2014 Season Review: The New Ace

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I had kinda forgotten just how much Masahiro Tanaka consumed the offseason last year. The Yankees lost Robinson Cano and signed Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran as free agents, yet there were more words written about Tanaka than any other player. Even more than Alex Rodriguez, believe it or not. Here’s a quick timeline of how all this Tanaka stuff went down:

The Yankees had reportedly been scouting Tanaka for years and years, but he didn’t really jump into our consciousness until last May, and it wasn’t until last November that the Tanaka Watch became a day in, day out thing. Those 10-12 weeks or so from November until he signed in January felt a lot longer.

When Tanaka first arrived in Spring Training, it was a total spectacle. There were throngs of Japanese and American media following his every move, watching every pitch as he played catch or threw a bullpen session. Tanaka struggled to keep up with the rest of the pitchers during their early running drills — “Just the running part, that was really hard for me today. I actually didn’t know that I was going to run this much,” said Tanaka to reporters — and it was written about everywhere, mostly because everyone was looking for the first sign of failure from a guy who went 24-0 in Japan last year.

Tanaka made his Grapefruit League debut on March 1st and it was thrilling. He struck out three — one on his fastball, one on his slider, one on his splitter — in two scoreless innings and said afterwards he “was nervous, but it was a good nervous.” Tanaka made five appearances in Spring Training, allowing five runs on 15 hits in 21 innings. He struck out 26 and walked three. It was only Spring Training, yes, but he looked every bit as good as advertised. The splitter was filthy, the slider was underratedly filthy, the fastball was more than  enough, and he threw a ton of strikes. Like, so many strikes.

The Yankees felt it was necessary to lower expectations and take some pressure off Tanaka as he adjusted to a new league and a new country, which is why Brian Cashman said he projected him as a number three starter at the outset of Spring Training. Tanaka opened the season in the fourth spot in the rotation behind stalwarts CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda and perpetual “hey, maybe this will be the year he puts it all together” candidate Ivan Nova. Here is the very first batter Tanaka faced in MLB:

That … didn’t go according to plan. Tanaka settled down though, holding the Blue Jays to three runs (two earned) on six hits in seven innings. He struck out eight and walked zero. Tanaka made his Yankee Stadium debut a few days later and allowed three runs in seven innings against the Orioles. All three runs came on a Jonathan Schoop homer. That guy is really annoying. Tanaka struck out ten and walked one — his first walk came against the 41st batter he faced on the season.

The first two starts were a little up and down but the flashes of excellence were there. Tanaka’s splitter was just ridiculous, one of the most devastating offspeed pitches I’ve ever seen. He was also missing bats with other pitches, pounding the zone, and showing the poise and competitiveness the Yankees raved about after they signed him. Reports compared his makeup to Hideki Matsui and it showed on the mound. Tanaka is a straight up cold-blooded assassin. Never gives off the impression of excitement or disappointment. Stone-faced.

Tanaka’s coming out party, if you want to call it that, was his third start of the season, at home against the Cubs. He struck out ten, walked one, and allowed two infield singles in eight shutout innings. Total domination. Tanaka’s next start came up in Fenway Park — he was originally supposed to miss that series (by the Yankees design) but a rainout forced him to pitch — and he more or less had his way with the defending World Series champs:

From that game against the Cubs until early-July, Tanaka was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He made 14 starts during that cherry-picked stretch and had a 1.95 ERA (2.98 FIP) with 109 strikeouts and 17 walks in 101.2 innings. Opponents hit only .214/.253/.355 against him during that stretch. Those 14 starts included one shutout and three complete games, one more than countryman Yu Darvish has in his three MLB seasons.

In his first 16 starts of the season, Tanaka struck out double-digit batters five times and walked more than one batter only four times. He completed at least six full innings of work in all 16 of those starts and at least seven full innings ten times. I think my favorite game in that stretch was his four-hit shutout of the Mets in Citi Field, though striking out eleven Mariners in Safeco was pretty awesome as well. Tanaka’s worst of those 16 starts came against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. He allowed four runs (three earned) in six innings through a steady rain and that isn’t even that bad of a start.

On the morning of his July 3rd start against the Twins, Tanaka had a 2.10 ERA (2.94 FIP) in 16 starts and 115.2 innings on the season. He then had what was his worst start of the year at the time, allowing four runs on nine hits in seven innings against Minnesota. Tanaka struck out a career-low three batters while allowing a career-high nine hits. (Career meaning MLB career, obviously). It looked like just a blip on the radar, one of those starts every pitcher goes through, but unfortunately there was a little more going on under the hood, if you will.

