Masahiro Tanaka’s Consistent Inconsistency [2019 Season Review]

Masahiro Tanaka was the author of the Yankees’ most memorable start in 2019: his thorough dominance of Houston in Game 1 of the ALCS. It continued a run of playoff dominance for the right-hander, who also made some history:

He was also very good in a Game 2 start against Minnesota a round earlier; his Game 4 ALCS performance was his first sub-par October start in his career. Big Game Masa also earned the win with a sturdy performance in the Yankees’ division-clinching win over the Angels in September. Overall, it was impressive stuff, and embodies just why Tanaka is one of my favorite players on the team: he is a true competitor, for whom no lights are too bright.

With that said, Tanaka’s regular season performances have been inconsistent to say the least. Overall, the inconsistencies even out and make him roughly a league-average pitcher. Since the start of the 2017 season, Tanaka owns a 4.34 ERA (4.22 FIP), a 98 ERA-, in about 520 innings pitched. He has struggled with the long ball, and likely was disproportionally impacted by the juiced balls of 2017 and 2019.

Last season was more of the same. He pitched to a 4.45 ERA (4.27 FIP) in 182 innings in 2019. He was essentially a league-average pitcher (97 ERA-), though, as always with Tanaka, the story is not so simple. Let’s get into this one.

Consistently Inconsistent

Despite his obligatory home run per performance, it’s fair to say that Tanaka was under-appreciated in 2018. His 3.75 ERA ranking 12% better than league average and he was often very impressive. This successful stretch continued in the first two months of the 2019 season; in fact, Tanaka improved upon it and looked as good as he had looked since his dominant 2016, or even his rookie campaign in 2014.

Through May, he owned a 3.20 ERA (69 ERA-) against a 3.80 FIP, with a sub-6% walk rate in 70.1 innings pitched. He was dominant–especially against the Rays–and a sure thing on the mound. Tanaka’s success was driven by a rejuvenated slider, which was so good that it compensated for the struggles of his trademark splitter (more on that in a moment).

After May, though, Tanaka ran into trouble. From May 28 to July 25, over a period of 50 innings pitched, Tanaka owned a 7.02 ERA (5.63 FIP). He allowed 4 or more runs in 7 of his 10 starts across that stretch. As good as he’d looked in the first two months of the year, he looked equally as bad in the following two.

Now, to be fair, these figures include two absolute disaster starts against Boston. Across the pond, the Sox tagged Tanaka for 6 ER in 0.2 IP in what was 2019’s oddest Yankee game; a month later, in Fenway, they scored 12 runs in 3.1 innings against him. That’s 18 earned runs in 4 innings pitched for an ERA of 40.50. Those were clearly outlier performances–and the latter was an example of Aaron Boone leaving him out to dry amid a historically-awful stretch by Yankee starters–but they did happen. (For additional thoughts on this, including how it impacted his home/road splits, see a discussion between Randy and I back before the ALDS.)

Two performances like that won’t even cancel out a complete game shutout, which he threw against the Rays in June. Seriously, Tanaka owned the Rays in 2019. In 4 starts and 28.1 IP, he went 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA, holding the Yankees’ rivals to a .158/.183/.277 batting line. You just love to see that.

Anyway, things changed again for Tanaka in the season’s last two months. After his awful June and July, he owned a 3.79 ERA (3.70 FIP, 82 ERA-) in 61.2 innings pitched. In 10 starts, he held the opposition to 2 ER or fewer in 7 of them. It was the exact opposite of the prior two months.

He authored another memorable start as the Yankees clinched the American League East crown for the first time since 2012. It was only fitting that Tanaka, long a big-game pitcher, earned the victory.

Add this all up and what you get is a league-average season line, but one that came with three distinct phases: dominant, very bad, and very good. This is more of the same for Tanaka, for whom there is very often no ground between dominant and awful.

A Splitter Lost, A Splitter Reborn

Look under the hood, though, and you’ll see that Tanaka’s 2019 season was very different from every other season in his career. As Derek highlighted back in May, the his staple pitch, his splitter, was missing. That was true even early on in the year, as he found success. He’d make a change later in the year to rejuvenate the pitch, but it was a real struggle from March through the trade deadline.

For comparison’s sake, here are some sample statistics on Tanaka’s splitter in his career compared to his first 21 starts of 2019’s campaign:

BAAwOBASLGISOUsageAvg EVAvg Spin
1st Half.279.320.469.19024%89.3 mph1580 RPM
2014-18.196.230.303.10728%87.6 mph1534 RPM

The pitch was a struggle for Tanaka from the outset of 2019. The pitch was getting hit harder, spinning more (bad for a splitter), and used less. It was simply not fooling anyone. Consider, for example, that from 2017-18, the pitch generated a 37% whiff-per-swing rate. Through 21 games in 2019, it had merely a 21% whiff-per-swing rate. It was an alarming situation to say the least, even if Tanaka relied on a very effective slider to compensate and find success.

