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Tanaka’s First Start In 2020 Was Different

By Andy Singer August 5, 2020

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Photo Courtesy of Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

This will be a short post. Tanaka has just one start on the year that lasted just 2.2 innings, as good as I thought Tanaka looked during that outing, despite some hard contact. In any case, we don’t have enough data yet to say that anything I’m about to tell you means anything…yet. What cannot be disputed is that Tanaka is coming off the worst season of his MLB career. Something had to change coming into 2020 in order for Tanaka to regain his previous form, which had been equivalent to a 2/3 starter on a championship caliber team. Well, in the early going, there are definitely some changes.

Prior to 2020, Masahiro Tanaka was the epitome of the Yankees’ anti-fastball strategy. Tanaka has been known far more for his secondary offerings than his fastball throughout his Yankee tenure, and he has generally thrown his fastball on less than 50% of his pitches. Last year, he threw the pitch less than 30% of the time. Without any further ado, see the below from his first start:

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Masahiro Tanaka Pitch %, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)

Masahiro Tanaka Pitch %, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)

Tanaka threw his four-seam fastball on 58.8% of his 51 pitches thus far in 2020. Also of note, while Tanaka’s splitter usage has continued to decline, his slider usage has dropped precipitously from 2019, when it was his primary offering. Tanaka’s slider is now a tertiary offering, albeit close in usage to his splitter. These percentages represent a shocking turnaround for Tanaka. Again, these pitch percentages are from a guy who was the poster-boy for the anti-fastball approach.

That’s not all. Check out Tanaka’s velocity readings:

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Masahiro Tanaka Velocity, Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Masahiro Tanaka Velocity, Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Tanaka’s velocity has slightly, but steadily declined since 2016. Until now, that is. Tanaka averaged 92.9 MPH in his first start of 2020, 1.4 MPH faster than he averaged in 2019. In fact, if the velocity gains hold, it would be Tanaka’s fastest average fastball velocity ever as an MLB pitcher. Tanaka’s four-seam fastball has always been clobbered by opposing lineups, but Statcast paints a rosier picture following Tanaka’s first start with improved velocity, crediting Tanaka with a .324 XWOBA on the pitch. Typically, Tanaka’s XWOBA on the fastball is well over .400, so this is a huge improvement.

Additionally, Tanaka’s signature splitter is coming in noticeably slower at 85.1 MPH vs. 86.8 MPH in 2019. It is possible that greater velocity separation between Tanaka’s splitter and fastball could help keep hitters off-balance, resulting in more weak contact and whiffs.

Time will tell. Again, these are tiny sample sizes, but these trends bear watching. I hope Tanaka keeps trending this way, because he is becoming more important to the 2020 Yankee rotation by the day.


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