn’t line up. Sabathia has played in 14 MLB seasons and has started Opening Day in eleven of them. That’s kinda nuts.

As for Tanaka, he is not only the team’s best pitcher, but starting Opening Day allows him to get an extra day of rest prior to his second and third starts of the season thanks to scheduled off-days on April 7th and 16th. The Yankees have said they would like to get him extra rest whenever possible, especially early in the season thanks to the whole elbow issue. The club won’t need to use a sixth starter to make that happen for at least a few weeks.

Believe it or not, Tanaka only started one Opening Day with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, so this will be his second career Opening Day start and first in pinstripes. Hideo Nomo (2000 Tigers, 2003-04 Dodgers), Daisuke Matsuzaka (2008 Red Sox), and Hiroki Kuroda (2009 Dodgers) are the only other Japanese pitchers to start Opening Day in MLB history. Yu Darvish was slated to start Opening Day for the Rangers this year before blowing out his elbow.

The Yankees open the regular season at home against the Blue Jays on April 6th. Toronto has not yet announced their rotation but apparently Drew Hutchison is lined up for Opening Day. I’m guessing R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle will follow in some order. The Yankees play three games against the Jays then three games against the Red Sox at home before going out on a ten-game road trip through Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and Detroit to start 2015.

Capuano injury, plan for Tanaka could change way Yanks build early-season bullpen

Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be far-fetched. (Presswire)
Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be so far-fetched. (Presswire)

Last week the Yankees lost projected fifth starter Chris Capuano for several weeks with a Grade II right quad strain. Capuano is the team’s most replaceable starter but that doesn’t mean the loss is insignificant. Someone else has to fill that rotation spot now and chances are it will be someone who was slated to open the year in the bullpen, either Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers, most likely. The loss will be felt somewhere.

The Yankees have also been discussing using a six-man rotation early in the season — not necessarily a strict six-man rotation, but rather strategically using a sixth starter on occasion to give the other guys rest. That makes sense considering Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda all have some kind of health concern. In fact, the team is planning to use Tanaka specifically every sixth day early in the season, according to Kevin Kernan.

The Yankees have a plan to keep Masahiro Tanaka as healthy as possible, and that means giving him an extra day of rest now and during the season so he pitches every sixth day.

“It’s something we’d like to do,’’ one Yankees official told The Post on Friday of keeping the rotation on a six-day spin.

Tanaka worked on a six-day schedule in Japan until signing with the Yankees last winter, and given his elbow situation, the extra day could be beneficial both short and long-term. April off-days and a strategic sixth starter will help the Yankees accomplish their goal of starting Tanaka every sixth day, though Capuano’s injury complicates things a little bit because it changes the bullpen construction.

Assuming Warren or Rogers replaces Capuano in the rotation — I think it’ll be Warren personally, but there are still three weeks of Spring Training to go — five of the seven bullpen spots are set:

  1. Dellin Betances
  2. Andrew Miller
  3. David Carpenter
  4. Justin Wilson
  5. Warren or Rogers
  6. ?
  7. ?

There are no shortage of candidates for those last two spots. Finding bodies won’t be difficult. The Yankees have the luxury of filling those spots any way they want because of all the available options. And with Capuano hurt and the Yankees wanting to start Tanaka every sixth day, the most practical way to fill both spots may be with long men. At least temporarily.

Baker. (Presswire)
Baker. (Presswire)

The thinking is one of those two long men — it would really be three long men in the bullpen when you include the Warren/Rogers spot — could step in as the sixth starter as needed to spell Tanaka (and the other starters) every so often. That would leave at least one more long man for other days, in case Warren/Rogers or any of the other starters go short. This isn’t rocket science, the more relievers in the bullpen who can throw multiple innings, the better.

Planning to carry multiple long men is one thing, but actually having multiple viable long men is another. The Yankees started last season with three relievers who could have been considered long relievers (Warren, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno), but that was a bit of an outlier. You don’t see many teams break camp with three guys like that. (I thought the Yankees would sent at least one to Triple-A to stay stretched out as the sixth starter, but nope.)

