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Masahiro Tanaka- A preview of 2020

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An athlete’s mental approach is significant.

In an article I read by Laura M. Miele Ph.D. called The Effects of Psychology on Athletic Performance she stated that “Negative external or internal psychological factors can lead to mental blocks, causing breaks in focus and preparation, poor performance and, at times, injuries to the athlete. They can produce physical disruptions such as muscle tightening, shaking, and increased perspiration”.

I worry about this issue now that most professional athletes, including the Yankees, have been suddenly and shockingly shut down.

Most of us can’t wait for the MLB, NBA, UFC, and NHL to get back to competition. However, these are uncharted waters, and we really do not know how the athletes will react to the sudden shutdown, and having never gone through this before, it is extremely difficult to project performance on the field, court, ring and ice.

Masahiro Tanaka’s mindset with the Yankees has changed already three times this spring.

1) When camp opened, he was probably the 4th starter, behind Gerrit Cole, James Paxton and Luis Severino.

2) Due to the injuries to Paxton and Severino he became the number 2 starter, at least for the first half of the season.

3) On March 12 his season and training routines were halted, due to the Coronavirus precautions, and if and when he pitches again in 2020 became an unknown.

So, who really knows how these negative psychological factors will impact him in 2020, especially the Coronaviris issue?

What we do know is his Yankee career started following a 24 -0 record with 1.27 ERA with Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Nippon Professional Baseball League in 2013.

In 2014 he began his Yankee career by starting the season going 12–4 with a 2.51 ERA in 18 starts. He made the All Star team, but withdrew when his partially torn UCL was revealed.

He has pitched through the injury ever since, but with slightly different “stuff”. Masahiro has become a very reliable and tough post season pitcher.

Projecting 2020 must take into account a few atypical factors when looking at Masahiro.

First off, I am not making excuses but it’s no secret that it has been speculated and debated in MLB circles over the last couple of years, and significantly so in 2019, that the ball itself was different.

Looking at Masahiro’s stats in 2019, it seems to have affected him, arguably so, in a multiple ways.

Gripping the ball seems to have been more difficult for several pitchers; impacting their effectiveness.

Over his career, his signature pitch has been the splitter. When the grip is compromised, it tends to drop less and leave the pitch in a vulnerable location. Major league hitters feed off of pitches left up in the zone.

His splitter, which was once a completely dominant pitch, was not nearly as effective last year. In his first year in the league, he generated a swinging-strike rate of 28.2% from the splitter, but last year that dropped to 11.2%.

As a result, he has had issues with home runs. In 2019 his HR/9 rate was 1.38, 19th among all qualifying pitchers. A deeper dive shows us that of the 95 runs he allowed last year, 47 were scored via a home run.

In 2019 his strikeout rate of 19.6% was an enormous drop from 2018’s 25% rate. 2018 also saw Tanaka pitch to a sound 3.75 ERA with a 1.13 WHIP. Tanaka has always shined at keeping his walks low since joining the league, that didn’t change in 2019 as he had a clean 5.3% walk rate.

So I do think the ball was a factor for him.

During the 2019 playoffs, it seemed that the ball actually played differently. If that remains in 2020 (which has been rumored, and discussed during spring training) it should give Masahiro the opportunity to use his splitter much more and his HR/9 rate should drop off.

If the ball remains a “super ball”, he would most likely try and counter it with his cutter. He did not use his cutter much in 2019, but reintroduced it to his repertoire in spring training, and the initial results were great. He allowed 14 hits in 17.0 innings, striking out 23 and surrendering 3 home runs before camp was closed.

2020 is an important season for Tanaka, this is his final year before he can become a free agent.

Time really does fly, Tanaka is entering his seventh season with the Yankees.

Tanaka is a perfectionist and has been working hard all winter and this spring, until forced to shut it down.

A solid 2020 would put him in an advantageous position when he sits down to negotiate his next contract, hopefully that is with the Yankees. So he is even more personally motivated to have a solid 2020.

It’s unrealistic to think that just because two of his rotation partners are hurt, that he will become something that he is not. He averages 12.5 wins a season and pitches to a 3.75 ERA.

A 2020 season that resembles his rookie season would be great, but in reality the Yankees don’t need him to do that.

An ERA in the neighborhood of 3.50 will result in many consistent quality starts, and that is exactly what the Yankees need from him in 2020.

By doing so, he will keep the bullpen rested, as he often keeps a low pitch count.

He is only 31 years old, so putting added expectations on him, is completely reasonable.

It would not surprise me at all if he went out and had a great season in 2020; that is assuming there is a 2020 season.


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