Five days later, the Indians pounded Tanaka for five runs on ten hits in 6.2 innings, including a pair of homers. Right after having his worst MLB start against the Twins, Tanaka topped it and had an even worse start. Tanaka complained of discomfort in his right forearm/elbow after the game in Cleveland and was sent for tests. He was placed on the 15-day DL the next day and an MRI showed a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament. Tanaka actually apologized for his injury:

“As recently announced from the team, I will be going through some treatment and rehab on my injured elbow over the next several weeks. I give everything I have every time I take the ball. With that, I also know that there will always be a risk of injury when playing this game that I love. Right now I feel that the most important thing for me is to keep my head up, remain focused on the task at hand and devote all my energy into healing the injury in order to come back strong.

“I want to apologize to the Yankees organization, my teammates and our fans for not being able to help during this time. I accept this injury as a challenge, but I promise to do everything I can to overcome this setback and return to the mound as soon as possible.”

Tanaka was personally examined by three doctors — Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad, Dodgers team doctor Neil elAttrache, and Mets team doctor David Altchek — and his test results were also sent to Dr. James Andrews for review. All four doctors agreed that because the UCL tear was so small, Tommy John surgery was not necessary and Tanaka should rehab the injury. So, rehab he did. The best case scenario had him back on the mound in six weeks.

After receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow, Tanaka rested for three weeks before beginning a throwing program. He started with 25 light tosses on flat ground before stretching it out and throwing off a mound. Eventually he reintroduced breaking balls and splitters. Tanaka faced hitters in live batting practice as part of his rehab for the first time on August 23rd, then he graduated to simulated games. A minor setback — Tanaka hit a wall during his rehab and was fatigued, though tests all came back clean — halted his progress for a week in late-August and early-September before he continued the throwing program.

On September 21st, two and a half months after the start against the Indians, Tanaka returned to the rotation and held the Blue Jays to one run on five hits in 5.1 innings. He struck out four and didn’t walk anyone. The Yankees had him on a strict 70-pitch count but otherwise he could have completed the sixth inning and maybe even the seventh as well. There were some obvious signs of rust, most notably his fastball location, but otherwise Tanaka will pretty damn good for a guy who had partially torn elbow ligament.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Tanaka’s next and final start of the season was a total disaster. The Red Sox B-team clobbered him for seven runs (five earned) on seven hits and two walks in 1.2 innings in the 161st game of the year. It was ugly and no, neither the defense nor the bullpen (both inherited runners scored) helped him any, but Tanaka wasn’t fooling anyone. Boston’s hitters were on everything he threw and it was disconcerting given his elbow. It was definitely not what anyone wanted to see heading into the offseason.

But, most importantly, Tanaka said his elbow felt fine both during and after the start. He chalked it up to being just one of those games. There were more than a few people who questioned the team’s handling of his rehab and letting him come back to make two meaningless starts at the end of the season, but if the doctors signed off and declared him healthy, what are they supposed to do? The extra rest wasn’t going to help him any, the elbow is as healthy as it was going to get. If Tanaka was going to completely blow out his UCL and need Tommy John surgery, the Yankees wanted to see if it would happen in September rather than next April. (It could still happen in April, obviously.)

All told, Tanaka finished the season with a 2.77 ERA (3.04 FIP) with excellent strikeout (9.31 K/9 and 26.0 K%) and walk (1.39 BB/9 and 3.9 BB%) rates in 20 starts and 136.1 innings. His ground ball rate was strong (46.6%) but Tanaka did show he is a little homer prone (0.99 HR/9 and 14.0 HR/FB%), which isn’t surprising given his home ballpark and willingness to pitch up in the zone. Out of the 149 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings in 2014, only Clayton Kershaw (14.1%) and Francisco Liriano (13.6%) had a higher swing-and-miss rate than Tanaka (13.4%).

Tanaka was legitimately ace-like when healthy. Unfortunately, he’s not really healthy now. More than a few pitchers have pitched with a partial UCL for several years, Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana (still has it!) most notably, but once a ligament starts to tear, it’s only a matter of time before it fully goes. Hopefully the Yankees and Tanaka can avoid the knife for another few years because, as we saw this summer, the guy is a top 20 starter in baseball. Maybe even top ten. He was that good. The injury put a damper on what was otherwise a wildly successful MLB debut for Tanaka, who made the baseball and cultural adjustments looks easy.

