Yankeemetrics: Smallball, longball down A’s (May 26-28)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Welcome back, Masa-Hero
Friday’s game may have been a 4-1 loss in the standings, but it was a victory in the minds and eyes of the Yankees and their fans thanks to the spectacular performance by Masahiro Tanaka.

Tanaka looked like an ace again as he mowed down Oakland’s lineup, dominating them with his devastating signature splitter/slider combo. He set career-highs in strikeouts (13) and swinging strikes (26), displaying the top-of-rotation stuff that had been missing in the first month and a half of the season.

The 26 swings-and-misses were the second-most by any Yankee pitcher in the past decade, one shy of the 27 that CC Sabathia got on June 7, 2012 against the Rays. Each of the 13 punchouts were via a strike-three whiff, matching Sabathia (June 30, 2012 vs. Brewers) for the most swinging strikeouts in a game by any Yankee pitcher over the last 10 years.

Eight of the 13 strikeouts came on his sharp, late-breaking slider, and the other five were on filthy splitters that dropped out of the zone:

masahiro-tanaka-13-k

The improved depth of his splitter was one of the biggest keys to Tanaka’s domination on Friday night. He threw 25 splitters and located those pitches an average of 1.82 feet below the middle of the strike zone. That was his lowest vertical location for the splitter in any game this season, netting him 10 whiffs and silly swings like this one from Ryon Healy in the seventh inning:

halfelectricfoal

So that was the good news from Friday night.

Unfortunately, there was some bad news too. The Yankee bats went cold once again and the bullpen suffered another inexplicable meltdown, allowing three runs plus an inherited runner to score. Tanaka’s final line of 7 1/3 innings, 13 strikeouts, no walks and one run made him not only a hard-luck loser, but also etched his name in the record books.

It was just the third time a Yankee pitcher struck out at least 13 batters in a game and got the loss. The other two were done by Roger Clemens: June 17, 1999 against the Rangers and May 28, 2000 against the Red Sox in an epic duel with Pedro Martinez.

Even more incredible is this #FunFact: Tanaka is the first pitcher in Yankee history to get the loss in a game where he had at least 13 strikeouts, no more than one run allowed and zero walks.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Two close for comfort
Thanks a third straight solid outing by CC Sabathia and justenough offense, the Yankees bounced back to win the middle game of this three-game series, 3-2.

This was only the second time in the last 60 seasons that the Yankees won a game in the Bronx with no more than two hits. It also happened on Sept. 9, 1988, when Claudell Washington hit a walk-off homer to beat the Tigers (the other hit was a Rickey Henderson triple in sixth inning).

The decisive blow on Saturday was delivered by Matt Holliday, who ended Jharel Cotton’s no-hit bid and broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning with one swing of the bat, crushing a two-run homer to left. It was his ninth homer of the season and team-best sixth dinger that either gave the Yankees a lead or tied the game.

Sabathia pitched into the seventh inning, allowing two runs while striking out a season-high nine batters. Four of the nine strikeouts — including three that were looking — came with his slider, which has routinely frozen hitters this season. He’s gotten called strikes on 23.2 percent of his sliders thrown, the fourth-best rate among starters (min. 100 pitches).

Dellin Betances was the end-of-game hero as he escaped a second-and-third, one-out jam in the eighth inning by striking out the next two batters, and then easily retired all three guys he faced in the ninth. The last Yankee to inherit at least two baserunners and get a perfect save of at least five outs? Mariano Rivera on April 23, 2008 vs. the White Sox.

(@Yankees)
(@Yankees)

Your Honor, the Grand Jury is in session
The Bronx Bombers returned to form on Sunday afternoon in 9-5, series-clinching win that pushed their AL East lead to a season-high three games. This is just the fourth time in the Wild Card era that the Yankees have entered play on Memorial Day in sole possession of first place in the division. The other three times it happened – 1996, 1998, 2001 – they made the World Series and won it twice.