Here are the club’s long man candidates still in big league camp (listed alphabetically), assuming Warren and Rogers will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity no matter what:

  • Scott Baker: Veteran guy who threw 80.2 generally ineffective innings (5.47 ERA and 4.78 FIP) for the Rangers last year. He’s thrown four innings across a pair of appearances this spring.
  • Kyle Davies: Threw 154.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year and hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2011. He’s thrown four innings in three appearances during Grapefruit League play.
  • Jose DePaula: DePaula has dealt with numerous injuries in recent years and was limited to 51.1 innings in Triple-A last year. He’s made just one appearance this spring, throwing two innings.
  • Bryan Mitchell: Eleven innings in MLB last year and another 103 in the minors. He threw 145.1 minor league innings back in 2013. Mitchell has thrown four innings in two appearances this spring.
  • Chase Whitley: Made the conversion from bullpen to rotation last year and threw a career high 107 innings, including 75.2 in MLB. He’s thrown seven innings this spring, appearing in three games.

We can group these five guys into three different … well, groups. The Yankees have nothing invested in Baker and Davies long-term. They’re older pitchers trying to hang on and the team will not hesitate to run them into the ground, then designate them for assignment. It sounds rough but that’s baseball. Baker and Davies aren’t stupid, they know where they are at this stage of their careers.

Mitchell is an actual prospect and the Yankees do have reason to protect him with an eye towards the future. Mitchell will turn 24 next month and he’s also the least MLB ready of the bunch despite making his debut last season. He could use some more Triple-A time for fine-tuning. DePaula and Whitley are somewhere in the middle. Not really potential pieces of the long-term puzzle like Mitchell but probably not guys the Yankees would abuse a la Baker and Davies either.

The Yankees don’t have to decide on those final bullpen spots for a few weeks and by then they should have a better idea of Capuano’s timetable. If he’s expected back relatively soon, within the first week or two of the regular season, they could opt to take a short reliever who can be optioned down when Capuano’s healthy to make life easy. If he’ll miss a few weeks and not return until closer May, carrying two long relievers like, say, Baker and Whitley early on could make sense if the Yankees intend to stick to their strategic sixth starter plan.

Masahiro Tanaka And The Scenario No One Bothered To Consider [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the second straight year, Masahiro Tanaka came to Spring Training as an unknown. The circumstances this year are very different though. Last year Tanaka was a newcomer to the Yankees and MLB in general, having been signed as a kinda sorta free agent in the offseason. The Yankees obviously believed in him, hence their $175M commitment, but no one knew what he could do for certain.

This year though, Tanaka came to camp as an unknown because of last season’s elbow injury. He missed almost the entire second half with a partially torn elbow ligament that did not require surgery because the tear was so small. Tanaka showed in the first half he was worth every penny of the team’s investment, he was that dominant, though the elbow injury has cast a cloud over his status this year, at least so far.

Things have gone well for Tanaka in Spring Training to this point. He’s had no issues in workouts — bullpens, live batting practice, simulated games, etc. — and his Grapefruit League debut last week was dominant. He looked like the healthy version of Tanaka we saw early last year. Yet the elbow injury lingers in the back of everyone’s mind — Tanaka says he’s not thinking about it but how could he not? — and it’s uncomfortable. That doesn’t lessen his importance to the team, of course.

Yankees Need: Tanaka To Be An Exception

This goes without saying: the Yankees need Tanaka to stay healthy this season. He is arguably the single most important player on the roster — if he’s not the team’s most important player, then he’s on the very short list of candidates — and not just in terms of contending in 2015, but for the future of the franchise overall. Tanaka is the Yankees’ version of Giancarlo Stanton or Mike Trout or Buster Posey. A significant injury to him changes everything.

Tanaka rehabbed his elbow injury last year and while that only slightly delays the inevitable in most cases, it can be enough to keep him healthy for several years. Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana are two players who pitched multiple years with partially torn elbow ligaments. Current Yankees non-roster player Scott Baker did as well. He recently told Chad Jennings he hurt his elbow ligament in college but didn’t need surgery until his seventh year in the big leagues.