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Cashman Speaks: Robertson, Kuroda, Headley, Young, Injuries, Coaches

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The GM Meetings started in Phoenix yesterday and among the items on this year’s agenda are reviews of the new home plate collision rule and the pace of game rule changes being tested in the Arizona Fall League. The league will also conduct their annual umpire evaluations. There’s a lot of official business that goes on at the GM Meetings and they aren’t as hot stove-y as the Winter Meetings in December.

That said, when you have all 30 GMs plus a bunch of agents in one place, talks do happen and the ground work for a lot of deals is laid. In fact, the three-team trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York five years ago was first broached at the GM Meetings. Brian Cashman arrived in Phoenix yesterday and spoke to reporters about a bunch of topics, some of them actually interesting. Here’s a recap, courtesy of Wally Matthews, Ken Davidoff, Mark, Feinsand, Barry Bloom, and Brendan Kuty.

  • On possibly re-signing David Robertson: “I would have no clue what his market value’s going to be. Certainly they would have an idea. They turned down the qualifying offer based on a lot of parameters, I’m sure, some of which have been discussions they’ve already had in the window that they’ve had the chance to have discussions. So it’s hard to tell. It’s hard to tell … We have not had any level of conversation about expectations of a multi-year deal. For whatever reason, they never presented anything to us, nor did we to them.”
  • On Robertson, the pitcher: “The one thing we do have a feel for is how good of a player he is, how good of a person he is, how great of a competitor he is. In the New York environment, he’s not afraid. He checks every box off. He came in behind Mariano Rivera. (It was a) seamless transition. That’s certainly no easy task. All those things obviously went into our level of comfort, despite being a reliever, of offering (the qualifying offer). Great deal of respect and obviously we’ll engage him now in the marketplace.”
  • On next year’s closer: “Right now, we don’t have to name a closer for 2015 yet. Let’s wait and see how the negotiations take with David before I start trying to worry about who that is going to have to be. We’ll have somebody closing games out in 2015. We hope whoever it is is the best candidate possible. We have some people you can give that opportunity to if we’re forced to internally, but let’s wait and see where the conversations take with David first and go from there.”
  • On Hiroki Kuroda‘s future: “I’ve talked to his agent. Kuroda’s process is he takes the early portion of the winter to relax and get his mind clear, and then at some point, kicks in about making a decision about playing — playing in the states, playing in Japan. I think he’s probably still going through that mental cleansing process. But I’d be surprised if he doesn’t play. Let him make a decision first and foremost. We’ll see what kind of money we have and all those things. But I think anybody looking for a starter should have an interest in Hiroki Kuroda.”
  • On possibly re-signing Chase Headley: “We’ve had a brief conversation. Chase is on our radar, but I think he’ll be on a lot of radars just like Robertson, just like (Brandon) McCarthy. These guys have all put themselves in a position to have successful conversations this winter. We’ll be a part of the process, whether we’re the ones they re-up with or not, I can’t predict. We’re certainly looking forward to continuing the dialogue.”
  • On re-signing Chris Young: “(Analysts) Steve Martone and Mike Fishman pushed for me to sign Chris. They felt, from an analytical standpoint, his year wasn’t as bad as it played out, that there was a potential bounce-back situation with it. We signed him up on what we think is a fair-market value, fourth-outfielder type contract. We wanted a right-handed bat with power, which doesn’t exist much in the game anymore, it seems like. He fit that category. Our coaches are comfortable with him, he played well in the small sample that we had him in September, so he certainly earned the right to come back, and I’m glad that we both were able to find common ground.”
  • On Stephen Drew and the shortstop market: “I don’t think this past season reflects what (Drew’s) true ability is. Stephen is someone that we’ll have a conversation with. Scott Boras has been in touch, we’ll stay in touch and see where it takes us … I think it’s a limited market, and I say limited in terms of availability or acquisition cost. To me, I would describe the shortstop market as limited. It’s a limited market. We’re going to talk with the available free agents, and we’ll talk as well, trade with other teams.”
  • On the outfield: “I think right now, we’re kind of settled in the outfield unless something surprising happens in the case of a trade, which I wouldn’t anticipate. So I think we’re currently pretty well set with our outfield. Obviously we have a desire to get younger as a team.”
  • On Masahiro Tanaka‘s health: “Tanaka’s a question mark. Typically, the problems occur in the throwing program, when they get back on the mound in the rehab process. If you can get through that, and the rehab games, he should be okay. Obviously, he got through two Major League starts. So that gives us hope. But there’s no guarantee.”
  • On Carlos Beltran‘s elbow: “I have no concern about Beltran’s health, (though) we probably should have had him have the surgery early on. Unfortunately, the health issue came up and we chose the route that let him fight through it and have him fight through it. In hindsight, we probably should have let him have the surgery early on. But he’s a tough guy.”
  • On CC Sabathia: “Sabathia’s supposed to be fine. He had a knee cleanup. It’s just really, can he ever regain pitching at the front end of the rotation versus what we saw in the last year and a half? But he’ll be healthy.”
  • On the coaching staff: Cashman said they are still in the process of interviewing candidates for both the hitting coach and first base coach jobs. They have not made anyone an offer for either position yet. It’s been one month and one day since Kevin Long and Mick Kelleher were fired.