On the mound, Michael Pineda struggled with his command (season-high three walks) but showed his toughness in limiting the A’s to three runs in six innings. It was his ninth straight start allowing three earned runs or fewer, one shy of the longest streak by an AL pitcher this season (both Michael Fulmer and Derek Holland have 10-start streaks).

Aaron Judge provided the power with his first career grand slam in the third inning to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead. He was the first Yankee right-fielder to go yard with the bases loaded against the A’s since Paul O’Neill on April 5, 1997. And the 25-year-old slugger is the youngest Yankee to hit a grand slam at Yankee Stadium since Nick Johnson (24 years old) on Aug. 8, 2003 vs. Mariners.

While it’s hard to believe that a rookie can keep up this pace – with 16 homers in the team’s first 47 games – let’s have some fun with numbers …

  • 1921 Babe Ruth through 47 team games: 16 homers (finished with 59)
  • 1927 Babe Ruth through 47 team games: 17 homers (finished with 60)
  • 1961 Roger Maris through 47 team games: 15 homers (finished with 61)

Game 45: Will the Real Tanaka Please Stand Up?

(Brian Blanco/Getty Images North America)
(Brian Blanco/Getty Images North America)

Masahiro Tanaka has been one of the worst starting pitchers in Major League Baseball this year. That isn’t hyperbole, either – Mike went into great detail about his struggles earlier this week. And he seems to be getting worse, with a 10.50 ERA/9.36 FIP since he shut out the Red Sox on April 27. Tanaka is ostensibly healthy, and he was one of the best pitchers in baseball these last three seasons, so it stands to reason that he will turn it around at some point. It would be nice if it happened sooner rather than later, though.

Tanaka will face a subpar A’s lineup tonight, one that is without its best hitter as Yonder Alonso will sit-out with a wrist contusion. The Yankees lineup this evening will be:

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Aaron Hicks, CF
  3. Matt Holliday, DH
  4. Starlin Castro, 2B
  5. Aaron Judge, RF
  6. Didi Gregorius, SS
  7. Chase Headley, 3B
  8. Chris Carter, 1B
  9. Austin Romine, C

The first pitch is scheduled for 7:05 PM EST, with WPIX handling the television broadcast.

Finding a second gear after a sizzling first act

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

There are always certain phases of the major league season. The highs and lows, the streaks and skids, fluctuating from month to month and week to week.

Unlike last season, the Yankees began 2017 on fire. The start seemed reminiscent of 2010, when the team got off to a roaring start coming off a championship. The funny thing about that 2010 team is they didn’t soar to a division title. They struggled. They blew their early division lead, gained it back and then lost it in the final weeks of the season, settling for a wild card.

I don’t mean to make a straight side-by-side comparison between the 2010 Yankees and the current squad, but the lesson is important: There are going to be lulls in the season and the team can’t let up, allowing a division rival to sneak ahead. This year, the Yankees likely won’t be overcome by a pesky Rays squad, but the Orioles and Red Sox are enough to handle.

And in April, the Yankees handled them well enough. They split their six games with the O’s and took both contests with the Sox. Considering they had to face AL Cy Young favorite Chris Sale and started 0-2 against the O’s, that’s a strong result.

It was all part of a magical month where everything seemed to go right. Aaron Judge, Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, among others, put up surprising numbers en route to a 15-8 record. The only thing perhaps more eye-catching was the rotation, which consistently worked deep into games despite most assuming it would be a liability going into the season.

That’s the catch: It wasn’t supposed to go that way. One would have assumed coming out of the spring that if the team caught fire early, it’d be on the backs of Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and a knockout bullpen alongside Masahiro Tanaka as the ace. Well, Sanchez and Bird got hurt. Tanaka was off on Opening Day and despite a 5-3 record, hasn’t looked quite right since. The bullpen was quite good, perhaps even better than expected, but it was overshadowed and not asked to perform many herculean tasks.