Still, guys like Baker and Wainwright and Santana are the exception, not the rule. Others like Chad Billingsley, Drew Hutchison, Matt Harvey, Francisco Liriano, Bronson Arroyo, Cory Luebke, and Pat Neshek are recent of examples of pitchers who tried to rehab their damaged ligament only to need surgery a handful of innings later. If Tanaka’s elbow stays intact this year, he will be the exception given the nature of his injury, and that’s what the Yankees need.

Tanaka Can: Say He Followed Doctor’s Orders

It’s important to understand the Yankees and Tanaka are not being reckless. They’re simply following doctor’s orders. When Tanaka suffered his injury last year, he was examined personally by three doctors — Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad, Mets team doctor David Altchek, and Dodgers team doctor Neal ElAttrache — and his test results were also sent to Dr. James Andrews for review. All four recommended rehab.

Then, before Tanaka returned to the mound late last year, he was again examined and given the okay to pitch. Tanaka also said he underwent an MRI after the season and everything came back clean. He went through the rehab protocol as recommended and the doctors all cleared him to return to action, so that’s what he did. The Yankees and Tanaka did exactly what the experts recommended and that’s what they should have done. Sending him for Tommy John surgery against recommendations would have been the reckless act.

“There’s just no way to say surgery should be your first option,” said Baker to Jennings. “I think the reason people can say that is because of the success of the surgery. As far as sports injuries, aside from the ACL, it’s probably the most successful (surgery) as far as guys getting back to their previous level. So I think that allows (the argument), but does it justify it? No.”

J.J. Cooper recently looked at the success rate of recent Tommy John surgery and found it is actually on the decline. At the Sloan Sports Conference a few weeks ago, Dr. Glenn Fleisig presented research showing only 67% of MLB pitchers who have the procedure make it back for 10+ games. The risk is high — in recent years Luebke, Daniel Hudson, Joel Hanrahan, Jeremy Hefner, and Jonny Venters all needed a second Tommy John surgery before they even finished rehabbing from the first (in Venters’ case, he needed a third while rehabbing from his second) — so Tommy John surgery is something you don’t have until you absolutely need it.

The doctors said Tanaka did not need his elbow rebuilt last summer. They recommended rehab, he rehabbed, and they cleared him to pitch when the rehab was complete. If the elbow gives out at some point this year and he needs Tommy John surgery, then so be it. As long as Tanaka and the Yankees did what the various doctors recommended, they did the right thing.

Yankees Need: An Ace

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees didn’t sink $175M into Tanaka to be a mid-rotation starter. They’re counting on him to be an ace — for years to come too, Tanaka is only 26 remember — and last year he showed he can be that ace. With CC Sabathia fading, Nathan Eovaldi still in the process of figuring things out, and Michael Pineda having not thrown a full season in three years now, Tanaka has to be a front of the rotation stabilizing force for New York. The guy that when the players show up to the park on the days he is scheduled to pitch, they know it’s win day. The guy who stops losing streaks and extends winning streaks. Simply put, the Yankees need Tanaka to be one of the best pitchers in the game.

Tanaka Can: Be An Ace

Based on what we saw in the first half last year, Tanaka absolutely can be that front of the rotation pitcher and the ace the Yankees need. He was a top ten pitcher in the game at the time of his injury, racking up strikeouts (9.39 K/9 and 26.6 K%), limiting walks (1.32 HR/9 and 3.6 BB%), and generally keeping the ball on the ground (45.9%). Because of his splitter, Tanaka was actually more effective against lefties (.280 wOBA) than righties (.302 wOBA) too.

The only flaw in Tanaka’s game is his tendency to give up the home run (0.99 HR/9 and 14.0 HR/FB%), though even that wasn’t all that bad considering his home ballpark (AL average was 0.89 HR/9 and 9.4 HR/FB% in 2014). Twelve of the 15 homers he allowed last year were solo shots because he was so good at limiting base-runners overall. Also, eleven of the 15 homers came off fastballs, which is actually his least effective pitch. Tanaka’s offspeed pitches are so good he can still dominate without an overwhelming fastball.