Dellin Betances finishes third in AL Rookie of the Year voting

(Alex Goodlett/Getty)
(Alex Goodlett/Getty)

To the surprise of no one, White Sox slugger Jose Abreu was named the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year on Monday night, the BBWAA announced. He won unanimously and deservedly so. Dellin Betances finished third in the voting behind Abreu and Angels right-hander Matt Shoemaker. Masahiro Tanaka finished fifth behind those three and Astros righty Collin McHugh.

Betances received seven second place votes and six third place votes (27 points) while Shoemaker received 12 second place votes and four third place votes (40 points). Tanaka received three second place votes and seven third place votes (16 points). The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site. This is the first time in history the Yankees had two players receive Rookie of the Year votes in the same season. No, really.

The Yankees do not have any finalists for the other major awards. Joe Girardi will surely receive a few Manager of the Year votes and Betances and/or Tanaka may pull down a Cy Young vote or two. The bottom of the MVP voting is always kinda fun and I’m sure a Yankees or three will pop up there. Rookie of the Year or not, Betances had a marvelous season and there’s no shame in finishing third in the voting.

Tanaka, Betances make Baseball America’s All-Rookie Team

Baseball America announced their All-Rookie Team on Friday, and both Masahiro Tanaka and Dellin Betances made the cut. Tanaka claimed one of five starting pitcher spots while Betances grabbed the only reliever spot. Former Yankee Yangervis Solarte was mentioned in the write-up for his strong season but was not named to the team.

“The Yankees’ $155 million import pitched like a Cy Young Award winner in the first half, going 11-3, 2.10 and leading the AL in wins and ERA, but an elbow injury scuttled his second half and leaves his 2015 season in doubt after a pair of lackluster September starts … he proved he can pitch like an ace, health permitting, in both Japan and the U.S,” said the write-up of Tanaka.

The write-up noted Betances’ season was better Craig Kimbrel’s, Neftali Feliz’s, and Andrew Bailey’s when they won the Rookie of the Year awards. Betances won’t beat out Jose Abreu though. “(One) must go back to Mark Eichhorn’s 1986 season to find a rookie reliever who notched more strikeouts than Betances, who had 135 in 90 innings. The catch: Eichhorn needed 157 innings to strike out 166 batters.”

Girardi’s Press Conference Notes: Coaching Staff, A-Rod, Offseason, Prospects, Leadership, More

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The Yankees wasted no time jumping into the offseason this year. Joe Girardi held his annual end-of-season press conference on Monday afternoon, the day after the team closed out its regular season. Usually they wait two or three days. Not this year though.

There was no major news announced during Monday’s televised press conference — no coaching staff changes or surprise injuries, etc. — though Girardi did talk at length about all sorts of stuff. Especially Alex Rodriguez. People love talking about A-Rod. Here’s a recap of Girardi’s state of the team address.

On A-Rod

  • “We’ve gotta see where he’s at. That’s the thing we have to do,” said the skipper when asked what he expects from Alex next year. “We have to see where he’s physically at. If he can play the field, how many days will he DH, play the field … I don’t think any of us know about him until we get him in games in Spring Training.”
  • “I thought our guys handled it pretty well (when A-Rod returned in 2013),” added Girardi while acknowledging the first few days of Spring Training will be hectic. “Will there be a number of new guys in there? I’m sure … We’ll do everything we can to make sure it’s not a distraction, but until we get into it we don’t really know. My personal opinion is it won’t be.”
  • “I have a good relationship with Alex. Our team enjoys Alex (in the clubhouse),” said Girardi. “I don’t think that will be an issue. Will he have to deal with some angry fans? Yeah, but we’ll help him get through that.” (Girardi also joked that fans have been hating on A-Rod for years and he’s used to it by now.)
  • Girardi said the Yankees “absolutely” expect Rodriguez to be on the team next year. “He hasn’t played in a year. That’s not easy to do, to sit out a year … Do we expect him to be a player on our team? Absolutely.”
  • Girardi also confirmed they have not discussed having A-Rod work out at first base. “We expect him to be our third baseman,” he said. They’ve stayed in touch via text message over the summer.

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