And now that we’re late in May, phase two is well underway. The team is 6-8 in their last 14 dating back to May 8 and have seen some stinkers out of the rotation. Castro and Judge have looked more Earth-bound recently and Headley has crash landed. Early expectations have proved more prescient with the bullpen carrying a bigger load, Tuesday’s blown lead notwithstanding. Sanchez has taken off and so has Brett Gardner, who seems to have found the hitting stroke that earned him an All-Star appearance just a few seasons to go.

Despite this sub-par stretch, the Yankees still hold a 2.5 game lead in the division over the Orioles, 3.5 on the Red Sox. That lead is actually their largest this season.

But the team has an upcoming stretch that could help define them. After this homestand with the Royals and Athletics wraps up, they play 13 straight games in division, including six with the O’s and three with the Red Sox, all condensed into two weeks. You’re not going to win the division with a good two weeks, nor are you going to lose it with a lousy fortnight.

(David Banks/Getty Images)
(David Banks/Getty Images)

Yet this is the time when the Yankees need to begin figuring out who they are long-term, finding that second gear that can help carry them throughout the summer. The 11 wins by five or more runs have been nice and so have the standout starts from guys like Luis Severino and Michael Pineda, who would have castoffs this offseason if certain sections of the fan base had their way. But is this young crew really going to dominate all season? Is this team actually arrived ahead of schedule and not just showing glimpses of 2018 and beyond?

The team’s diverse set of skills in the lineup serves them well if sustained success is indeed in the cards. If, let’s say, Matt Holliday and Judge going into month-long slumps, the team can rely on hitters like Gardner or Didi Gregorius to carry them in a different way, not needing to pound home runs game-by-game.

It doesn’t hurt to have that sturdy backbone of a bullpen, which may end up as the defining positive for this team. Even with Aroldis Chapman out, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard and co. are a force that can hold down most leads. With a few quality long relievers, the team can withstand a few 4-5 inning outings and keep the team within striking distance.

Or maybe the rotation with a rejuvenated Tanaka can lead the way. With Jordan Montgomery and CC Sabathia as strong back-end starters, perhaps Tanaka, Severino and Pineda can carry the team every five days and enable more winning streaks.

So that second gear doesn’t necessarily have to look all that different from the first one. It can be a continuation. But in order for the Yankees to sustain their early success, they’ll need to figure out just what makes this team special and utilize those defining characteristics in the crucial weeks ahead.

The Masahiro Tanaka Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

masahiro-tanaka-splitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yankeemetrics: Roughed up in Tampa (May 19-21)

(AP)
(AP)

No relief
In a season defined by so many improbable wins and stunning comebacks, the Yankees fell just short of adding another one on Friday night, falling 5-4 to the Rays. It was just the Yankees’ fifth loss this season when holding a lead at any point in the game, the fewest in the AL and second-fewest in the majors behind the Rockies (3) after Friday’s slate.

Luis Severino struggled early but gave the Yankees five solid innings and a chance to win the game, exiting with a 2-1 lead. He threw 30 pitches in the first inning and 59 in the next four frames, allowing just one run on five hits while striking out seven.

Severino’s slider was in peak form, generating a career-high 11 whiffs on 24 swings (45.8%) among the 42 sliders he threw. The pitch netted him four of his seven strikeouts and four of his five groundball outs, as he mostly buried it at the knees while also mixing in a few swing-and-miss sliders up in the zone:

luis-severino

His slider has emerged as one of the nastiest in baseball this season. The pitch has been responsible for a total of 36 strikeouts and 25 groundball outs in 2017; both of those numbers were the second-most among all pitchers through Friday, trailing only Chris Archer (48 strikeouts, 36 groundball outs).

Severino’s gutsy performance was wasted, though, as the bullpen imploded and blew the lead late. The Rays’ rally was capped by a tie-breaking RBI single in the eighth inning off the bat of notable Yankee killer, Evan Longoria. Friend of Yankeemetrics, Mark Simon, tells us that it was Longoria’s 13th career game-winning RBI against the Yankees, which is the most among active players.

