Hopefully not the end of Tanaka Time [2020 Season Review]

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Seven years flew by, huh? Masahiro Tanaka’s initial big league contract has come to an end, and what a success it was. Tanaka posted a 3.74 ERA (114 ERA+) in 1054 1/3 innings and was remarkably durable in spite of a partial UCL tear. Now, the Yankees are left with a big decision this offseason: re-sign the 32 year-old, or let him move on? Before we get to that, let’s break down the righty’s 2020 campaign.

Another strong season in spite of an inauspicious start

My goodness was that scary. Tanaka began the regular season on the injured list as he went through the league’s concussion protocol. Fortunately for him, his recovery went smoothly and he made his regular season debut on August 1st, just a little over a week after Opening Day.

Remarkably, Tanaka didn’t miss a beat. His first start was an abbreviated one against the Red Sox, but his second start was Tanaka at his best. He threw five one-hit innings against the Rays in Tampa Bay and struck out five batters.

Naturally, because the Rays had the Yankees number this year, Tampa Bay beat the Yanks 1-0 in that ballgame. But from there on out, Tanaka allowed no more than three runs in seven of his final eight starts.

All told, Tanaka wrapped up 2020 with a 3.56 ERA in 48 innings pitched. He was pretty much his vintage self, even if a small sample and following an incredibly scary injury. A few impressive and fun facts about his season:

  • He had his best strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.5) since his rookie season (6.7).
  • Tanaka had the lowest xBA (.244) and xwOBA (.297) of his career. This, in spite of surrendering 1.69 homers per nine, the second-highest of his career.
  • Though far from his primary pitch, he added velocity on his fastball. It was up to 92.3 MPH from 91.5 a year ago. It had been trending downward annually since he joined the team, too.

I’d say those are all good signs entering free agency at 32 years of age. And as I’m about to discuss, this was once again without the elite splitter that he had coming into MLB. Although his split is still more than usable, Tanaka’s had to adapt over the years to remain effective.

Success in spite of a declining splitter

As Bobby wrote this summer, there was some hope for Tanaka’s splitter this season after he utilized it well in the second half of 2019. Unfortunately, that just didn’t come to fruition for the righty. The offering was more or less flat in comparison to last year, though still a far cry from its early career excellence. The evolving baseball (particularly the seams per former pitching coach Larry Rothschild) has apparently been an issue. In response, he’s adjusted his grip over time.

Tanaka may have recovered some of his lost whiff rate on the split this year, but at the same time, opponents chased the pitch less often. Plus, hitters’ xwOBA against was virtually flat even with more swings-and-misses. Perhaps that’s why he used it a little less frequently this season.

At this point, I don’t think we can count on Tanaka rediscovering his classic splitter. Whether that’s age-related decline or changes to the ball isn’t important. It’s just not his number one pitch nowadays. Fortunately, his slider has become a pretty damn good weapon in its stead.

Tanaka’s slider was straight up filthy this season. He had career best underlying metrics in a few categories with his slider: whiff percentage (40.6), chase percentage (42.7), and xwOBA (.224). So, it’s no wonder he used it more often than he ever did before (37.7 percent). Take a look at some of these beauties:

No matter what happens with Tanaka’s splitter in the future, it’s a good thing he’s developed this slider. And that’s not to say his splitter is bad by any stretch. It’s still a good pitch, but it’s essentially traded places with the slider over the years.

Playoff Tanaka comes to a halt

Entering this year, Masa earned a reputation for coming up big in October. He had a 1.76 ERA in 8 postseason starts through 2019, including a few huge performances when the Yankees were in need. In particular, I think we all have fond memories of Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS, Game 5 of the 2017 ALCS, and Game 1 of last year’s ALCS.

Tanaka’s good fortune in the playoffs came to an end this year, though. He gave up 11 runs in two starts. I kinda want to ignore his poor start in Cleveland because of the bungling of the weather situation in that one. Remember, there were a couple of rain delays and Tanaka gave up a few runs during an absolute downpour.

Cleveland outing aside, Tanaka pitched really poorly in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Rays and took the loss. A three-run homer surrendered to the light-hitting Kevin Kiermaier was the real backbreaker.

Hopefully, Tanaka has a chance to right the ship in the 2021 postseason for the Yankees. Things may have not gone well for him this year, but I still have confidence in handing him the ball in a big spot in the future.

What’s next?

Tanaka is a free agent entering his age-32 season. It’s pretty hard to imagine him pitching anywhere else, but it’s certainly a possibility. One thing to keep in mind: the Yankees know more about the health of his UCL than anyone else. If the team is concerned about that long-term, it may be the end of the line for him in the Bronx. Hopefully that’s not a legitimate issue.

Health isn’t the only consideration, of course. Are the Yankees confident that Tanaka will age well? Are they concerned about his slider staying this good while his splitter stagnates? Maybe they just don’t want to sign a pitcher into his mid-30s. For whatever it’s worth, ZiPS is not a big fan of Tanaka going forward. It calls for a 4.58 ERA in 137 2/3 innings next season. That would be a huge step back from his career numbers and seems like a rather low projection. In retrospect, I probably should have bet the over on him when I reviewed the team’s 2021 projections earlier.

In terms of money, FanGraphs’ crowdsourced median contract estimate is a three year and $54 million contract. That feels a little high to me. The length sounds about right, but I think he gets less than a $18 milllion average annual salary.

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1 Comment

  1. I like Tanaka and want the Yankees to sign him. But I’d rather he start game 4 in a postseason series instead of game 3. Game 3 is important and the Yanks could use a better pitcher for that game. If the Yankees stay below the $209 million salary, Tanaka might not be re-signed.

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