Hopes were high for the New York Yankees coming into the 2016 season. After winning 87 games in 2015 and clinching a Wild Card birth, many experts predicted the Yankees to make a postseason push yet again this season. However, in the midst of a 35-36 season, the Yanks sit six games back of the division and four games back of a Wild Card spot. The season is far from over yet, but the names of Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller have been in the middle of many trade rumors.
The strength of the Yankees was supposed to come from their rotation – with Tanaka atop, followed by the emerging Luis Severino and blossoming Michael Pineda. And after that, Nathan Eovaldi comfortably manning down the fourth spot. As for C.C. Sabathia, no one expected much from him due to his issues both on and off the field. But even a guy like Tanaka had some serious question marks coming into the season with his elbow concerns.
Fast forward to the end of June – Severino is in the minors and both Pineda and Eovaldi have ERA’s over five. Not exactly what many had expected from these three. What is even more surprising is the success Sabathia has seen over the first three months of the season. The left-hander has a 2.71 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 7.9 H/9, and a 1.29 WHIP in 69.2 IP. This is drastically better from the 4.81 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 10.0 H/9, and 1.40 WHIP in in 424.1 IP over the past three seasons.
On the other hand we have Tanaka, who after battling many injury and performance questions entering the season, has a 2.91 ERA, 3.36 FIP, and the 12th best WAR amongst pitchers in baseball. Oddly enough, his numbers are not being helped by the impressive 8.7 K/9 he had in his first two seasons in the Majors. His current 6.6 K/9 actually places him 76th out of 99 qualifying starters.
What Tanaka has done differently this season may surprise you – he has completely abandoned the fastball. And when I mean abandoned, I mean, he does not throw fastballs at all. Period. Out of 1,321 pitches Tanaka has thrown this year, 37 have been fastballs (2.8%). Prior to this season, Tanaka featured it roughly 20% of the time.
In the visual above provided by Brooks Baseball, you can see that the right-hander’s fastball usage has plummeted this season. In contrast, you can see a major spike in his sinker (or two-seam fastball). The two previous seasons, Tanaka threw his sinker 16.3% of the time. This season it is up to 35.3%. Definitely a change in approach. Tanaka also increased his slider usage. This sinker/two-seam fastball has led to an increase in ground balls.
I took a look at pitch location over the years and not much has changed. He has always been a low ball pitcher. However, the increase of his sinker/two-seam and the movement it provides has led to higher ground ball rates. That, combined with fewer fly balls has drastically improved his HR/9. Last season that number was at 1.46, 9th worst among pitchers with at least 150 IP. This season it is 0.78, placing him 22nd among qualifying starters.
On top of this, I found another interesting tidbit on Brooks Baseball:
When looking at his horizontal release point, you will see a massive spike in the past two months. I went to the tape and checked out Tanaka’s starts from 2014 to his last start on June 17th, and I could not see any differences. I then reached out to FanGraphs writer Eno Sarris and asked about spikes in a pitcher’s horizontal release point.
Right away I looked at Tanaka’s placement on the rubber and lo and behold, there was my answer. After spending the majority of his career on the 3rd base side of the mound, the Yanks’ ace switched over to the 1st base side on May 21st versus the Athletics. Take a look at some photos below of Tanaka’s placement on the mound.
The adjustment was clear as day. Tanaka definitely switched sides on the mound. He first made this change in his start against Oakland on May 21st, but there was not any good visuals out there. In an interview with Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild on May 25th, he discusses the new adjustment:
He came up with it himself to move over, for angles to the fastball more than anything else. We’ll see how we go as it plays. Right now, it seems like a good thing, but it’s a long season and we’ll see. As long as he can throw the split as well from that side, because that’s an important pitch for him.
In eight starts this season prior to the adjustment, the righty pitched 51.1 IP, with 46 K, six HR allowed, a 66% strike percentage, and a 3.51 ERA. In the six starts since, Tanaka has thrown 41.1 IP, with 22 K, two HR allowed, a 68% strike percentage, and a 2.18 ERA. Now there are a couple of things to look at here. First, his strikeout rate – it has plummeted. During his first eight starts, he sported a 8.1 K/9. Since, it is 4.8 K/9. That is not necessarily a good sign. However, Tanaka has a much lower ERA and has given up four fewer HR (albeit in two fewer starts). The question is, how much can be made of Tanaka’s placement on the mound? It’s too early to tell. His ERA looks good now, but his K/9 is extremely alarming. His strike percentage has not changed much either. I’m not exactly sure if his position on the rubber has affected him one way or another.
As we are all aware, Tanaka has been dealing with the injury bug since he joined the Yankees. He partially tore his UCL in his right elbow in 2014, decided to bypass Tommy John surgery and rehabbed his way back to health (scaring mostly everyone). And just this past offseason, he had a bone spur removed from his elbow. Obviously some adjustments needed to be made to accommodate a noncooperative elbow. It seems that instead of featuring a 92 MPH four-seam fastball (which has not lost any velocity like many have claimed), Tanaka has decided to offer a 90 MPH sinker.
Lastly, his four-seam fastball never got anyone out to begin with. In his career, hitters have hit .327 against that pitch, versus .304 against the sinker, .175 against the splitter, and .162 against the slider. He has seen more luck with his sinker this year though, with opponents only hitting .273.
The sample sizes are still too early to tell whether or not the new Masahiro Tanaka can continue with his 2.91 ERA and 5.0 WAR pace. His FIP (3.36) says we should see him slow down a bit, his xFIP (3.56) says we are probably fooling ourselves here, and his SIERA (3.76) says maybe this is too good to be true. Whatever the case may be, Tanaka has proven (so far) that his new look might make him worth the $155 million the Yankees gave him back in 2014.