Before Longoria’s hit, it looked like Matt Holliday might wear the hero’s cape. His two-run homer in the top of the eighth knotted the game at 4-4, and was his first game-tying homer in the eighth inning or later in more than seven years (April 11, 2010 vs. Brewers).

Even more impressive is that the pitch he crushed was a 100-mph fastball from Ryan Stanek, the fastest pitch hit out of the ballpark by any player this season. Prior to the at-bat, Holliday was just 2-for-10 (.200) with three strikeouts in at-bats ending in a 100-plus-mph pitch dating back to 2008.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Tanaka The Terrible
There is no sugarcoating the fact that Saturday’s loss might have been the ugliest of the season. The numerous ejections, the beanball war that erupted in the late innings and the glacial pace of the game were mere footnotes in what has easily become the Yankees biggest worry of the season:

Tanaka was clobbered yet again, giving up three homers and six runs before getting pulled with no outs in the fourth inning. This disaster performance somehow was an improvement statistically on his last start a week ago against the Astros, when he gave up even more runs (8) and homers (4) and pitched fewer innings (1 2/3).

That string of back-to-back train wreck outings put him in ignominious company: he is the only pitcher in Yankee history to allow at least six earned runs and three homers in consecutive games while getting fewer than 10 outs in each game. In fact the only other player in major-league history to do that was Mike Lincoln for the Twins in 2000.

Any way you slice it, his recent numbers are awful:

  • Dating back to the fifth inning of his May 2 start vs the Blue Jays, Tanaka has coughed up 10 homers and 22 runs in his last 14 innings pitched.
  • Dating back to the seventh inning of his May 8 start at Cincinnati, he’s surrendered 16 (!) runs and eight (!) homers in his last 5 2/3 innings pitched.

One of the few highlights was yet another dinger by Aaron Judge, his league-leading 15th of the season. He is one of five Yankees to hit at least 15 homers in the team’s first 40 games, joining this exclusive group of sluggers: A-Rod (2007), Tino Martinez (1997), Mickey Mantle (1956) and Babe Ruth (four times).

Super-Judge (AP)
Super-Judge (AP)

Strikeouts are overrated
The Yankees avoided the sweep and snapped their three-game losing streak with a 3-2 win on Sunday. Despite the Yankee victory, the Rays remain the only AL team with a winning record against the Yankees since 2010 (71-68).

Brett Gardner delivered the game-clinching blast with his tie-breaking two-run homer in the second inning. It was his eighth longball of the season, surpassing the number he put over the fence all of last year (in 148 games and 634 plate appearances). All eight of his homers have come since April 29; the only player with homers in that span is Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger (9).

They overcame a whopping 17 strikeouts, tying the franchise record for a nine-inning game, done three times previously, including once already this season (3-2 win over St. Louis on April 15). They are the only team in major-league history to win two nine-inning games when striking out at least 17 times in a single season.

The heart of the order — 3-4-5 batters — were the biggest culprits, fanning 11 times in 12 at-bats. Matt Holliday and Aaron Judge were both 0-for-4 with four Ks, becoming the first set of Yankee teammates to whiff four-plus times in a non-extra-inning game. This was also the first time in any game (regardless of innings) that the Yankees had two players go hitless and strike out at least four times.

Judge redeemed himself in the field, with a spectacular game-saving catch and double play, robbing Evan Longoria of extra bases with a man on in the sixth inning.

Entering the day, Judge ranked second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved (6) among rightfielders behind the Cubs’ Jason Heyward (7).

Tanaka and the Dingers 2017 Edition

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

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

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

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

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

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

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

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

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

The rotation has become a liability for the Yankees, but not the way everyone expected

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Two days ago the Yankees managed to split a doubleheader with the Astros even though their starting pitchers threw four innings total. Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka combined for the following line: 4 IP, 13 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 4 BB, 5 K. Goodness. The Astros did most of that damage against Tanaka in the night game, but Severino didn’t pitch well in the afternoon game either.