Pitching Coach Larry Rothschild argued that it was “the seams on the baseball” more than a mechanical issue. This is yet another example of the changing baseball impacting the on-field product, but it was not an excuse Tanaka was willing to accept. As Rothschild explained, Tanaka repeatedly tinkered with his mechanics before succumbing to a changed grip. It was after his disaster 12 earned run start in Fenway that Tanaka relented and changed the grip on his pitch. The first start after the tweak came on 7/31.

And what a tweak it was. Here’s a screenshot of the new grip (left) compared to 2018 (right):

Courtesy of YES Network.
Courtesy MLB.com

The difference is pretty stark. Prior to this year’s deadline, Tanaka gripped the ball along the seams, splitting his fingers wide. That’s a pretty traditional splitter grip, and it had always worked for him. After the deadline, you can see that he positioned the seams much differently in his grip. It’s a dramatic shift that is immediately visible.

As a brief aside, this is pretty frustrating. The more we dive into the changed baseball in 2019, the more frustrating it gets. If the ball is such a variable that it significantly impacts pitches, even ones with a half-decade of sample sizes, it’s really difficult to assess or project player performance. Tanaka is just one example of many.

In any case, that aside, his adjustment clearly worked. Here is the same table as above, with his stats after the adjustment added:

BAAwOBASLGISOUsageAvg EVAvg Spin
1st Half.279.320.469.19024%89.3 mph1580 RPM
2nd Half.234.253.330.09631%87.9 mph1601 RPM
2014-18.196.230.303.10728%87.6 mph1534 RPM

Obviously, the splitter was not the same as it had historically been, but it was much, much better than it was earlier in the year. Tanaka used it more frequently and it was much more successful. The exit velocity stabilized, as did the power against it. Interestingly, its spin rate increased and whiffs-per-swing remained constant at 21%. Nevertheless, the pitch was much better. It was a welcome sight and it likely powered Tanaka’s resurgence in the second half.

Derek covered this in more detail in August, so check that out if you want to see some other metrics from the adjustment. As we go into 2020, it will be interesting to watch his grip and the effectiveness of the pitch overall. The splitter long been Tanaka’s most effective pitch, and even though he flashed signs that he could survive without it, his long-term effectiveness probably depends on its efficacy.

Third Time Woes

Finally, Tanaka’s signature 2019 start against the Astros in the ALCS highlighted another interesting component to his game: his struggles the third time through the order. As with most pitchers, this has always been a struggle for Tanaka. In 2019, though, those struggles were exacerbated. Check it out:

First TimeSecond TimeThird Time
2019 Season.245/.281/.356.236/.281/.449.309/.347/.596
Career (2014-18).235/.274/.381.242/.288/.424.254/.289/.466

Tanaka’s splits have always gotten worse as the game has gone along, as is common. With that said, it got much worse in 2019–as an OPS against north of .900 demonstrates. He was basically unplayable after two turns. These are the metrics that informed Boone’s controversial decision to pull him in Game 1 of the ALCS, for what it’s worth. I still think that was a mistake, though.

Anyway, I don’t really know why he was so much worse in those situations in 2019 than in his career. I guess it’s because of the lack of a deceptive splitter? That pitch really added to his deception and made Tanaka much, much more difficult to hit. Remove the splitter altogether and he becomes much more predictable, which is what I think happened. It’s a guess, at least, and it’s the best I’ve got. There can be no mistake about it, though: Tanaka really struggled the third time through the order, in a way he never had before.

What’s Next

Next year may very well be Tanaka’s final season in pinstripes. His contract expires after the 2020 season, and he will then face free agency for the first time as a Major Leaguer as a 32-year-old. It’s unclear what the future holds. The free agent market is volatile for pitchers on the wrong side of 30, but Tanaka will already have made $165 million as a Yankee.

That makes Tanaka a unique case, as he may not feel the same sense of urgency to capitalize on market leverage as other players who came up through the arbitration system. Maybe he is very comfortable in New York, doesn’t want to move, and is motivated to get a deal done with the Yankees. Personally, I think the Yankees and Tanaka have a good thing going and will seek to stay together beyond next season, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Until then, Tanaka will be a mid-rotation starter for the Yankees with front-of-the-rotation talent. As the Yankees try to bring home their first World Series championship since 2009 next year, my guess is that they’ll be happy to have Tanaka’s steady veteran presence and big-game guile to help guide their path forward.

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1 Comment

  1. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    Masahiro was the biggest victim of the change in the baseball, Bobby. The splitter was ineffective all season until the baseball changed back in October. What’s remarkable is how effective he was against the Astros in Game 1 when they were cheating the whole time. And I don’t but this 3rd time through the order nonsense. Bonne may have let him do that a couple times, he gives up one or two runs and then in the future Boone yanks him early so the stats are skewed. But nonetheless, he was an All Star and I think he’s a first ballot HOFer when you start factoring in his postseason dominance. He would benefit the most from signing a Cole because then he can sit back and be the best #3 starter in baseball. You start him in Games 3 and 7 and win every time. We’ll need to extend him next year and make him a Yankee for life. I wouldn’t let him hit the open market or another club like the Dodgers or the Sox will snatch him up in a heartbeat.

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