I also think there’s a mental component to being an ace, and Tanaka certainly showed it last year. He never seems to get rattled on the mound and is always in attack mode. He’s an elite competitor. That’s a big reason why the Yankees loved him so much and felt he was worth the $175M risk. If his elbow holds up, Tanaka is going to be a pretty damn good pitcher. He showed all of his pitches in his brief outing last week and everything looked crisp. Granted, it was 19 total pitches and we need to see more, but right now, I’m comfortable saying Tanaka can be ace-like this summer if the elbow cooperates.

* * *

We — and by we I mean basically everyone, Yankees fans and Yankees haters alike — spent all winter worrying about Tanaka’s elbow and more or less assuming it would blow out at some point this year. We never bothered to consider the alternative scenario. The one where Tanaka is the exception and his elbow does hold up. He’s a difference-maker when healthy, hands down the best pitcher in the AL East and one of the best in all of baseball. It’s far from a given Tanaka will stay healthy, we know that, but it’s not impossible either. He’s passed every test so far in camp, which is way more than many expected.

Masahiro Tanaka stays in one piece, throws two perfect innings in spring debut

After an offseason of waiting, Masahiro Tanaka returned to game action and made his Grapefruit League debut on Thursday night. He threw two perfect innings against the Braves, striking out a pair and getting four weak ground balls. Tanaka threw only 19 pitches and had to go to the bullpen afterwards to get up to his pitch count for the night.

Here’s video of Tanaka’s outing:

Tanaka looked very sharp in his two innings. He located well, his splitter was diving out of the zone, and he even threw some of those slow curveballs in for strikes. Erik Boland spoke to one scout who had Tanaka at 88-91 mph and said “he looked fine … still has excellent command of split.” Another scout told Boland that Tanaka “is not far off. Just a matter of how he bounces back when he does reach for a little more with (his) fastball … no signs of rust.”

After the game, Tanaka told reporters what he’s been telling them all spring: he feels great and has no concerns about the elbow. He also said he was pleased he was able to get ahead in the count early. I know it’s in the back of our minds — how could it not? — but it truly doesn’t seem like Tanaka is worried about his elbow following the partially torn ligament. He just wants to get ready for the season.

All things considered, Thursday night’s debut went as well as we could have possibly hoped. Granted, he was faced a weak Braves lineup, but Tanaka looked like the pre-injury version we saw early last year. It was very encouraging.

CC Sabathia scheduled for simulated game on Thursday, setting up Opening Day options for Joe Girardi

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier this morning, CC Sabathia told reporters he is scheduled to throw a 30-pitch simulated game on Thursday, which will be his first action in any kind of game situation since last May. He threw live batting practice over the weekend and reiterated that he feels great following knee surgery. Now he just needs to get stretched out and develop feel for his pitches before the start of the regular season.

Sabathia is pitching in a simulated game instead of the day’s actual Grapefruit League game for two reasons. One, the Yankees can better control the simulated game. They can end innings if they start to go too long, stuff like that. Two, Masahiro Tanaka is already scheduled to pitch and make his Spring Training debut that day, and I doubt the Yankees want to have either guy come out of the bullpen for their first spring appearance.

Clearly the most important thing is Sabathia and Tanaka getting their work in, and the Yankees have a plan to do that. More interestingly though, Thursday’s outings line up both guys to start Opening Day, assuming they stay on a normal five-day schedule the rest of spring. By having them both lined up to start Opening Day, Joe Girardi can make the call later in camp based on who’s healthy, who’s throwing the best, stuff like that. It gives him some options.

The Opening Day start doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things but it is a neat little honor. Sabathia would be the first Yankees pitcher ever to start seven straight Opening Days — Mel Stottlemyre, Ron Guidry, and Whitey Ford all started seven Opening Days in pinstripes but not consecutively — and it would be his 12th Opening Day start overall, which would be the seventh most in history. That’s pretty neat. Tanaka, obviously, would be making his first Opening Day start for the Yankees.

Hopefully Girardi gets to actually make this decision and Tanaka’s elbow or Sabathia’s knee doesn’t make it for him. I know a lot of people consider the Opening Day starter a big deal and all that, but it really isn’t. It’s just one of 162 games. If Girardi goes with Sabathia because he’s the “been there, done that” veteran, fine. If he goes with Tanaka because he’s the best pitcher on the team (arguably!), that’s cool too. Both being healthy is by far the most important thing here.