Those two duds, combined with CC Sabathia‘s recent crash, have left the Yankees with a 4.62 ERA (4.30 FIP) overall from their starting pitchers. They are averaging a healthy 5.72 innings per start — the AL average is 5.65 innings per start — which surprised me. We saw a lot of short starts early in the season and over the weekend. Overall though, the results haven’t been great. The rotation has been shaky, especially of late.

Coming into the season the rotation stood out as potential weakness, mostly because the back of the rotation was unsettled. The Yankees held a Spring Training competition for the fourth and fifth starter’s spots, plus CC Sabathia (age) and Michael Pineda (inconsistency) remained rolls of the dice. An abundance of options mitigated the risk somewhat, but still. There was a lot of uncertainty.

The one saving grace was supposed to be Tanaka, who was splendid last season and very nearly won the AL ERA title. He was supposed to be the ace. The rock. The guy Joe Girardi could send out there every fifth day and know he’d get a quality outing. That hasn’t been the case so far. Aside from the complete game shutout against the Red Sox, Tanaka has been mediocre at best and flat out bad at worst.

“I have to kind of look at some stuff and sort of analyze what I did,” said Tanaka to Brendan Kuty following Sunday’s disaster start. “There’s times like this during the season and you just have to battle through it. But they took some really good swings on some of my pitches and they were flat … I think the mechanical flaw we’ve been talking about earlier in this season, I think that has been fixed. I think it’s something different.”

Weirdly enough, when you look at the numbers, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with Tanaka. His underlying performance looks awfully similar to last year in the super early going. Look:

K% BB% LD% GB% FB% Soft% Hard% Chase Rate%
2015 20.5% 4.5% 20.7% 48.2% 31.0% 18.5% 32.4% 37.6%
2016 17.7% 6.1% 17.0% 51.0% 32.0% 18.2% 31.1% 35.8%

The strikeout rate is down and the walk rate is up, but not so much so that it leads you to believe there’s something more than general early season randomness at play here. The batted ball data is nearly identical. Lots of grounders, lots of soft contact, a league average amount of hard contact. And Tanaka is again among the league leaders in chase rate. He’s had no problem getting hitters to go after pitches out of the zone. The velocity is fine too. From Brooks Baseball:

masahiro-tanaka-velocity

And yet, Tanaka is very clearly not performing like he did last season. He may be getting the same kind of contact and a lot of swings on pitches out of the zone, but the results are very different. Anecdotally, it seems Tanaka’s location hasn’t been nearly as good as it has been in the past, and when he makes a mistake, he pays for it dearly. It’s not often he makes a mistake pitch and gets away with it these days.

Whatever it is, Tanaka is not pitching up to expectations, and that is absolutely not part of the plan. The Yankees came into the season expecting him to be their ace, their one reliable starter. Everyone else figured to be hit-or-miss for whatever reason. Age, young pitcher jitters, Pineda-ism, whatever. Instead, Pineda has been New York’s most reliable starter so far this season, and Tanaka has been arguably the worst. Who saw that coming?

As long as he’s not hurt, I do think Tanaka will get himself back on track, hopefully sooner rather than later. That doesn’t excuse his performance to date though. It’s happened and it’s hurt the Yankees. It’s actually sort of remarkable he’s exited all but two of his starts (Opening Day and Sunday) with a lead despite a 5.80 ERA (5.34 FIP). He can thank the offense for that, of course.

The Yankees are fortunate Severino seems to be figuring some things out, Sunday’s start notwithstanding, and that Jordan Montgomery has been able to step right into the rotation and produce. They’ve helped prop up the rotation as Sabathia has struggled and Tanaka has gone through his worst stretch with the Yankees. The rotation right now has become a liability. That Tanaka is the biggest reason is the most surprising part.